Art of Theory: If you could recommend two works of political theory to a modern statesman—say, Barack Obama—one contemporary work, and one work from the history of political thought, what would they be and why?
Danielle Allen: There are different answers depending on the reader to whom one’s making the recommendations, no? So your question could be: if all the libraries in the world were destroyed and you could save only two books of political theory, which would they be? There my answer would have to be Plato’s Republic and the Federalist Papers.
Plato’s Republic and the Federalist Papers make two very different cases for how human beings can frame their collective lives so that they can flourish individually and collectively. To make sense of these two texts in relation to one another, one would have to dream up the missing stream of texts between them.
But if you wanted me to recommend two books to Barack Obama, they would be Herodotus’ Histories and Ralph Ellison’s Collected Essays. Both of these books explore how an egalitarian vision (Solon’s in the Histories, an American inheritance in Ellison) can be brought into concrete existence, as well as laying bare the obstacles to such a development. And the Herodotus provides a dose of Machiavellian insight as well.
From the Art of Theory Interview with Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor of political theory at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. A 2002 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Dr. Allen’s books include Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (University Of Chicago Press, 2004) and Why Plato Wrote (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Her forthcoming works will examine the effect of the Internet on civic life, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and the relationships between education & equality.