I picked up these two volumes on the basis of a very favorable review reproduced on The Browser, by Noel Malcolm. Yet the books sat around the house for months. I figured this was another overwrought survey by a famous person, valuable mainly as an introduction for those who don’t know much about the topic. The subtitle of volume one, by the way, is A History of Political Thought Herodotus to Machiavelli. Volume two picks up from there.
Overall I have been pleasantly surprised. When it comes to readability, interest, and integration of the intellectual narrative with actual history, I give volume one an A or A+. Along multiple dimensions, it would count as the very best book of the year. I do, however, have one major reservation. Whenever Ryan writes about a deep political philosopher, such as Plato, he makes that thinker sound prosaic and thus seem second-rate and shallow. Not terrible, just ordinary. Reading Ryan only, you would never know what all the fuss is about.
It is thus hard to assess the book as a whole, but I will continue with volume two. Ryan himself is a fairly deep thinker. Allan Bloom was a less deep thinker, and yet perhaps for that reason Bloom much better captured the depth of Plato.