Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Useful, New Introduction to the Inherited Tradition of Political Ideas


Spellman, W. M. A Short History of Western Political Thought (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011)

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.