History of Ideas

David Runciman’s acclaimed series of introductions to the most important thinkers and ideas behind modern politics. It’s now part of David’s new weekly podcast, Past Present Future, in which David talks to historians, novelists, scientists and politicians about where the most interesting ideas come from, what they mean, and why they matter. Then once a month, he’ll focus on one of the great political essayists, starting with Montaigne. These new History of Ideas solo talks will be posted here, along with an archive of previous episodes, and links to further reading in the LRB archive.

Great Political Fictions: ‘Mary Stuart’

David Runciman, 22 February 2024

15 February 2024 · 54mins

This week’s Great Political Fiction is Friedrich Schiller’s monumental play Mary Stuart (1800), which lays bare the impossible choices faced by two queens – Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots – in a world of men.

8 February 2024 · 55mins

This week’s episode on the great political fictions is about Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – part adventure story, part satire of early-eighteenth-century party politics, but above all a coruscating reflection on the failures of human perspective and self-knowledge.

Great Political Fictions: ‘Coriolanus’

David Runciman, 22 February 2024

1 February 2024 · 57mins

In the first episode of our new series on the great political fictions, David talks about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1608-9), the last of his tragedies and perhaps his most politically contentious play.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

David Runciman, 22 February 2024

23 November 2023 · 52mins

In the penultimate episode in our series on the great essays, David talks about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘The Case for Reparations’, published in the Atlantic in 2014. Black American life has been marked by injustice from the beginning: this essay explores what can – and what can’t – be done to remedy it, from slavery to the housing market, from Mississippi to Chicago. Plus, what has this story got to do with the origins of the state of Israel?

Umberto Eco

David Runciman, 22 February 2024

26 October 2023 · 48mins

This week’s episode in our series on the great essays and great essayists explores Umberto Eco’s ‘Thoughts on Wikileaks’ (2010). Eco writes about what makes a true scandal, what are real secrets, and what it would mean to expose the hidden workings of power. It is an essay that connects digital technology, medieval mystery and Dan Brown. Plus David talks about the hidden meaning of Julian Assange.

David Foster Wallace

David Runciman, 22 February 2024

28 September 2023 · 53mins

This week’s episode in our series on the great political essays is about David Foster Wallace’s ‘Up, Simba!’, which describes his experiences following the doomed campaign of John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Wallace believed that McCain’s distinctive political style revealed some hard truths about American democracy. Was he right? What did he miss? And how do those truths look now in the age of Trump?


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

31 August 2023 · 51mins

For the last episode in our summer season on the great twentieth-century essays and essayists, David discusses Joan Didion's 'The White Album' (1979), her haunting, impressionistic account of the fracturing of America in the late 1960s.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

24 August 2023 · 55mins

What was interpretation and why was Sontag so against it? David explores how an argument about art, criticism and the avant-garde can be applied to contemporary politics and can even explain the monstrous appeal of Donald Trump.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

17 August 2023 · 50mins

This week David discusses James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955), an essay that combines autobiography with a searing indictment of America’s racial politics.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

10 August 2023 · 52mins

This week’s episode in our series on the great essays and great essayists is about Simone Weil’s ‘Human Personality’ (1943). Written shortly before her death aged just 34, it is an uncompromising repudiation of the building blocks of modern life.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

3 August 2023 · 52mins

This week David discusses George Orwell’s ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (1941), his great wartime essay about what it does – and doesn’t – mean to be English.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

27 July 2023 · 52mins

David discusses Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), and how an essay on the conditions for women writing fiction ends up being about so much else besides.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

14 July 2023 · 55mins

For the third episode in this series about the great political essays, David explores Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ (1849), a ringing call to resistance against democratic idiocy.


David Runciman, 22 February 2024

15 June 2023 · 58mins

For the second episode in this season of History of Ideas, David discusses the Scottish philosopher David Hume and explores how eighteenth-century arguments about the national debt can help make sense of American politics today.