A Short History of Western Political Thought
This brief narrative survey of political thought over the past two millennia explores key ideas that have shaped Western political traditions. Beginning with the Ancient Greeks' classical emphasis on politics as an independent sphere of activity, the book goes on to consider the medieval and early modern Christian views of politics and its central role in providing spiritual leadership. Concluding with a discussion of present-day political thought, W. M. Spellman explores the return to the ancient understanding of political life as a more autonomous sphere, and one that doesn't relate to anything beyond the physical world. Setting the work of major and lesser-known political philosophers within its historical context, the book offers a balanced and considered overview of the topic, taking into account the religious values, inherited ideas and social settings of the writers. Assuming no prior knowledge and written in a highly accessible style, A Short History of Western Political Thought is ideal for those seeking to develop an understanding of this fascinating and important subject.
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In this readable and succinct volume, Spellman (University of North Carolina, Asheville) provides an introduction to the evolution of political ideas that have shaped the West. The author synthesizes a tremendous body of historical and philosophical sources into an accessible survey, generally following the tradition of interpretation of the “Cambridge School” of political thought. The book is divided into six chapters that represent transitional periods, beginning with Hellenic political theory (chapter one), and concluding with 20th century political theory (chapter six). The greatest contribution of the survey is found in chapter two’s thoughtful analysis of the diversity of political thinking in the Late Middle Ages. Spellman poignantly surveys the intellectual landscape, arguing “Our penchant, for the most part, is to applaud history’s great centralizers, and in the Middle Ages the list is short. The modern growth imperative, together with the drive to concentrate power, simply did not inform the thinking of most medieval leaders” (p. 34). The astute reader will also be pleasantly surprised to see the attention given to Edmund Burke’s and Adam Smith’s (p. 105) contributions to political thought, as these central figures are often neglected or purposely omitted from texts of this variety. The author even alludes to the work of Sir Robert Filmer (p. 77) and Joseph de Maistre (p. 116) in his attempt to include all perspectives into his narrative. The book’s lack of attention to the structure and arguments of primary texts under evaluation is a significant weakness, however. While considerable attention is devoted to historical events, the continuing relevance of central texts in the Western political tradition is ignored. Regardless of any criticism, the tome is a useful primer on Western political thought for the general reader and undergraduate student.