Garry W. Runciman

 

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

Cover Interview of June 21, 2010

The wide angle

That the concerns which Republic, Leviathan, and the Communist Manifesto address are of perennial importance is not in doubt.  I first encountered the three books as a student more than fifty years ago, and it never crossed my mind to question why they were there on the reading lists.

But since then, I have pursued an academic career as a comparative and historical sociologist studying the range of political, ideological, and economic institutions which have evolved down the ages and across the world and the reasons for which they have or have not held together under different historical conditions.  It is no surprise, therefore, that I should have reacted rather differently when reading the three books for the second time half a century later.

Sociology is not, and never will be, able to resolve Plato’s, Hobbes’s, and Marx’s concerns by laying down a political constitution which will guarantee internal peace.  But over the last hundred years, the social sciences have made striking advances in our understanding of the institutional mechanisms and psychological dispositions which hold large societies of unrelated people together—despite the inherent conflicts of interest which always have, and always will, put different individuals and groups within their population into competition with one another for power.

It was that thought, and then a chance conversation with an eminent authority on Greek philosophy, which set me off to re-read first Republic, then Leviathan, and then The Communist Manifesto.  This book is the result.