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  • A World History of Ancient Political Thought
  • George Backen
A World History of Ancient Political Thought. By Antony Black. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 264 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

Antony Black, emeritus professor in history of political thought at Dundee University, extends the scope of political discussion with A World History of Ancient Political Thought. Whereas most books on the subject primarily focus on Western thinkers, Black globalizes the scholarship by researching ancient political ideologies. Defined as “public justifications and institutions,” political ideology encompasses but is not exhausted by systematic or empirical work. From this perspective and relying on a wide range of sources, Black provides a culturally inclusive overview of ancient political thought. Outstanding for its breadth, the book also has the power to prompt critical thinking and possibly political change. Infused with argument and suggestion, Black sees a key value of ancient thought as potentially improving the global political climate and providing solutions to political tensions that threaten the future of civilization. Given quality research, clarity of presentation, breadth of subject, and practical importance, Antony Black has crafted a work that continues to reward after each read.

Beginning with adaptive behaviors that allowed for the transition from hunter gatherers and set the framework for civilization, the book summarizes political ideologies from the emergence of civilization to early Christianity. Divided into thirteen chapters, the ideologies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Israel, India, China, the Greeks, [End Page 665] Rome, Greco-Roman Humanism, and early Christianity are addressed. The final two chapters identify dominant themes and provide general conclusions.

Opting to treat each civilization separately rather comparatively, Black provides the cultural and historical context for each. While this approach allows unique characteristics to emerge, civilizations are not treated in complete isolation. Comparisons are made, commonalities are recognized, and Western thought is employed to explain non-Western ideas; if the reader is unacquainted with a civilization or culture, Black’s style and method brings understanding by use of the familiar.

Although breadth is a notable feature of the book, pre-Columbian and sub-Saharan political ideologies are absent. Lacking systematic philosophy and empirical political science, these civilizations still possessed political institutions that appeared legitimate to their populations. If the data to reconstruct their views is relatively sparse, a chapter could be devoted to them. Although most ideologies are treated in depth, the shortest chapter, Iran, is only two and a half pages; the reconstruction of an ideology need not be lengthy. Some discussion of these civilizations or explanation of their omission is appropriate.

Islam is also absent. Antony Black is a noted scholar of Islamic political thought and the end of ancient thought is not specified in this book, but the inclusion of Islam would be valuable if only to satisfy a stated aim. As global tensions result from misunderstanding and lack of communication, Black argues that productive, international dialogue may be facilitated through an understanding of political origins. A discussion of Islam would be instrumental, since misunderstandings between Islam and the West are a source of current tensions.

Further, recent events could be understood through a discussion of Islam. A dominant thread of the book, although not discussed in the chapter on themes, is democracy or democratic tendencies. From hunter gatherers and Mesopotamia to Confucianism and early Christianity, the spirit of democracy is recurrent. With a discussion of Islam and the identification of democratic tendencies, readers could make more sense of current events, such as the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

More detail on some cultures would promote the aim of mutual understanding. The cultural influence and key ideas of Confucianism are well developed, but the doctrine that behavior ought to be in line with language is not. Prescribing that people act as their roles, titles dictate, the Rectification of Names provides content to the moral prescriptions of Confucianism. Discussion of this doctrine would deepen understanding of Confucianism by giving substance and interrelations to key features—Confucian conservatism, duty, Jen, and resolution to [End Page 666] political disorder. Besides informing, the Rectification of Names connects Eastern and Western thought. In his discussion of stoicism, Black notes, “To fulfill the duties of one’s allotted role in civil society and the...


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