Context with Brad Harris artwork

Context with Brad Harris

25 episodes - English - Latest episode: about 1 month ago - ★★★★★ - 362 ratings

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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Reflections from A Distant Mirror

October 26, 2020 09:00 - 39 minutes - 54.7 MB

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 s...


September 14, 2020 08:00 - 26 minutes - 36.7 MB

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 hum...

All Things Being Equal

August 25, 2020 09:30 - 30 minutes - 42 MB

"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 inequ...

Approximating Perfection

July 08, 2020 09:00 - 20 minutes - 28.8 MB

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. Suppo...

Science as a Candle in the Dark

June 05, 2020 09:00 - 20 minutes - 28.7 MB

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?

August 05, 2019 09:00 - 35 minutes - 48.1 MB

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 Greenblat...

A Battle Against Medieval Barbarism

July 01, 2019 09:30 - 36 minutes - 50.3 MB

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 Scha...

What's True?

June 03, 2019 09:00 - 1 hour - 119 MB

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 val...

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

May 02, 2019 09:30 - 1 hour - 96.8 MB

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 n...

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis

April 04, 2019 09:30 - 38 minutes - 53.4 MB

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 prosp...

Applied Perspective: A Conversation with Niall Ferguson

March 07, 2019 09:30 - 45 minutes - 62.9 MB

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....

The Square and the Tower, by Niall Ferguson

February 07, 2019 10:00 - 39 minutes - 54.8 MB

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 ad-free episodes and bonus content. Visit to learn more.

Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris

January 09, 2019 10:30 - 1 hour - 126 MB

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. Access ...

The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization

December 12, 2018 20:53 - 53 minutes - 73.7 MB

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 pos...

The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow

November 21, 2018 10:00 - 28 minutes - 39 MB

The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow was one of the most influential lectures of the 20th century, triggering an intense epistemological debate within higher education regarding the status of science that has persisted to this day. The main theme of Snow's lecture was to raise alarm about the growing knowledge gap between modern society's scientists and everyone else, and to reinvigorate respect for science among cultural elites who were increasingly dismissive of it. Support Context at https://...

Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway

October 30, 2018 08:30 - 41 minutes - 56.4 MB

Merchants of Doubt is not just a book about how illusions of scientific controversy have been constructed, it’s also about the people who constructed them, and its most shocking revelation is that the very same people used the very same strategy to prevent regulation on cigarette smoking, acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming over the span of nearly 50 years. Support Context on Patreon at Learn more at  

Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, by Peter Atkins

October 08, 2018 09:30 - 55 minutes - 76.7 MB

If civilization collapsed, and our descendants could rediscover a single work to get humanity back on track scientifically and technologically, Peter Atkins’ Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, would be a contender. If there are miracles, Atkins would argue that they are not found in the surreal conjectures of things unexplained, but in the tangible power of our otherwise small minds to achieve cosmic insights through experiment and mathematics. Here, he distills his choices ...

Evolution's Other Narrative

September 17, 2018 08:30 - 28 minutes - 39.2 MB

In this episode, we're shifting gears and I'll read an article that I published in 2013 in the journal American Scientist called "Evolution's Other Narrative." Here is a link to the article: Given our conversation last time about the importance of disease in the history of civilization, I thought this article would be an interesting supplement to our understanding of humanity's co-evolution with microorganisms. To supp...

Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill

September 05, 2018 08:30 - 42 minutes - 58.2 MB

The history of disease demonstrates both the accidental nature of history and the triumph of human reason that can enable us to gain some control over our fate; most of us no longer suffer the death of half our children, among other nightmares. William McNeill’s book, Plagues and Peoples, was the first comprehensive history to capture this balance, and after more than 40 years it remains one of the most insightful narratives on how disease has both shaped and been shaped by civilization. Y...

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann

August 20, 2018 08:00 - 40 minutes - 55.8 MB

In 1493, Charles Mann shows us how Europeans emerged at the center of a modern, globalized world by establishing the Columbian Exchange; a system they created but could not control, and with consequences none of them could imagine. You can access all episodes of Context ad-free along with bonus content, including a 20-minute interview with author Charles Mann himself, by supporting the show on Patreon at or through the website at

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

August 06, 2018 08:00 - 38 minutes - 52.8 MB

Genghis Khan was so influential that, to understand how Europe began to shake off its medieval provincialism, how the Islamic world lost much of its momentum, and how China's unparalleled technology trickled beyond its borders and reshaped the fortunes of the West, it's well worth studying the legacy of this single Mongolian man. Please complete this one minute survey to help me work with new sponsors I need to grow the show: To support Con...

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

July 24, 2018 07:30 - 24 minutes - 33.4 MB

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a classic in the history of science, and one of the most cited books of the twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn insightfully challenged our assumptions about how science works, but his opaque style ignited a cultural movement energized around the misinterpretations that objective truth was an illusion and that scientific progress was just a conceit of western civilization. These ideas became pillars of postmodernism, and no one was more frustrated by the...

Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by Margaret Jacob

July 10, 2018 07:30 - 32 minutes - 46.9 MB

Margaret Jacob’s book helps us understand how scientific knowledge became integrated into the culture of Europe through the 1600s and 1700s, and how the different social and political conditions of different European countries influenced the application of science to material prosperity. Jacob enhances our understanding of the role of science in the Industrial Revolution, and provides insight on why Britain’s distinctive approach to the utility of science enabled it to industrialize generati...

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes

June 26, 2018 07:30 - 36 minutes - 50.6 MB

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations was published by David Landes in 1998, and it has occupied a preeminent place on the bookshelves of scholars ever since. Landes boldly argued that historically unique cultural values of curiosity, novelty, and private property empowered European society to lead the modern world; a history that offers invaluable lessons for our own time. You can support Context on Patreon at, or through the show's website at https://bradharri...

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

June 06, 2018 17:50 - 26 minutes - 37.6 MB

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was published by Jared Diamond in 1997. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, along with several other awards. The fundamental question that Diamond seeks to answer through this book is, why did history unfold so differently on different continents such that Eurasian societies became so disproportionately influential in creating the modern world?  You can support Context on Patreon at, or through the show's w...


Niall Ferguson
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