As I’ve said before, political philosophy is something I find interesting but struggle with reading and truly comprehending it. I love reading books like The Prince, Leviathan, and The Federalist Papers, but wonder how much I’m able to glean from the complex ideas in those books. However, my eyes were opened to the value of well-written, concise discussions of political philosophy when I read Professor Sheldon’s The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and, shortly afterward, The Political Philosophy of James Madison. Because I enjoyed those books so much, I chose to read his The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America.
As you should be able to guess from the title, The History of Political Theory covers how political theory has developed over the years. Beginning with Socrates and ending with Benjamin Barber, it covers some of the most influential political thinkers, generally from the West, and what their ideas were.
If you don’t have time to read the full review, just know this: The History of Political Theory is a book you need to read. To develop a better political system, we must understand the political ideas of the past, as those ideas are the concepts from which our system extends. We must understand them so that we can tweak and refine them in our quest to create the “more perfect Union” referred to in the Constitution. Read it. You won’t regret doing so.
Summary of The History of Political Theory by Garrett Ward Sheldon
Sheldon begins The History of Political Theory by describing what political theory is. To him, is is an attempt to answer the basic question of social and political systems, such as “what is the nature of man?,” “what is the nature of political society?,” and “what are good social relations?” Each political theorist attempts to answer those questions, and the great ones do so in a convincing manner.
The History of Political Theory is, therefore, about those questions. Starting with Socrates, Sheldon spends a few pages in each chapter describing the ideas of the greatest and most influential political theorists. As you might expect given his introduction, each chapter is about how a certain political philosopher attempted to answer the basic questions of life and political theory.
The political philosophers in The History of Political Theory are:
- St. Augustine
- St. Thomas Aquinas
- Thomas Hobbes
- John Locke
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
- Edmund Burke
- John Stuart Mill
- Karl Marx
- Vladimir Lenin
- Sigmund Freud
- Giovanni Gentile
- Mihailo Markovic
- Hannah Arendt
- Robert Nozick
- John Rawls
- Benjamin Barber
In each chapter, Sheldon uses one work from the theorist the chapter is about to show how they tried to answer the questions of life and political theory, the main tenents of their ideas, and the intellectual underpinnings of why they thought the way that they did.
The chapters are also generally without commentary. There is some, but it is sparse and only there when absolutely needed to provide context or explain something that couldn’t be fully developed in the selected quotations of the theorist. That means the main emphasis is on the thoughts and views of the given theorist, not Professor Sheldon.
And in that form, Sheldon is able to chart, in just over 250 pages, the course of Western political thought. The main theorists behind every ideology, from conservatism to liberalism, fascism to communism, democratic socialism to libertarianism, are all covered in a brief way that exposes the reader to those ideas without going too far into the weeds of each ideology or theorist. It’s concise, full of citations, and covers the most important aspects of each theorist.
Analysis of The History of Political Theory by Garrett Ward Sheldon
Overall, I thought that The History of Political Theory was an excellent book. After reading it, I thought that I understood each political theory much better and certainly better understood why those theories arose and what the explanations for their tenets are.
On that note, the sections on Giovanni Gentile, the man behind fascism, and Robert Nozick, the man behind libertarianism and many of the ideas of the modern right, are particularly excellent. I knew next to nothing about the intellectual origins of fascism or modern libertarianism and, after reading about a dozen pages on each topic, felt far more informed on the main aspects of those ideologies.
That is because The History of Political Theory is an incredibly effective book. Sheldon’s focus on using multi-paragraph blocks of each author’s work and small snippets of commentary works quite well. The passages show what the theorist thought and Sheldon’s comments help distill those thoughts into ideas that are understandable even to an unexceptional layman such as me.
Furthermore, Sheldon is adept at finding the best passages from each work and inserting them in a coherent way. Each chapter is around a dozen or so pages at most, but, because of his excellent choices of what quotations and passages to use, they convey the main aspects of the thinker’s ideas.
Because it is so well done, I have almost no gripes about The History of Political Theory. It’s well written. Despite being about complex topics that many people spending a lifetime grappling with, it’s relatively easy to read. Everything is well-cited and the ideas or concepts that need explaining are explained well.
The only thing I would have added is a short piece of commentary on what ideas from previously discussed theorists affected the thinking of the chapter’s subject. In some chapters, such as the one on Nozick, that’s the case. But in others, the ties between the theorists in the book are left mostly unsaid. However, that’s a minor issue and doesn’t significantly impact the book.
Other than that one small quibble, I thought The History of Political Theory was terrific.
So, should you read The History of Political Theory? Absolutely. As I said in the introduction, learning about the political philosophy behind our current system is crucial. How are we to improve society if we don’t know why it exists in the form that it currently does and what the good and bad aspects of each ideology are?