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Another History of Ideas

David Runciman, Confronting Leviathan, A History of Ideas, Profile Books, 2021, pp. 279.

Decades ago – generations, really – I used to teach political philosophy including the history of the subject. Curiously, as it seems now, I managed to do this in two universities before my twenty third birthday and before the sixties were over. It was not a popular subject, invariably a compulsory course and the majority of students seemed to find it threatening as well as extremely puzzling. What I taught was “modern” philosophy in the sense that term had been used in licensing “modern” studies in Oxford (now known as PPE). It always started with Thomas Hobbes. Previous thinkers were either not modern or, like Machiavelli, they were not philosophers despite being modern (or “wicked” as it was called at the time). As it happens when you brought the story up to date the best of texts were the Philosophy, Politics and Society collections edited by Peter Laslett and W.G.Runciman. And here I sit, a considerable time having passed, reviewing a book on the history of ideas by David Runciman, son of W.G.; it is impossible for me not to think of him as Runciman the Younger. The book arises out of his podcast Talking Politics which has existed since 2016 but has thrived in the Covid period. And still we start with that dear old deeply frightened, but long lived bachelor, Thomas Hobbes.

In those days there was a central question. It was, roughly, “On what principles can we justify the power of the modern state, whose protection we need, while limiting its power over us?” It led to a definite progression: from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, Bentham, Marx and Mill. Hume, though brilliant, didn’t appear because he thought the question was a silly one and as the progression continued the question was taken less seriously as subject to mere contingency (Bentham) or as part of a short-lived confidence trick (Marx and Engels). Though the most elegant downgrading of the question was offered by Alexander Pope in his poem Essay on Man:

For forms of government let fools contest

What’ere is best administer’d is best,

a slick sentiment which naturally infuriated several of the designers of the US constitution. Runciman the Younger may start in the old place (and refer back to Hobbes a great deal), but his journey is very different and, as befits the times, is not confined to white males, but includes the female writers Mary Wolstonecraft, Hannah Arendt and Catharine MacKinnon and also men with at least some cultural heritage from outside of Europe and North America: Mohandas Ghandi, Frantz Fanon and Francis Fukuyama. Apart from Hobbes only Marx-with-Engels remain here from the original canon.

This is a studiously accessible work in two senses: it is written very simply and it constantly relates the ideas in the texts involved to issues discussed in our times, something we rarely did back in the day. Thus De Tocqueville’s hopes and fears for the USA the best part of two centuries ago are easily related to the phenomena presented by President Trump and the current fear of “populism” and it requires no great effort to see Mary Wolstonecraft’s concerns about gender and power as foreshadowing current debates. And most of the writers described here can be read as having implications for debates about pandemics and climate change.

It is all very different from the study of political theory as we practised it all those years ago, asking students to answer questions on, for example, how many distinct senses of the word “law” were to be found in Hobbes’ Leviathan and how they related to each other. Part of what we thought the study was about was the development of mental gymnastics, a kind of scholasticism which didn’t care what the argument was about, but was merely concerned to understand its structure and test its structural weaknesses. (One of the nicer things that ever happened to me as a teacher was when a former student marched into my office, his face lit with triumph, and announced, “It’s amazing how useful political theory is when you have to appear at a public inquiry!”).

This book, on the other hand, assumes that it is the content itself that matters and that complexity is to be avoided in the interests of disseminating that content. It raises an interesting question about what can be achieved by a simple and accessible approach to complex matters. Popular science can still be good science, surely? And in politics though we would not want a student to confine their studies of British government to Yes Minister and its sequel we might well want them to watch those programmes because, although they are a caricature of the politics they portray, they are a clever and insightful caricature. At times the style of this book verges on a kind of tabloidy banality. For example, in discussing De Tocqueville and comparing his writing on France and America, Runciman remarks that

” . . . France was constrained in how it could experiment with democracy by two things that America lacked. France had history. It had centuries and centuries of history . . . . ” Which reminded me that in those long gone days when I did teach political theory I was living with a trainee journalist who regarded almost every sentence I ever wrote as absurdly long. The other factor, incidentally, in constraining French possibilities is stated as the proximity of armed neighbours.

For all that the style grated slightly I don’t think there is anything wrong with that argument and I would recommend the essay here on Tocqueville and democracy with its references to current debates on populism as something that can be read at any level. But I think the value of these essays is uneven and I was much less satisfied with the essay on Benjamin Constant and liberty: Runciman moves from a consideration of Constant’s comparison of “ancient” and “modern” conceptions of liberty to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom and in doing so crosses a boundary between simplicity and superficiality. This is partly because, like most fairly orthodox thinkers in contemporary societies, he wants to import a good deal more equality into his version of liberty than is intrinsically or historically justified. But I also think it is because the complexities of the concept of freedom are far greater than those of democracy. Though as a conceptual sceptic I should say that the incoherence of the concept of liberty is more complex than the incoherence of the concept of democracy.

It is always worth asking what the purpose and audience for a book is supposed to be. This one doesn’t offer the skill of examining texts and arguments of the kind that my public inquiry friend was grateful for. The “general market” for writing with a philosophical content is notoriously elusive, though Runciman may have found his own route to that Eldorado through the podcast. What I would definitely recommend it for is the purpose for which Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy has often been used: it should be given to and read by anyone contemplating studying the subjects of political theory, political philosophy and history which emphasises the history of ideas. If you are not absorbed by the ideas and connections – and ideas about connections – to be found here then such study is not for you.

(An edited version of this review was published in Times Higher Education in September 2021.)

Lincoln Allison August 2021