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On Politics: Initial reflections, Herodotus, and Plato

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapters 1 and 2 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Jotun Hein]

I will not try to summarise the chapters, but rather focus on what still puzzled me after reading/discussing them.

I look much forward to read this book. And from dipping into it, I think it is highly readable. Thus 11 months from now I will know much more on the History of Political Thought than I do now. It looks as a narrative and thus easy to read, potentially at the cost of technicalities. I am interested in how political thoughts actually is observable in political institutions and processes, thus the empirical aspects of Politics, and suspect the book is weak on that.
Although a 1000 pages, this book is clearly short compared to some of its precursors.

Chapter 1 – Herodotus [30 pages] 

has very little description of political concepts, but is mainly about Greek [especially Athen’s] war history from about 480-312 and almost as much about Thycudis. The main wars were the Persian and Peloponesian Wars and Athen’s misguided imperial adventure in Syracuse. It would have been nice to hear more about the actual electoral process, the number of elections and the issues. Not that there aren’t interesting issues here.
Describes the sized of Athenian population and who could vote; about 12-15 percent. This clearly was a radically large fraction, but there must have been voting assemblies before.

Chapter 2 – Plato and Antipolitics [40 pages]

Focused on the concept of justice and; explored through the two writings of Gorgias and the Republic. I find the technique of dialogues interesting and puzzling. It is clearly fun and readable, like when when Socrates is told that he shouldn’t be allowed to go out without his nanny. But dialogues seems limited in what it can present or rather longwinded since it does not present facts or tenets, but the establishment of the truth or falsehood of a single proposition. Since there has been so much linguistic analysis of single sentences, I asked Ian Holmes recently for references on the analysis of dialogues, which he posted somewhere on my facebook page. Many concepts here that doesn’t go down well with a modern reader. It is harder to be a wrong-doer, than to be done wrong against and Plato is clearly anti-democratic.


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