Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue10 June 2008
In 1995, Oxford University Press created a book series called ‘Very Short Introductions’ (which apparently has its very own OUP blog archive for commentary and discussion). Available individually or in aptly named box sets, the intent of the Very Short Introductions is to focus on brief, clearly written surveys of particular topics, eras, events, or individuals.
Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue
Politics was one of the earliest publications in the Very Short Introduction series, and was written by Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics. His goal, as stated in the book’s foreword, is to place politics in its ‘historical and disciplinary context’, looking not only at how politics has developed in the Western world since the days of the ancient Greeks, but also how politicians and political theorists have talked about politics and changed both its meaning and its message over the centuries.
A daunting task, for a book to cram a concise overview of this particularly turbulent subject into scarcely more than 100 pages. Minogue does this by stripping out most of the cross-talk that is characteristic of political discourse in favour of focus on a simple, straightforward survey of the development of politics in history, examining how individual citizens respond to the civic life of their societies. Of particular interest is the way in which Minogue explains how Greek and Roman traditions have shaped and continue to shape the vocabulary and terminology on the subject, from the Greek polis (politics, police, policy, polity) and Roman civitas (civil, civics, citizen, civilisation) to their various permutations in different modern languages in the present day. There are a few parts in which the book’s overall clarity seems to become a bit muddled, most notably towards the end of the book when Minogue attempts to define the term ‘ideology’ as distinct from ‘politics’, but that may be more attributable to the generally confusing nature of the overall definition. Even though the rest of the book reads smoothly and quickly, the last few chapters almost demand that readers slow down a bit more and pause for a moment after every paragraph to be sure that they are able to translate the author’s concepts into definitions they can comprehend.
Ideally, the goal of this very short introduction to politics is not to surprise anyone. Most of what Minogue writes is likely to conjure up vague memories of history or civics or politics classes, lectures or speeches or seminars or shouting matches with friends of friends or snippets of ideas from that one book that you know you read ages ago but can’t recall all the pertinent details. Politics: A Very Short Introduction does its best to collect all of these tiny fragments of memory into a single slim volume, to remind readers of things they already know and fill in the fuzzy or missing details that remain. And like all good introductions, it provides a brief reading list of suggested works — both classic texts and modern commentary — for readers to explore further if they wish.