Alan Ryan

Alan Ryan’s books include Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism and The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. He is warden of New College, Oxford.

This is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily interesting – book, a model of intellectual biography. Henry Sidgwick’s day job was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. He is today best known as the author of Methods of Ethics, a work that philosophers still mine, and the model for modern masterpieces such as John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Derek...

The Apostles – the semi-secret society that George Tomlinson (a future Bishop of Gibraltar) and II of his friends at St John’s College, Cambridge founded in 1820 – occupies a distinctive niche in British social mythology. Or, rather, it occupies several niches, according to the taste of the mythologiser. In the eyes of many of its members, looking back in later years on the friendships of their youth, it represented human relationships at their most perfect. To other members, including both G.M. Trevelyan and Noel Annan, it was one of the recruiting grounds of the intellectual aristocracy that they looked to as the proper replacement for the landed variety. To cynical outsiders, after the revelation of Anthony Blunt’s long service as a Soviet agent, it was one of the recruiting grounds for the homintern.’

The Crime of Monsieur Renou

Alan Ryan, 2 October 1997

As political theorist, Maurice Cranston had little to add to the conventional wisdom, but he possessed an astonishing, if strangely low-key, talent as a biographer. His biography of Locke, published in 1956, showed that the fustian, commonsensical, cautious and pragmatic Locke that every undergraduate knew from philosophy and political theory tutorials had in fact been a stranger, wilder and more dangerous figure than they suspected. Nor did Cranston stretch the evidence, or reinterpret Locke’s life to reach such a conclusion. His method was – as in all three volumes of the biography of Rousseau – to immerse himself in the evidence, both personal and contextual, to read (and then largely to ignore) the secondary literature, and to allow his subject to emerge as naturally as possible from the background.’

Fascism in the Plural

Alan Ryan, 21 September 1995

The collapse of the satellite Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR were supposed to mark the triumph of the liberal democratic ideal and the market economy – to be the ‘end of history’. What we got instead was a revival of ultra-nationalism, racism and ethnic strife: German reunification celebrated by Neo-Nazi skinheads; Croatian independence marked by the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators. French racial discord encouraged by Le Pen’s increasingly popular National Front; and, in Russia, the arrival of Vladimir Zhirinovsky as something more than a bad joke. Many people have wondered whether 1989 would turn out like 1919: what the death of old authoritarian governments brought to life is more Fascist than liberal.’

The Middling Sort

Alan Ryan, 25 May 1995

Christopher Lasch, who died last year, has been rather undernoticed in Britain. His attention was admittedly focused on American politics and political thinking, but his fears and anxieties translate readily enough to a Britain showing many of the same symptoms of social and political disaffection, while his politics and his polemical style were those of an urbanised Cobbett – radical, popular, egalitarian and quite unplaceable on a left-right spectrum.

The Right Stuff

Alan Ryan, 24 November 1994

David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty is described on the dust-jacket as ‘the most comprehensive theory of civic society written in English since Locke’. ‘In English’ is wise: it excludes Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Hegel, Marx and Weber. The claim remains bizarre: Locke did not produce a theory of civil society, comprehensive or otherwise, but an account of our obligations to government or the state. The concept of civil society – the institutions and habits that sustain social, economic and family life – is an 18th-century discovery, articulated by the Scottish Enlightenment and naturalised in European liberal thought. If Selbourne’s publishers have anything definite in mind, it must be that The Principle of Duty puts the work of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Edmund Burke in the shade.’

Bertie and Alys and Ottoline

Alan Ryan, 28 May 1992

Bertrand Russell has been dead for twenty years, but his ability to arouse strong emotions seems undiminished. The Economist’s reviewer of these letters – perhaps carried away by pre-election anxiety – offered the opinion that Russell was ‘a moral dwarf’, while others have commented pretty sharply on the disparity between the honesty with which Russell faced the ruin of his intellectual projects and the duplicity and self-deception of his marital and extra-marital dealings.’

Princeton Diary: In Princeton

Alan Ryan, 26 March 1992

The academic scandals and quarrels that filled last year’s newspapers have been driven off the front page by more urgent matters: President Bush’s troubles with Pat Buchanan, General Motors’ record-breaking losses of $4.5 billion, and the usual va et vient of an election year, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education has lost its lustre as his horror stories have been found not to stand up to dispassionate investigation, while Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals catches less attention now that the tenured radicals are spending less time poisoning the minds of the young than dealing with deficits which could reach $50 million a year or more at Yale and Columbia.


Alan Ryan, 9 November 1989

Whatever else the French Revolution was it was certainly a literary event. Indeed, it was a literary event in a good many different, though related ways. As Robert Darnton has emphasised, it was a literary event in that it unlocked the printing presses and called forth a torrent of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and essays. Where France possessed no uncensored newspapers before 1789, almost two hundred journals of news and opinion appeared in that year and more than three hundred the next. It was also a literary event in quite another sense. The revolutionaries themselves felt impelled to create a new language to describe and sustain their new world. To emphasise the completeness of the Revolution’s break with the past, the regions of France were redefined and renamed, units of measurement were redefined and renamed, the names of the days and the months were changed, while the King of France was first renamed ‘the King of the French’ and finally ‘Citizen Capet’. It was a literary event in another sense, too. Controversialists on every side tried self-consciously to attain a rhetorical pitch appropriate to their commitment. Burke, Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, as much as Brissot, Danton and Robespierre, tried to seize the stylistic initiative as much as the political initiative, or more accurately as part of seizing the political initiative. This wasn’t simply a matter of the struggles among revolutionaries taking the form of pamphlet wars and news manipulation. There was a real intellectual issue at stake – how to characterise political and social upheavals of a wholly unparalleled kind.’

Tocqueville in Saginaw

Alan Ryan, 2 March 1989

When Americans test the health of their republic, scrutinise the civic virtue of their fellow citizens, or worry that religion is playing too large or too small a role in public life, the text from which they draw their standards of political health and psychological well-being, and the text from which they draw their hopes and fears is a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old treatise written by a French aristocrat of 30 who had spent barely nine months in the country. But though Democracy in America has been appropriated by America it was not really written for Americans. Its immediate target was de Tocqueville’s countrymen, who seemed to have a talent for revolution but no corresponding talent for self-government; more broadly, its target was every anxious liberal who sympathised with the political and economic aspirations of the less favoured members of society, but feared their predilection for dictators, every liberal whose instincts were egalitarian, but who feared mob rule, or the reign of ignorance or the triumph of mere levelling. It continues to have a tenacious grip on just that audience.

Stone’s Socrates

Alan Ryan, 27 October 1988

The trial and execution of the aged philosopher Socrates in 399 BC for ‘impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens’ was the second most famous miscarriage of justice in Western history. Indeed, philosophers have often written it up as a secular prefiguring of the Crucifixion, with Socrates suffering martyrdom for his belief in the demands of his conscience, and the Athenian democracy which perpetrated the miscarriage of justice getting about as bad a press as the crowd which preferred Barabbas to Christ. Not everyone hits quite that note: among sentimental treatments of the case, a short French account of Trois Procès Scandaleux lowers the tone a bit by setting the case alongside the trial of Marie Antoinette. Nor is it quite true that everyone who has written about the trial has taken Socrates’s side, certainly not in the sense of returning a simple verdict of ‘miscarriage of justice’ against the Athenians.

Letting them live

Alan Ryan, 4 August 1988

Not the least of the intellectual legacies of Judaism is the tenacity of the conviction that history must have a meaning. Even the most secular among us wince when Shakespeare tells us the Gods just use us for their sport; even the most imaginative wonder quite how the Greeks coped with the conviction that the Gods intervened in human history to prove a domestic point or fend off boredom. The thought that history needed a plot, that it had purpose, an author and a destination, seems to have been a leap of the Jewish imagination which took the Jews into realms where no other people in classical antiquity had been. Other peoples had founding myths; innumerable petty kings claimed to govern with the assistance of one or a dozen local deities. Somehow, the Jews uniquely seem to have hit on the thought that there was one history, guided by one deity, starring one central collective actor – the Jewish people.

English Individualism Revisited

Alan Ryan, 21 January 1988

Alan Macfarlane’s little book on The Origins of English Individualism came out in 1978. It argued that England had been in crucial respects a ‘modern’ society ever since the 14th century and maybe earlier, and that most accounts of the transition to modernity were therefore misconceived, and in so doing it attacked just about every vested interest in contemporary historiography. A good many historians returned the compliment by setting about it with the enthusiasm of crusaders clearing the infidel from Jerusalem. David Herlihy of Harvard derided it as ‘a silly book, founded on faulty method and propounding a preposterous thesis’, while Lawrence Stone thought it advanced ‘an implausible hypothesis based on a far-fetched connection with one still uproven fact of limited general significance’. On the other hand, Paul Hyams hailed it as a blast of fresh air and the sort of book we need more of, and Ernest Gellner was equally enthusiastic about its intellectual daring. I thought it was a splendid piece of work: a small book with large implications. Moreover, in its main claims it was clearly right, and none of its critics have in the least disturbed its central contention.


Alan Ryan, 26 November 1987

The history of thinking about political institutions and political behaviour has for two millennia oscillated between two opposed poles. Realists have seen politics in defensive terms: human nature being what it is, the state is a shelter from violence and disorder. In good times, human ingenuity and effort will take advantage of that shelter to lead a prosperous existence, to create high culture, and to enjoy all the multifarious pleasures of private life. But the basis and the essence of politics is the need for protection against violence, either domestic or external. Domestic order is precarious; external relations are the terrain of force, not justice. The wonder is not that governments fall far short of their ambitions, but that they so often succeed in maintaining good order and allowing their citizens to look after themselves in peace. Idealists have retorted that human nature is what it is only because our institutions are corrupt; the state can play much more than a defensive role. In particular, a well-designed state can create a more amenable human nature, can organise prosperity rather than leaving it to the accident of individual initiative, can promote private and public virtue. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the permanent achievements of the realist tradition, Plato’s Republic a permanent achievement of its rival. Marx, as so often, united opposed traditions by agreeing with the realists that politics has hitherto been little more than the substitution of class oppression for overt war, while announcing the imminent arrival of the freedom, justice and self-fulfilment preached by the idealists.

Can Marxism be rescued?

Alan Ryan, 17 September 1987

The relationship between philosophy and Marxism has always been an awkward one. ‘Philosophy stands to the study of the real world in the same relationship as masturbation stands to real sexual love,’ said Marx himself. Was this a dismissal of all forms of philosophy, or only of the overblown Idealism of Hegel? Would he have been equally dismissive of pragmatism or empiricism; would Pierce or Mill have received the same short shrift? Marx was unwilling to waste time on such questions. The philosophical and methodological remarks scattered through his major works are scrappy, undeveloped and not entirely consistent; they take a poor second place to what he conceived of as an empirical inquiry into the logic of capitalist society and the sociology and politics of its supersession, and they leave wide open the question of what positive role he saw for philosophy.


Alan Ryan, 6 November 1986

Mrs Thatcher’s two governments have each managed one unequivocal triumph. Her first administration saw off General Galtieri and his miscalculated assault on the Falklands, while her second saw off Arthur Scargill and his equally miscalculated assault on the National Coal Board. The triumphs were, of course, triumphs only in terms of the Government’s immediate aims – to throw out the occupying forces in the one case, and to avoid any concessions about the way the coal industry was to be restructured in the other. Moreover, the electorate was much more impressed by the Falklands campaign than by the coal strike: for all the talk of ‘the enemy within’, the citizenry distinguishes fairly accurately between Argentine soldiers and British mineworkers. Moreover, the electorate takes a much closer and more sustained interest in prices and employment than it does in foreign policy. We can all see that the economy grows no faster and that unemployment is as bad as it was before the NUM was reduced to impotence: but most of us hardly care that the expulsion of the Argentine forces from the Falklands leaves us with Fortress Albatross and unresolved diplomatic problems all over Latin America.’

The Thing

Alan Ryan, 9 October 1986

These two books have very different targets. Ponting assaults the entire political and administrative apparatus, retail and in gross, while Campbell and Connor go for the army of snoopers and data-gatherers. What they share is a thought which would have shocked a previous generation of political commentators – the thought that the British Civil Service is absolutely not to be trusted, that the ‘mandarin’ element provides next to no restraint on the politician’s standing inclination to mistake self-interest for the national interest, and that ‘confidentiality’ has become a cloak for a political and administrative unwillingness to answer to the wretched public. The transformation of public attitudes effected by the activities of Mrs Thatcher and Sir Robert Armstrong can be estimated by contrasting the present cynicism about relationships between politicians and civil servants with, say, the absolute confidence of the generation of Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay that ministers would feel no temptation to cheat and that if they had done so their civil servants would have stopped them.’

Tory History

Alan Ryan, 23 January 1986

Demolish a much-loved building, and you are left with rubble. Demolish a much-loved piece of political theory, and you find it rising from its own ashes, somewhat changed in appearance, but detectably the same creature as before. The ‘Whig Interpretation of History’ is a case in point. Herbert Butterfield slew it in 1931, and here come John Pocock and Jonathan Clark to slay it again. There is next to nothing in common between them, save their opposition to the Whig Interpretation and its offspring: but it is that opposition which provides both of them with the structure of their argument and the dramatic purpose of their work.



21 September 1995

I don’t, of course, deny Wendy Hammond’s assertion (Letters, 30 November 1995) that there are a great many dangerous people in the USA, including Bo Gritz and the members of the Aryan Nation. Nor do I deny that they hold many of the views that the supporters of prewar Fascism held. What I deny is that they have any influence on national politics, as distinct from the pleasure of living...

Upward Bound

26 March 1992

Like any rational person depressed by the slow pace of progress in opening higher education to black students, I cheer every blow struck by the forces of enlightenment. Ann Geneva describes just the sort of programme we need more of (Letters, 23 April), and I couldn’t agree more about the problems such programmes must address. I am sorry she should think me dismissive of her efforts: I’m...

Bland Fanatics: Liberalism and Colonialism

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Visiting​ Africa and Asia in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that many people in former colonies were ‘sickened by the word “liberalism”’. They saw it...

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Something to Steer by

Richard Rorty, 20 June 1996

Early in this century, people who read Lytton Strachey, and liked to think of themselves as modern, prided themselves on lacking a sense of Sin. Nowadays people who read Michel Foucault, and who...

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Radical Heritage

Conrad Russell, 1 September 1988

It is only necessary to cite the cases of Gwilym and Megan Lloyd George to show that a politician’s biological heirs are not necessarily the infallible custodians of his or her political...

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Who should own what?

John Dunn, 18 October 1984

Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the...

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