What makes a book great? When it comes to political philosophy, the answer involves some combination of compelling arguments, vivid accounts of political phenomena, and insight into the motives of citizens and statesmen. So what if a work of political philosophy features invalid reasoning, fantastic descriptions, and implausible psychology? Such a book, presumably, can be ignored by all but the most devoted scholars.

But suppose that book has been regarded as great for centuries. In that case, it would seem necessary either to lower the bar or to reject the judgment of the ages. Neither alternative is appealing. In Great Books, Bad Arguments, W. G. Runciman—a Darwinian sociologist, longtime professor at the University of Cambridge, and the third Viscount of Doxford—addresses himself to this dilemma. He proposes Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto as...


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