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Context with Brad Harris


What led to the rise of the modern world? How have we made so much progress, and what are its consequences? What are humanity's best ideas? Join award-winning historian Brad Harris as he engages these fundamental questions and interprets the biggest historical forces that shape their answers, from the rise of civilization and the development of modern science to the spread of disease and the growth of globalization.


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What led to the rise of the modern world? How have we made so much progress, and what are its consequences? What are humanity's best ideas? Join award-winning historian Brad Harris as he engages these fundamental questions and interprets the biggest historical forces that shape their answers, from the rise of civilization and the development of modern science to the spread of disease and the growth of globalization.




Into the Trenches Once More

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Urban Versus Rural

There’s a lot that’s dividing Americans right now - lots of divisive narratives that have captivated lots of people. One of those narratives features the apparent widening political divide between urban and rural culture. But, the truth is that the evolution of America’s urban and rural communities has always been symbiotic. One of the best historical case studies of that symbiosis highlights the city of Chicago and the rural American west, documented by William Cronon in his award-winning book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, published in 1991. In this episode, we reconsider the relationship between urban and rural in light of that history. To help support Context and access bonus content, join me on Patreon. Learn more on my website.


Notes On Tribalism

"Notes on Nationalism" was an essay written by George Orwell in 1945, just as World War II was ending. It caused quite a stir at the time, but most people these days have never heard of it. Nonetheless, "Notes on Nationalism" remains one of the most powerful examples of Orwell's timeless insight into human nature; in this case, focused on our instinct to gang up on each other, our instinct for tribalism. Orwell never used the term "tribalism" himself -- he wrote this essay a generation before that term became widespread. However, I suspect his essay was a primary factor in raising awareness of the social pathology of tribalism, and his diagnosis of the problem precisely captures the liabilities of tribalism plaguing us today. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, join me on Patreon. Learn more at


The Fate of Universities

Like many others, I’ve begun to worry about the fate of higher education in American society. Having spent most of my professional life in academia, my instinct is to regard the university system as sacred - as Wisdom’s Workshop, to borrow the historian James Axtell’s recent book title. Liberal democracy relies on a very well educated citizenry. And, modern civilization more generally relies on a significant number of us possessing hard-earned historical perspective on what is true and what is good, and hard-earned scientific perspective on the full reach of human potential. Any threat to the university system should worry us. Today, there appear to be multiple, and the most frustrating thing of it is... those threats seem to be mostly self-imposed. In this episode, I highlight those threats and explore the history behind the legacy of modern knowledge. To help support my work and access bonus episodes, visit Learn more at


Explaining Postmodernism: A Conversation with Stephen Hicks

In this episode, I invited the philosopher and author Stephen Hicks on the podcast to chat about his book, Explaining Postmodernism. Stephen has been a Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University in Illinois for nearly 20 years, and he's published widely on the history of philosophy, ethics, and politics. The reason I invited Stephen on the show is because I think postmodernism planted the seeds of the illiberalism that's erupting throughout our society today, and Stephen Hicks literally wrote the book on that development. In my opinion, his insight is critical because the battle of ideas postmodern thinking provokes could very well determine the fate of liberal democracy our lifetime. To learn more about Stephen Hicks, I encourage you to visit his website,, or follow him on Twitter. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, visit Learn more at


Escaping the Cycle of History

What’s that line attributed to Mark Twain?... "History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes." As the authors Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote in their best-selling book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy - What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny, published in 1997, “The reward of the historian is to locate patterns that recur over time and to discover the natural rhythms of social experience.” According to the pattern they predicted, we should currently be in the midst of a great historical crisis. Are we? If so, what happens next? To help support Context and access supporter-only episodes, head to For more information visit


Reflections from A Distant Mirror

Plague, political upheaval, the looming prospect of another civil war... what century are we in? To retain historical perspective, and to find inspiration in how humanity has recovered from far greater upheavals in the past, we turn to Barbara Tuchman's classic work, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. What we find in the late Middle Ages is a vision of hell, along with overwhelming evidence that the best of humanity can endure the worst. To help support Context and access supporter-only episodes, head to For more information visit



I went slightly mad producing this episode. But then, the line between our reality and the fiction of 1984 has become far too blurry for my comfort. George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 - a very different historical context with very different threats. And yet, the dark sides of human nature he explored through his novel are still very much with us today. He saw with his own eyes, as did everyone else who lived through the World Wars and totalitarian genocides back then, where the worst of human nature can lead if left unchecked. Context is now entirely listener-supported. If you think these ideas are important and you'd like to help spread them, sign up at Learn more at


All Things Being Equal

"Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." Lately, it seems like our society is attempting to replace truth with power, forgetting that all other societies that have done this have failed miserably. One of the worst features of our society, we are told, is wealth inequality. But, what is the historical truth about wealth inequality? Drawing inspiration from Walter Scheidel's book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, we explore the history of wealth inequality and discuss how the cure has tended to be far worse than the disease. To support Context and access bonus episodes, join me on Patreon: Learn more at


Approximating Perfection

It's hard to remember how intelligent humanity can be when we are relentlessly bombarded by bad news. Author and mathematician Steven Strogatz helps to remind us with his recent book, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. The history of calculus may seem irrelevant to most of our going concerns, but as Strogatz shows, the spirit of calculus expresses one of the best ideas humanity has ever had: greatness is not to be found in the end, but in the effort. Support the show on Learn more at


Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan was a brilliant popularizer of science. His book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, helps to inspire clear thinking when chaos reigns supreme. Here, I share my thoughts on the important themes of that work. To access bonus episodes and all regular episodes ad-free, join me on Patreon at Learn more at


What If Our Ignorance Outgrows Our Potential?

There is an overlooked rule in history: far more is lost and forgotten than is preserved and remembered. Humanity has made incredible progress - we know more and we’re more powerful than we’ve ever been. But, are we getting wiser? What if our ignorance outgrows our potential? What happens when rich and powerful societies lose their wisdom and forget what made them great in the first place? It's happened before, and there is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Stephen Greenblatt that tells the tale, titled, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Here, we look to this book for insight on how a paradise of wisdom was once lost. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, visit For more information, visit


A Battle Against Medieval Barbarism

Today, we explore the origin of the modern concept of a fact. We take facts for granted, but they represent an invaluable intellectual technology less than 400 years old, which was forged in a fight between two of history’s brightest thinkers battling over the best way to rescue their society from the madness of medieval barbarism. There is a book that gives us a front row seat to that fight: Leviathan and the Air Pump, published by the historians of science Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It covers the conflict between the Scientific Revolutionaries Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle concerning how new knowledge could and should be created, and out of which the concept of an objective fact as we now know it was born. Visit my Patreon page to access bonus episodes. Learn more at


What's True?

Today I'm speaking with Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It would be hard to find a scholar better equipped to enhance our historical perspective on how we decide what's true. Jennifer and I challenge each other's thinking on several questions, including: Were Enlightenment ideas about natural rights discovered or created? Does the distinction between objective truth and pragmatic truth really matter? How do we reconcile timeless values with scientific disruption? To explore these ideas further, I recommend two of Jennifer's books: The Ideas That Made America and American Nietzsche. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, visit Learn more at


The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, became one of the most influential books of the last 50 years by instigating a battle over the soul of the American University that's been raging ever since. The book sold millions of copies, becoming a powerful weapon in Bloom's fight against what he identified as a morally and intellectually crippling form of relativism infecting America's educational system. Allan Bloom sought to remind us that the goal of education is not to become open to all ideas, but to cultivate the search for the best ideas. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, visit Learn more at


Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis

In this episode, we witness the debate that raged over the birth of what is perhaps the most powerful idea in history; the idea that supports our ability to make the world a better place, and the idea that defines the meaning of America. This is the idea that conversation, that argument, that free expression represent the best path to progress and to justice for all, and that to institutionalize this idea via a Constitutional right to the freedom of speech is the best way to preserve a prosperous society. A historian named Joseph Ellis captured the story of that debate in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, and in this episode we’re going to learn why this most prestigious honor was so well deserved. To help support Context and access bonus episodes, visit Learn more at


Applied Perspective: A Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is one of the most influential historians of our generation. His professional effort extends well beyond academia to ensure that policy makers and the public better understand how to apply historical lessons to current issues. Niall and I connected to further discuss some of those issues. We talk about the changing politics of academia, the growing challenge of interpreting history productively, the problem of judging the past by the moral standards of the present, and more. To help support Context and access bonus content, visit Learn more at


The Square and the Tower, by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, perhaps the most famous historian of our generation, offers yet another breakthrough in his latest work, The Square and the Tower. Through groundbreaking research, Ferguson reveals how social networks, from the Freemasons of the middle ages to Facebook in the 21st century, disrupt established hierarchies to divert the course of history, both for better and for worse. Join me on Patreon for bonus content. Visit to learn more.


Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris

Is there a logic to history? Many scholars balk at the idea of searching for such logic, insisting that each culture may only be understood on its own terms. In Why the West Rules - For Now, Ian Morris counters that if we look beyond the facade of culture to how human biology, sociology, and geography interact, it is possible to discover a fundamental pattern in history to help us answer the biggest historical questions, from why the West rules for now, to what will happen next. Help support Context and access bonus episodes on Patreon. Learn more at


The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization

Today, I’m speaking with Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization. It has become fashionable to argue that Roman civilization never collapsed, but was merely transformed by Germanic culture. Although this counter-narrative can illuminate intellectual developments of Late Antiquity, it verges on cultural relativism that threatens to obscure real differences in how people flourish or suffer. Ward-Perkins' book is a welcome reality check of how dark the post-Roman age really was. For bonus content visit my Patreon page. For more information, visit my website.