John Gray

Destination Unknown

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution


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Towards the end of his life Stanley Baldwin was asked whether his career in politics had been guided by the ideas of any political thinker. Perhaps surprisingly, since the former Conservative prime minister was not known to take much interest in ideas, Baldwin is reported to have replied that the thinker who had influenced him most was Sir Henry Maine, the Victorian jurist and author of Ancient Law (1861). Maine had argued that human history was a process of development in which societies that were based on hierarchy and command were progressively replaced by ones based on freedom and consent. It was this grand idea of history as a movement from status to contract, Baldwin said, that had inspired him throughout his political life. But then, seemingly perplexed, Baldwin paused. ‘Or was it’, he asked, ‘the other way round?’

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