Why does democracy—as a word and as an idea—loom so large in the political imagination, though it has so often been misused and misunderstood? Setting the People Free starts by tracing the roots of democracy from an improvised remedy for a local Greek difficulty 2,500 years ago, through its near extinction, to its rebirth amid the struggles of the French Revolution. Celebrated political theorist John Dunn then charts the slow but insistent metamorphosis of democracy over the next 150 years and its apparently overwhelming triumph since 1945. He examines the differences and the extraordinary continuities that modern democratic states share with their Greek antecedents and explains why democracy evokes intellectual and moral scorn for some, and vital allegiance from others. Now with a new preface and conclusion that ground this landmark work firmly in the present, Setting the People Free is a unique and brilliant account of an extraordinary idea.
John Dunn is professor emeritus of political theory at King’s College, University of Cambridge.