New Book: A World History of Ancient Political Thought

Oxford has published a revised and expanded edition of Antony Black, A World History of Political Thought: Its Significance and Consequences. (It actually came out at the very end of 2016.) The volume is notable for taking various traditions that are often called “non-Western” completely seriously, and for its balanced, comparative observations. See more here or below.

This book examines the political thought of China, Greece, Israel, Rome, India, Iran, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and also early Christianity, from prehistory to c. 200 CE. Each of these had its own priorities, based on a religious and philosophical perspective. This led to different ideas about who should govern, how to govern, and what government was for.

In most cultures, sacred monarchy was the norm, but this ranged from absolute to conditional authority. ‘The people’ were recipients of royal (and divine) beneficence. Justice, the rule of law and meritocracy were generally regarded as fundamental. In Greece and Rome, democracy and liberty were born, while in Israel the polity was based on covenant and the law. Confucius taught humaneness, Mozi and Christianity taught universal love; Kautilya and the Chinese ‘Legalists’ believed in realpolitik and an authoritarian state. The conflict between might and right was resolved in many different ways.

Chinese, Greek and Indian thinkers reflected on the origin and purposes of the state. Status and class were embedded in Indian and Chinese thought, the nation in Israelite thought. The Stoics and Cicero, on the other hand, saw humanity as a single unit. Political philosophy, using logic, evidence and dialectic, was invented in China and Greece, statecraft in China and India, political science in Greece. Plato and Aristotle, followed by Polybius and Cicero, started ‘western’ political philosophy.

This book covers political philosophy, religious ideology, constitutional theory, social ethics, official and popular political culture.

Table of Contents

Time Chart
1. Early Communities and States
2. Egypt
3. Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon
4. Iran
5. Israel
6. India
7. China
8. The Greeks
9. Rome
10. Greco-Roman Humanism
11. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Church of Christ
12. Topics: Similarities and Differences
13. Conclusion

9 replies on “New Book: A World History of Ancient Political Thought”

  1. Not to be grumbly, but when I see statements like this:

    the Chinese ‘Legalists’ believed in realpolitik

    I always end up wondering whether the purpose of big books like this is to perpetuate every stereotype in every sub-discipline that it covers.

    Reminds me of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, where the chapters on early China read like a Master’s-level term paper from ca. 1985.

    • I explained in “Persistent Misconceptions” why the notion that “legalists” were amoral derives from Graham’s decision to exclude all texts (like the “Qifa” 七法 chapter of Guanzi) that don’t fit this preconception. In essence, it’s a tautology: all the texts that Graham chose to represent amoral political philosophy represent amoral political philosophy. And the result is that nobody reads the other ones.

      This is in addition to all the other reasons why “legalism” is a flawed category …

    • Ideas like “Be good to the people in order to maintain order” as found in the Guanzi (and Laozi) are practical and amoral. (Though I would never classify the Guanzi as Legalist anyways).

  2. “Though I would never classify the Guanzi as Legalist anyways”

    That’s the point, Scott–you’ve fallen for Graham’s fallacy hook, line, and sinker.

    For the record, I wasn’t talking about “the Guanzi,” since it doesn’t represent a single viewpoint. I was talking about the “Qifa” chapter. I could have mentioned “Mumin” 牧民 too. Or, for that matter Heguanzi 鶡冠子, which uses the term fa dozens of times.

    There have been some attempts to reconcile the concern with moralistic governance in Guanzi. For example, Hu Jiacong 胡家聰 has argued that chapters like “Qifa” and “Mumin” represent “Qi legalism” 齊法家 as opposed to the better-known “Qin legalism” 秦法家 (essentially Han Feizi and Shangjun shu). Not that I’m endorsing this approach–since I think the cost of maintaining the fiction of fajia is basically too high–but at least it shows a RECOGNITION that the modern conception of “legalism” as amoral is partial and anachronistic.

    • If I’ve fallen for anyone’s fallacy it is Sima Tan’s and Ban Gu’s. To be clear, I read many of the supposed moralistic parts of the Guanzi as amoral, but still don’t think of them as Legalist.

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