How good is Plato and is he relevant to our times?

Understanding the Political Philosophers

May 28, 2004

When evaluating a book as a potential teaching resource, it is unusual to become so absorbed in the text as to find oneself reading it for pure intellectual pleasure. This is what happened when I read Alan Haworth's engaging book.

He explains with vivacity and care the central ideas of major political philosophers of the western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle, through the social contract theorists and utilitarians, to John Rawls. He nicely judges how much historical and personal context to include to illuminate the ideas. The exposition of the ideas is also well judged: they are not oversimplified, but where tricky issues arise, Haworth encourages the reader to read further.

He also encourages readers to try out different perspectives, consider circumstances and not to be awed by reputations. Do we read Plato just because his works happened to survive? Is Rawls so important just because there was no competition? If the political philosophers are really great, you should discover why through an appreciation of their arguments.

To help with this appreciation, Haworth brings to life philosophers'

preoccupations and motivations. It is a virtue of this text that it seeks to bridge the gap between understanding past greats in their own terms and understanding what they still have to say to us. If the philosophers of the past were children of their time, so are we.

Haworth conveys a sense of how the subject matter of political philosophy has come to be formed through continuing historical dialogue. In doing so, he provides a pretty full introduction to the subject. I would certainly recommend this as a first political philosophy book to any student - and, indeed, as a refreshingly unpretentious read for a wider audience.

Tim Hayward is reader in politics, Edinburgh University.

Understanding the Political Philosophers: From Ancient to Modern Times. First edition

Author - Alan Haworth
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 304
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 415 590 3 and 591 1

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