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Princeton Diary

Alan Ryan: In Princeton , 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 ...

The Right Stuff

Alan Ryan, 24 November 1994

The Principle of Duty 
by David Selbourne.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 288 pp., £17.99, June 1994, 1 85619 474 4
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... 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 ...

Institutions

Alan Ryan, 26 November 1987

Ruling Performance: British Governments from Attlee to Thatcher 
edited by Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon.
Blackwell, 344 pp., £25, October 1987, 0 631 15645 3
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The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Institutions 
edited by Vernon Bogdanor.
Blackwell, 667 pp., £45, September 1987, 0 631 13841 2
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Judges 
by David Pannick.
Oxford, 255 pp., £12.95, October 1987, 0 19 215956 9
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... 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 ...

The Thing

Alan Ryan, 9 October 1986

Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce 
by Clive Ponting.
Hamish Hamilton, 256 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 241 11835 2
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On the Record. Surveillance, Computers and Privacy: The Inside Story 
by Duncan Campbell and Steve Connor.
Joseph, 347 pp., £12.95, May 1986, 0 7181 2575 4
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... 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 ...

Tory History

Alan Ryan, 23 January 1986

English Society 1688-1832 
by J.C.D. Clark.
Cambridge, 439 pp., £30, November 1985, 0 521 30922 0
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Virtue, Commerce and History 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 321 pp., £25, November 1985, 0 521 25701 8
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... 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 ...

Stone’s Socrates

Alan Ryan, 27 October 1988

The Trial of Socrates 
by I.F. Stone.
Cape, 282 pp., £12.95, September 1988, 0 224 02591 0
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... 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 ...

Letting them live

Alan Ryan, 4 August 1988

A History of the Jews 
by Paul Johnson.
Weidenfeld, 643 pp., £8.95, April 1988, 0 297 79366 7
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The Burning Bush: Anti-Semitism and World History 
by Barnet Litvinoff.
Collins, 493 pp., £17.50, April 1988, 0 00 217433 2
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Living with Anti-Semitism: Modern Jewish Responses 
edited by Jehuda Reinharz.
Brandeis/University Press of New England, 498 pp., £32.75, August 1987, 9780874513882
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... 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 ...

Tocqueville in Saginaw

Alan Ryan, 2 March 1989

Tocqueville: A Biography 
by André Jardin, translated by Lydia Davis and Robert Hemenway.
Peter Halban, 550 pp., £18, October 1988, 1 870015 13 4
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... 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 ...

Effervescence

Alan Ryan, 9 November 1989

Burke and the Fall of Language: The French Revolution as Linguistic Event 
by Steven Blakemore.
University Press of New England, 115 pp., £10, April 1989, 0 87451 452 5
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The Impact of the French Revolution on European Consciousness 
edited by H.T. Mason and William Doyle.
Sutton, 205 pp., £17.95, June 1989, 0 86299 483 7
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The French Revolution and the Enlightenment in England 1789-1832 
by Seamus Deane.
Harvard, 212 pp., £19.95, November 1988, 0 674 32240 1
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... 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 ...

Bertie and Alys and Ottoline

Alan Ryan, 28 May 1992

The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell. Vol. I: The Private Years, 1884-1914 
edited by Nicholas Griffin.
Allen Lane, 553 pp., £25, March 1992, 0 7139 9023 6
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... 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 ...

The Voice from the Hearth-Rug

Alan Ryan: The Cambridge Apostles, 28 October 1999

The Cambridge Apostles 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination and Friendship in British Intellectual and Professional Life 
by W.C. Lubenow.
Cambridge, 458 pp., £35, October 1998, 0 521 57213 4
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... 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 ...

Keep quiet about it

Alan Ryan: Henry Sidgwick’s Anxieties, 2 June 2005

Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe 
by Bart Schultz.
Cambridge, 858 pp., £40, June 2004, 0 521 82967 4
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... 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 Parfit’s Reasons and Persons ...

The Crime of Monsieur Renou

Alan Ryan, 2 October 1997

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity 
by Maurice Cranston.
Allen Lane, 247 pp., £25, March 1997, 0 7139 9166 6
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... 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 ...

Fascism in the Plural

Alan Ryan, 21 September 1995

Fascism: A History 
by Roger Eatwell.
Chatto, 327 pp., £20, August 1995, 0 7011 6188 4
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Fascism 
edited by Roger Griffin.
Oxford, 410 pp., £9.99, June 1995, 0 19 289249 5
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... 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 ...

The Middling Sort

Alan Ryan, 25 May 1995

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy 
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton, 276 pp., £16.95, March 1995, 0 393 03699 5
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... 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 ...

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