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.


David Runciman, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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, 3 September 2023

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.


David Runciman, 3 September 2023

18 May 2023 · 52mins

For the first episode in the new series of History of Ideas – on the great essays and the great essayists – David discusses Montaigne, the man who invented a whole new way of writing and being read.