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.

Bland Fanatics: Liberalism and Colonialism

Pankaj Mishra, 3 December 2015

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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