Helen's History of Ideas

Helen's History of Ideas

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

David talks with Helen to get her take on the history of ideas - both what's there and what's missing. Why start with Hobbes? What can we learn from the Federalist Papers? Where's Nietzsche? Plus we talk about whether understanding where political ideas come from is

liberating or limiting and we ask how many of them were just rationalisations for power.

Talking Points: 

Should we start the story of modern politics with Hobbes?

Hobbes poses a stark question: what is the worst thing that can happen in politics? Civil war or tyranny?Is Hobbes’ answer utopian?What are the consequences of the breakdown of political authority—and how do they compare to the consequences of empowering the state to do terrible things? 

Who has the authority to decide is a fundamental question in politics.

But there are lots of ways of thinking about politics that avoid this question.If you accept the notion that political authority is essential, what form should that authority take and how can it be made as bearable as possible for as many people as possible?

Constant says that the worst thing that can happen isn’t civil war; it’s the tyranny of the state.

To him, the French Revolution showed that when people who hold the coercive power of the state also hold certain beliefs, the damage can be much worse.Constant wants to say that the beliefs people have in the modern world are a constraint on political possibilities.What does the pluralism of beliefs mean for politics? Constant is also more direct about the importance of debt and money.


From the French revolution onwards, nationalism became the dominant idea by which the authority of states was justified to those over whom it exercised power.

Sieyès equated the state with its people.

The idea of federalism as enshrined in the US constitution is also important: Hobbes did not think sovereignty could be divided.

How do you reconcile constitutional ideals with the horrors they justified?

Nietzsche forces a reckoning with the religion question.

This blows up the distinction between pre-modern and modern.He presents a genealogy not just of morality, but civilization, ideas of justice, religion.For Nietzsche, Christianity is the manifestation of the will to power of the powerless.Nietzsche tells us how we became the way we are—it didn’t have to go that way.In exposing contingency, he forces us to engage with political questions we don’t really want to think about.

What do ideas explain about human motivation in politics, and to what extent are they rationalizations of other motives?

Helen thinks that the history of ideas can make political action seem too straightforward. How should we think about the relationship between ideas and material constraints (or opportunities)?Studying history more generally leads to at least some degree of cynicism about the relationship between ideas and power.

Mentioned in this Episode: 

Talking Politics: the History of IdeasThe Federalist PapersThe Genealogy of MoralityOur episode on Weber’s ‘Politics as a Vocation’

Further Learning: 

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