Episodes

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) on history. Hegel, one of the most influential of the modern philosophers, described history as the progress in the consciousness of freedom, asking whether we enjoy more freedom now than those who came before us. To explore this, he looked into the past to identify periods when freedom was moving from the one to the few to the all, arguing that once we understand the true nature of freedom we reach an endpoint in understanding. That end of history, as it's known, describes an understanding of freedom so far progressed, so profound, that it cannot be extended or deepened even if it can be lost.

    With

    Sally Sedgwick
    Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Boston University

    Robert Stern
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Stephen Houlgate
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Czech educator Jan Amos Komenský (1592-1670) known throughout Europe in his lifetime under the Latin version of his name, Comenius. A Protestant and member of the Unity of Brethren, he lived much of his life in exile, expelled from his homeland under the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and he wanted to address the deep antagonisms underlying the wars that were devastating Europe especially The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). A major part of his plan was Universal Education, in which everyone could learn about everything, and better understand each other and so tolerate their religious differences and live side by side. His ideas were to have a lasting influence on education, even though the peace that followed the Thirty Years War only entrenched the changes in his homeland that made his life there impossible.

    The image above is from a portrait of Comenius by Jürgen Ovens, 1650 - 1670, painted while he was living in Amsterdam and held in the Rikjsmuseum

    With

    Vladimir Urbanek
    Senior Researcher in the Department of Comenius Studies and Early Modern Intellectual History at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences

    Suzanna Ivanic
    Lecturer in Early Modern European History at the University of Kent

    And

    Howard Hotson
    Professor of Early Modern Intellectual History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Anne’s College

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea of charismatic authority developed by Max Weber (1864-1920) to explain why people welcome some as their legitimate rulers and follow them loyally, for better or worse, while following others only dutifully or grudgingly. Weber was fascinated by those such as Napoleon (above) and Washington who achieved power not by right, as with traditional monarchs, or by law as with the bureaucratic world around him in Germany, but by revolution or insurrection. Drawing on the experience of religious figures, he contended that these leaders, often outsiders, needed to be seen as exceptional, heroic and even miraculous to command loyalty, and could stay in power for as long as the people were enthralled and the miracles they had promised kept coming. After the Second World War, Weber's idea attracted new attention as a way of understanding why some reviled leaders once had mass support and, with the arrival of television, why some politicians were more engaging and influential on screen than others.

    With

    Linda Woodhead
    The FD Maurice Professor and Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College London

    David Bell
    The Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University

    And

    Tom Wright
    Reader in Rhetoric at the University of Sussex

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ancient Sanskrit text the Arthashastra, regarded as one of the major works of Indian literature. Written in the style of a scientific treatise, it provides rulers with a guide on how to govern their territory and sets out what the structure, economic policy and foreign affairs of the ideal state should be. According to legend, it was written by Chanakya, a political advisor to the ruler Chandragupta Maurya (reigned 321 – 297 BC) who founded the Mauryan Empire, the first great Empire in the Indian subcontinent. As the Arthashastra asserts that a ruler should pursue his goals ruthlessly by whatever means is required, it has been compared with the 16th-century work The Prince by Machiavelli. Today, it is widely viewed as presenting a sophisticated and refined analysis of the nature, dynamics and challenges of rulership, and scholars value it partly because it undermines colonial stereotypes of what early South Asian society was like.

    With

    Jessica Frazier
    Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

    James Hegarty
    Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at Cardiff University

    And

    Deven Patel
    Associate Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Looking for the latest episode? New episodes of In Our Time will now be available first on BBC Sounds for four weeks before other podcast apps.

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most celebrated thinkers of the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German Jewish philosopher, critic, historian, an investigator of culture, a maker of radio programmes and more. Notably, in his Arcades Project, he looked into the past of Paris to understand the modern age and, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, examined how the new media of film and photography enabled art to be politicised, and politics to become a form of art. The rise of the Nazis in Germany forced him into exile, and he worked in Paris in dread of what was to come; when his escape from France in 1940 was blocked at the Spanish border, he took his own life.

    With

    Esther Leslie
    Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London

    Kevin McLaughlin
    Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English, Comparative Literature and German Studies at Brown University

    And

    Carolin Duttlinger
    Professor of German Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of Plato's most striking dialogues, in which he addresses the real nature of power and freedom, and the relationship between pleasure and true self-interest. As he tests these ideas, Plato creates powerful speeches, notably from Callicles who claims that laws of nature trump man-made laws, that might is right, and that rules are made by weak people to constrain the strong in defiance of what is natural and proper. Gorgias is arguably the most personal of all of Plato's dialogues, with its hints of a simmering fury at the system in Athens that put his mentor Socrates to death, and where rhetoric held too much sway over people.

    With

    Angie Hobbs
    Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    Frisbee Sheffield
    University Lecturer in Classics and Fellow of Downing College, University of Cambridge

    And

    Fiona Leigh
    Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University College London


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the author and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999). In her lifetime she was most celebrated for her novels such as The Bell and The Black Prince, but these are now sharing the spotlight with her philosophy. Responding to the horrors of the Second World War, she argued that morality was not subjective or a matter of taste, as many of her contemporaries held, but was objective, and good was a fact we could recognize. To tell good from bad, though, we would need to see the world as it really is, not as we want to see it, and her novels are full of characters who are not yet enlightened enough to do that.

    With

    Anil Gomes
    Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Oxford

    Anne Rowe
    Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research Fellow with the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University

    And

    Miles Leeson
    Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre and Reader in English Literature at the University of Chichester

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the insight into our relationship with the world that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) shared in his book The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. It was as revolutionary, in his view, as when the Polish astronomer Copernicus realised that Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the Sun around Earth. Kant's was an insight into how we understand the world around us, arguing that we can never know the world as it is, but only through the structures of our minds which shape that understanding. This idea, that the world depends on us even though we do not create it, has been one of Kant’s greatest contributions to philosophy and influences debates to this day.

    The image above is a portrait of Immanuel Kant by Friedrich Wilhelm Springer

    With

    Fiona Hughes
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex

    Anil Gomes
    Associate Professor and Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford

    And

    John Callanan
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the man who, according to Machiavelli, was the last of the Five Good Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, 121 to 180 AD, has long been known as a model of the philosopher king, a Stoic who, while on military campaigns, compiled ideas on how best to live his life, and how best to rule. These ideas became known as his Meditations, and they have been treasured by many as an insight into the mind of a Roman emperor, and an example of how to avoid the corruption of power in turbulent times.

    The image above shows part of a bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

    With

    Simon Goldhill
    Professor of Greek Literature and Culture and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge

    Angie Hobbs
    Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Catharine Edwards
    Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • The philosopher Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) has been described as “the first English feminist”. Born in Newcastle in relatively poor circumstances in the aftermath of the upheaval of the English Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy, she moved to London as a young woman and became part of an extraordinary circle of intellectual and aristocratic women. In her pioneering publications, she argued that women’s education should be expanded, that men and women’s minds were the same and that no woman should be forced to marry against her will. Perhaps her most famous quotation is: “If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?” Today, she is one of just a handful of female philosophers to be featured in the multi-volume Cambridge History of Political Thought.

    The image above is from Astell's "Reflections upon Marriage", 3rd edition, 1706, held by the British Library (Shelfmark 8415.bb.27)

    With:

    Hannah Dawson
    Senior Lecturer in the History of Ideas at King’s College London

    Mark Goldie
    Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge

    Teresa Bejan
    Associate Professor of Political Theory at Oriel College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea that God created the universe and then left it for humans to understand by reason not revelation. Edward Herbert, 1583-1648 (pictured above) held that there were five religious truths: belief in a Supreme Being, the need to worship him, the pursuit of a virtuous life as the best form of worship, repentance, and reward or punishment after death. Others developed these ideas in different ways, yet their opponents in England's established Church collected them under the label of Deists, called Herbert the Father of Deism and attacked them as a movement, and Deist books were burned. Over time, reason and revelation found a new balance in the Church in England, while Voltaire and Thomas Paine explored the ideas further, leading to their re-emergence in the French and American Revolutions.

    With

    Richard Serjeantson
    Fellow and Lecturer in History at Trinity College, Cambridge

    Katie East
    Lecturer in History at Newcastle University

    And

    Thomas Ahnert
    Professor of Intellectual History at the University of Edinburgh

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) on the education of children, as set out in his novel or treatise Emile, published in 1762. He held that children are born with natural goodness, which he sought to protect as they developed, allowing each to form their own conclusions from experience, avoiding the domineering influence of others. In particular, he was keen to stop infants forming the view that human relations were based on domination and subordination. Rousseau viewed Emile as his most imporant work, and it became very influential. It was also banned and burned, and Rousseau was attacked for not following these principles with his own children, who he abandoned, and for proposing a subordinate role for women in this scheme.

    The image above is of Emile playing with a mask on his mother's lap, from a Milanese edition published in 1805.

    With

    Richard Whatmore
    Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Co-Director of the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History

    Caroline Warman
    Professor of French Literature and Thought at Jesus College, Oxford

    and

    Denis McManus
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and his ideas about human experience of time passing and how that differs from a scientific measurement of time, set out in his thesis on 'Time and Free Will' in 1889. He became famous in France and abroad for decades, rivalled only by Einstein and, in the years after the Dreyfus Affair, was the first ever Jewish member of the Académie Française. It's thought his work influenced Proust and Woolf, and the Cubists. He died in 1941 from a cold which, reputedly, he caught while queuing to register as a Jew, refusing the Vichy government's offer of exemption.

    With

    Keith Ansell-Pearson
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick

    Emily Thomas
    Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Durham University

    And

    Mark Sinclair
    Reader in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what it means to be oneself, a question explored by philosophers from Aristotle to the present day, including St Augustine, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. In Hamlet, Polonius said 'To thine own self be true', but what is the self, and what does it mean to be true to it, and why should you be true? To Polonius, if you are true to yourself, ‘thou canst not be false to any man’ - but with the rise of the individual, authenticity became a goal in itself, regardless of how that affected others. Is authenticity about creating yourself throughout your life, or fulfilling the potential with which you were born, connecting with your inner child, or something else entirely? What are the risks to society if people value authenticity more than morality - that is, if the two are incompatible?

    The image above is of Sartre, aged 8 months, perhaps still connected to his inner child.

    With

    Sarah Richmond
    Associate Professor in Philosophy at University College London

    Denis McManus
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton

    and

    Irene McMullin
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the remarkable achievement of Aristotle (384-322BC) in the realm of biological investigation, for which he has been called the originator of the scientific study of life. Known mainly as a philosopher and the tutor for Alexander the Great, who reportedly sent him animal specimens from his conquests, Aristotle examined a wide range of life forms while by the Sea of Marmara and then on the island of Lesbos. Some ideas, such as the the spontaneous generation of flies, did not survive later scrutiny, yet his influence was extraordinary and his work was unequalled until the early modern period.

    The image above is of the egg and embryo of a dogfish, one of the animals Aristotle described accurately as he recorded their development.

    With

    Armand Leroi
    Professor of Evolutionary Development Biology at Imperial College London

    Myrto Hatzimichali
    Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge

    And

    Sophia Connell
    Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the philosophy of hope. To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora's box or jar, in Hesiod's story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, 'what may I hope' was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.

    With

    Beatrice Han-Pile
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex

    Robert Stern
    Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    And

    Judith Wolfe
    Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) and his critique of the economy as he found it in London, where private vices were condemned without acknowledging their public benefit. In his poem The Grumbling Hive (1705), he presented an allegory in which the economy collapsed once knavish bees turned honest. When republished with a commentary, The Fable of the Bees was seen as a scandalous attack on Christian values and Mandeville was recommended for prosecution for his tendency to corrupt all morals. He kept writing, and his ideas went on to influence David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as Keynes and Hayek.

    With

    David Wootton
    Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York

    Helen Paul
    Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton

    And

    John Callanan
    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) whose works on liberty, monarchism, despotism, republicanism and the separation of powers were devoured by intellectuals across Europe and New England in the eighteenth century, transforming political philosophy and influencing the American Constitution. He argued that an individual's liberty needed protection from the arm of power, checking that by another power; where judicial, executive and legislative power were concentrated in the hands of one figure, there could be no personal liberty.

    With

    Richard Bourke
    Professor in the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London

    Rachel Hammersley
    Senior Lecturer in Intellectual History at Newcastle University

    And

    Richard Whatmore
    Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History

    Producer: Simon Tillotson.

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and his examination of the American democratic system. He wrote De La Démocratie en Amérique in two parts, published in 1835 and 1840, when France was ruled by the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. Tocqueville was interested in how aspects of American democracy, in the age of President Andrew Jackson, could be applied to Europe as it moved away from rule by monarchs and aristocrats. His work has been revisited by politicians ever since, particularly in America, with its analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy and its warnings of mediocrity and the tyranny of the majority.

    With

    Robert Gildea
    Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford

    Susan-Mary Grant
    Professor of American History at Newcastle University

    and

    Jeremy Jennings
    Professor of Political Theory and Head of the School of Politics & Economics at King's College London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson.