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In time for Campaign '88, a readable reference book on politics

By Thomas D'Evelyn / December 17, 1987



The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, edited by David Miller, Janet Coleman, William Connolly, Alan Ryan. New York: Basil Blackwell. 570 pp. $60. At a time when everything is said to be political, the word ``politics'' needs defining.

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In his elegant short article (a little more than one page) on ``politics'' in ``The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought,'' editor David Miller warns about the ``over-extension of the term.'' Reflecting on the feminist slogan ``the personal is the political,'' he points out how the word political can be used for rhetorical emphasis. We say today that something is ``political'' when we mean it's important to us.

As for ``politics is personal,'' from Miller's essay we conclude that as the phrase is spoken, the stress is on the ``is,'' that the phrase points back to a speaker who wants to be taken seriously.

Like most of the more than 500 essays in this book, Miller provides data and analysis. Drawing inferences comes easily to the reader. The entries compel one to think - to use them.

``The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought'' is more than a work of cold reference. The contributors include some of the best thinkers the universities have to offer. In keeping with the significance of the political in our time, the scope of the book is very broad.

In his remarks on ``Human Nature,'' Alan Ryan agrees with the ancient political thinkers. ``Even if it is true that nothing that happens in earthly politics is of any importance compared with our standing with God, it is not true that earthly politics is of no importance. Man, having fallen, cannot act well without restraint.'' Ryan starts not with modern abstract, Utopian definitions, but with ourselves as we've come to know ourselves in human society.

This traditional and humanist style is typical of most of the entries in this book. It's a welcome relief from the bland platitudes of the so-called scientific orientation of many political science textbooks.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Looking up ``syndicalism,'' I noted with interest that the entry defends the core concept of ``a mass turning of backs on the established powers in the form of a general strike'' from its association with violence.

Then my eye slid to the left, where I was amused to find a short entry on ``Swift, Jonathan.'' The author notes Swift's ``partly-deserved reputation as an Irish patriot'' - to which one can only add that Swift himself would stress the ``partly'' as well, finding not only irony but also an escape clause from a human label no better than any other, and worse than some. Swift knew that politics isn't everything.

You can expect this book to show up on the shelves of your library sooner or later, but if you like to do a little thinking with your milk and toast before bed, or know someone who does, go out and buy a copy. The price is heftier than the book, which is remarkably handy in bulk and weight. As a gift, to yourself or someone you appreciate, I can't think of a reference book that is a better read, or more timely. It will provide the necessary serious counterpoint to the endless drivel produced on TV during campaign year 1988. It will help redeem politics.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.