Garry W. Runciman


On his book Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and The Communist Manifesto

Cover Interview of June 20, 2010

In a nutshell

Great Books, Bad Arguments looks at three of the most famous texts in Western political thought and asks whether the proposals advanced by Plato, Hobbes, and Marx for the avoidance of disorder and injustice in human societies are sufficiently plausible, when analyzed sociologically, to carry conviction.

The conclusion I draw is that they are not.  And that the problem which they accordingly pose is that of accounting for their enduring reputation as ‘great books.’

My suggested answer is that they should be read as masterpieces of what I call ‘optative’ sociology.  By that I mean that Plato, Hobbes, and Marx want their readers to share not only their anger and dismay at what they see in the world around them but their passionate hope that a way can somehow be found to bring into being institutional arrangements whereby human beings can live together in harmony.

Many other commentators have pointed out what they see as weaknesses in Plato’s, Hobbes’s, and Marx’s arguments for their respective proposals.  But none has gone on to account for how it is that proposals so demonstrably unrealistic can continue to command such universal and admiring attention.