Troubled times produce radical minds – so where should we look for ours?

For our latest blog, New Generation Thinker and  Lecturer in Early Modern History Dr Joanne Paul searches for the perfect recipe for finding the new generation of radical thinkers.

Where have all the intellectuals gone? For some time now, we’ve seen articles decrying the loss of the public intellectual, such as the New Statesman, Chronicle of Higher Education and more recently, the Guardian. This last piece prompted a strong reaction; especially in the UK, there is a strong appreciation of the realm of ideas in the public sphere, evidenced by the celebrity status of various historians, authors, philosophers and scientists.

The question remains, however, whether the visibility of our intellectuals is evidence of their long-term impact. Are those who remember history, remembered by history in turn?

Looking to history might lend us some answers. Which past thinkers are most respected, most influential today? Aside from the fact that the vast majority are white and male, we might note a few other commonalities, giving us clues about where we might find their counterparts today.

When: Dangerous times

Orson Wells famously proclaimed in The Third Man (1949) that it was in the midst of the bellicose Borgias that Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance emerged, whereas five centuries of peace in Switzerland produced only the cuckoo-clock. While the Swiss may take umbrage at their supposed light footprint on the world stage, it remains the case that dangerous times produce dangerous minds. The French Revolution, for instance, produced a flood of influential responses, which included Edmund Burke, the ‘father of Conservatism’, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist founding thinker. It was the fall of republics – Roman and Florentine – which produced the most important works of Cicero and Machiavelli.

Where: On the margins

Should we look for our history-making thinkers on the BBC or safely ensconced in the ivory towers of Oxbridge? History would suggest neither. There are some past thinkers who meet these profiles: Erasmus would probably have a regular column in the Guardian today, and G. W. F. Hegel kept his academic position at the University of Berlin for most of his productive life, dying because he ventured out to teach during a cholera outbreak. Nevertheless, most of history’s radical thinkers existed at the margins of society. The American revolutionary thinker Thomas Paine was the bankrupt son of a Quaker corset maker, who drank heavily. He died penniless and alone. Then there’s Rousseau, who had celebrity, but resented it, eventually becoming so paranoid the he publicly denounced his closest friends, and went into hiding.

Who: Fall from grace

Of those thinkers who did have some measure of grace or favour, many of them lost it in dramatic ways, often because of the nature of their ideas. The medieval scholar Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), was the pet philosopher of Yusuf I of Granada, but was exiled when the theologians rose to power in the court. Machiavelli, likewise, was exiled, as well as tortured, when the Medici family took power in Florence.

The advantage of such dramatic falls was often that the thinker in question had some time on their hands to reflect and write. Thomas More wrote most of Utopia while whiling away time during a very boring diplomatic mission to Flanders. Of course, he also churned out lengthy texts against Protestant ‘heretics’ while simultaneously running the country. Likewise, Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan, was written in less than a year, and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in only 10 days, on a boat. When one hand got tired, Gandhi simply switched and kept writing.

So do we have a recipe for instant public thinker? Take a marginal figure in a dangerous context, add some resentment and a touch of free time (but not too much), and ta-da: history has been made!

Perhaps not, but this foray into the past might remind us that the most important and influential ideas of our time often come from unexpected places. We should be fostering critical thought and engagement with the humanities widely and especially privileging voices emerging from contexts of difficulty or oppression. We are not lacking in public intellectuals, and we might do well to look for more of them in less expected places.



Dr Joanne Paul is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex and AHRC and BBC New Generation Thinker. Her series ‘Dangerous Minds’ with Viral History can be found on YouTube.

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