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Mike Duncan Takes On the Turmoil of History

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20.08.2021

Is history made by individual actors—by so-called great men—or by vast, impersonal social forces? Tolstoy, in War and Peace, saw history as the chaos of random events, a swarm of uncoordinated human actions that could never be adequately summarized without falsehood, nor directed by any individual. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, on the other hand, history has developed into a perfectly rational social science, thus allowing for the accurate predicting and planning of large-scale human behavior over the course of millennia. Splitting the difference in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously asserted that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

It’s something of a false choice, a freshman dorm debate, not just because the answer must lie in between, but because history is not so much known definitively as it is lived and experienced and imagined. One can certainly memorize discrete major events—that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, say, or that the Qing dynasty was established in 1644—but such dates in isolation are little more than trivia. History becomes meaningful through stories, and those stories in turn are often lies crafted to justify present political circumstances—for instance, that there has always been a coherent Czech nation dating back to the Middle Ages, or that the American Civil War was fought over tariffs, or that there were no local inhabitants to displace when Zionist settlers first arrived in Palestine. For popular history to be both truthful and meaningful, it must be rigorously combed through in great detail, and then those details must be presented in a way that is intelligible to nonspecialists and that allows space to draw conclusions without necessarily prescribing them. Succeeding at any part of this, much less all of it, is very hard.

Since the fall of 2013, the historian Mike Duncan has recorded, by his own estimate, about 150 hours of his podcast Revolutions, which is currently in the middle of its final season. I’ve listened to all of it, and while waiting for new episodes, I now marathon Duncan’s earlier podcast, The History of Rome, which I’m maybe a quarter of the way through. I also just plowed through Duncan’s newly released second book, Hero of Two Worlds, a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (perhaps most familiar now as the speed-rapping, French-accented freedom fighter portrayed by Daveed Diggs in a certain Broadway musical), which expands upon three seasons of Revolutions while giving them an individual focus. I guess you could say I’m a Duncanophile, but apparently there are a lot of us—enough to provide Duncan, 41, with a comfortable income even as he makes all his episodes available for free (provided you can tolerate 30 seconds of him pitching Harry’s razors). And I keep winning converts, including my dad, who marathons Revolutions on long solitary walks.

Revolutions is a chronological blow-by-blow of 10 historical revolutions that took place between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries: the English Civil War of 1642, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the Spanish American wars of independence of the early nineteenth century, the French Revolution of 1830, the pan-European........

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