Alan Ryan

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Alan James Ryan FBA (born 9 May 1940) was Warden of New College and Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, and is currently a lecturer at Princeton University.

Quotes[edit]

  • I say cowardice, because the stan­dards which is Isaiah Berlin himself has set for anyone who undertakes such an enterprise are dauntingly high. His ability to catch the allegiances and the emotional tone of the authors he has written about, as well as his ability to meet the commentator's first duty to the subtleties of their thought, has always meant that their per­ sonalities and ideas alike have remained in tact and alive.
    • Introduction in The Idea of freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (1979), Edited by Alan Ryan.

Justice (1993)[edit]

Introduction in Justice (1993) edited by Alan Ryan.

  • Mankind has always argued about justice and injustice, while social scientists and politicians have endlessly discussed the conditions which make justice more or less attainable. These essays discuss a more philosophical issue-what justice is and why it matters. Although their authors were philosophers, few of them were 'professional ' philosophers...
  • This is appropriate. Justice is the most 'political' or institutional of the virtues. The legitimacy of a state rests upon its claim to do justice. … Doing justice is not the primary purpose of the family, the classroom, the small business, even though a father, teacher, or employer ought to behave justly towards children, pupils, or employees when rearing them, teaching them, . and employing them.
  • Justice is peculiarly stringent. Its demands may not be modified. Judges and rulers must 'do justice though the heavens fall', not allow family connections, friendship, or even personal worth to turn them aside.
  • Justice is closely connected to respect for rights. Modern writers discuss both subjects together with no suggestion that one might discuss one with the other. It was not always so. Greek political theory and Roman Law had sophisticated ideas about justice in its various aspects, but did not embrace our conception of individual rights. This may seem counter-intuitive. How could a society recognize someone as the owner of a piece of property without acknowledging an individual right? How does legitimate one-man­ rule, monarchy, differ from its illegitimate parody, tyranny, unless the lawful king has a right to the authority he exercises that the tyrant does not?
    The answer is that property and authority were defined by law rather than our notion of individual rights. To own property was to be the person to whom the law accorded the privileges and immunities that locally defined ownership. To be a legitimate ruler was to be the person the law designated to rule. It is a commonplace that ancient notions of law accorded far more power over property to the family and other groups than modern notions of private property do. Even under the Roman Law, where ownership had an 'absolute' and sovereign character, property was not understood in the modern way; when the law told the judge to give a man his ius, this primarily meant that he should be treated as the law required. The 'subjective' understanding of rights, whereby the right-holder may stand on his rights or not as he chooses, was not a Roman notion.
  • John Rawls says that justice is the 'first virtue' of social institutions, meaning that it is more fundamental than any other, and that we cannot expect individuals to accept social regulation, and engage in social co-operation unless the terms on which society operates are seen as reasonably just. To talk as though Plato and Aristotle saw justice as a matter of the terms of social and political co-operation may suggest a modern and individualist perspective foreign to both. Yet it is not wholly misleading.
  • Justice stands in an awkward relationship with utility. The general practice of justice conduces to human welfare, probably more than anything else. The old tag sums up justice as 'honeste vivere, neminem laedere, suum cuique tribuere' … Yet, justice seems also to conflict with utility and even with the general welfare, let alone the welfare of particular people.
  • The one thing we can say is that if Socrates really expected to get a definitive answer to his question, 'What is justice?' when talking to his friends on their way back to the Piraeus, he has been disappointed. It remains a contentious and disputed subject.

On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012)[edit]

  • Much of the time, the question goes unasked in prosperous liberal democracies like Britain or the United States, because most of us see political equality as exhausted by “one person, one vote” and dig no deeper; we know that one person, one vote coexists with the better-off and better-organized buying influence through lobbying, campaign contributions, and use of the mass media, but we find ourselves puzzled to balance a belief that everyone has the right to use his or her resources to influence government—which is certainly one form of political equality—with our sense that excessive inequality of political resources undermines democracy.
    • Introduction: Thinking about Politics.
  • I am uncomfortable with the thought that serious thinkers about politics may retire into the ivory tower and write difficult—if often very interesting—essays and books for their colleagues alone, leaving debates over the prospects of modern political life to the punditry of contributors to the op-ed pages, or the shouting matches that pass for political debate on some television channels.
    • Introduction: Thinking about Politics.

Ch. 1 : Why Herodotus?[edit]

  • Political thought as we understand it began in Athens because the Athenians were a trading people who looked at their contemporaries and saw how differently they organized themselves. If they had not lived where they did and organized their economic lives as they did, they could not have seen the contrast. Given the opportunity, they might not have paid attention to it. The Israelites of the Old Testament narrative were very conscious of their neighbors, Egyptian, Babylonian, and other, not least because they were often reduced to slavery or near-slavery by them. That narrative makes nothing of the fact that Egypt was a bureaucratic theocracy; it emphasizes that the Egyptians did not worship Yahweh. The history of Old Testament politics is the history of a people who did their best to have no politics. They saw themselves as under the direct government of God, with little room to decide their own fate except by obeying or disobeying God’s commandments. Only when God took them at their word and allowed them to choose a king did they become a political society, with familiar problems of competition for office and issues of succession. For the Jews, politics was a fall from grace. For the Greeks, it was an achievement. Many besides Plato thought it a flawed achievement; when historians and philosophers began to articulate its flaws, the history of political thought began among the argumentative Athenians.

Ch. 2 : Plato and Antipolitics[edit]

  • Plato was accused by some of his twentieth-century critics of racism, totalitarianism, fascism, and other political crimes with a very contemporary flavor. These accusations are too anachronistic to be taken seriously; whatever explains Hitler and Mussolini, it is not the dialogues of Plato. The more plausible complaint is that Plato does not take seriously the inescapability of politics in some form. Plato’s metaphysics is fascinating; so is his conviction that the just man does better than the unjust man, no matter what earthly fate befalls him. His political thinking often amounts to an injunction to abolish the conflicts that politics exists to resolve and fantasies about how it might be done.

Ch. 3 : Aristotle: Politics Is Not Philosophy[edit]

  • Aristotle’s perspective is not ours. Modern political discussion is imbued with a concern for individual human rights; we look to institutions to hold accountable those who wield power over their fellows, so that the rights of individuals are respected. Aristotle does not. Because he sees the world in teleological terms, he asks—as Plato did—how we can ensure that the state functions as it should. The excellence of the citizenry and the excellence of the constitution are understood in that light. Hence, of course, Aristotle’s focus on the collective intelligence and collective good sense of collectives; if “the many” are not to be trusted, it remains true that many heads are better than one.
  • Aristotle’s enthusiasm for the preservation of social distinction and his emphasis on the social position of the “high-souled” man remind us that even in his favored politeia, with as many respectable and steady men of the middle class admitted to political participation as is possible, Aristotle hankered after the rule of true, that is, natural aristocrats. If that attitude is not unknown two and a half millennia later, his unconcern with those left out of this vision of the world—women, ordinary working people, foreigners, slaves—is happily rather less common. But we shall not see much sympathy for ordinary lives and ordinary happiness for many centuries yet, certainly not in the work of Cicero.

Ch. 4 : Roman Insights: Polybius and Cicero[edit]

  • As his life and death suggest, Cicero was addicted to Roman politics; he wrote beautifully about the pleasures of a quiet life in the countryside, but hankered for the hurly-burly of the Senate and the courts. His political theory is reflective but far from dispassionate.
  • Together with the histories of Polybius and Livy, Cicero’s polemical speeches and writings, and his personal correspondence, form some of the most important historical resources for understanding the Roman legal and political system. Here we focus only on his political theory narrowly construed, part of his program to adapt Greek philosophy to Roman social and political purposes, bypassing even the extended defense of the role of oratory in political life that became something like a handbook for the study of rhetoric.
  • Cicero bent Greek ideas to his vision of the idealized Roman Republic, and his understanding of the mores—the morality and social attachments—of the gentlemanly statesmen who would hold power in a just republic. Readers familiar with Machiavelli’s Prince will hear curious echoes of that work in Cicero’s advice; curious because the pieties of Cicero’s advice to the would-be statesman were satirized by Machiavelli sixteen hundred years later. If his philosophy was Greek and eclectic, Cicero owed his constitutional theory to Polybius; he was born soon after Polybius died, and read his history. And Cicero greatly admired Polybius’s friend and employer Scipio the Younger. There are obvious differences of tone. Polybius celebrated Rome’s achievement of equipoise, while Cicero lamented the ruin of the republic. Cicero’s account of republican politics veers between a “constitutional” emphasis on the way that good institutions allow a state to function by recruiting men of good but not superhuman character, and a “heroic” emphasis on the role of truly great men in reconstituting the state when it has come to ruin. Cicero’s vanity was so notorious that everyone knew he had himself in mind as this hero—had he not saved the republic before when he quelled the conspiracy of Catiline?
  • Cicero’s style is a key to the success of De officiis, and not just the literary style, but the political and intellectual style. Regulus aside, the demands of duty generally stretch only as far as the well-educated, well-to-do man is likely to follow. Thus, he insists, in a famous metaphor that Machiavelli later stood on its head, that courage is necessary but the courage of a human being is not the ferocity of the lion, just as wisdom is necessary but the intelligence of the human being is not the cunning of the fox.

Ch. 5 : Augustine’s Two Cities[edit]

  • The very idea of a Christian political theology is problematic. If human beings are only transitorily on earth, and earth is but a vale of tears through which we must pass on our way to paradise, earthly politics loses almost all value. Life in the polis cannot be the good life for man, since fulfillment lies in the hereafter; here below, we must prepare for eternity. Earthly happiness for rational persons consists in whatever confidence they may entertain about the life hereafter. This “abstentionist” vision is in some ways at odds with the involvement of Christ in the everyday life of the community in which he spent his short life.

External links[edit]

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