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Genius of The Modern World

Programme Run: 3 x 60 minutes
Production: BBC
First Transmitted: 2016 HD available

Historian Bettany Hughes retraces the lives of three great thinkers whose ideas shaped the modern world - Karl Marx, Frederick Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.  All three changed the landscape of the modern world. Together they re-imagined global economics; questioned the very foundations of morality and society; and unravelled the workings of the human mind.

Karl Marx was a man who lived a life of contradiction:  An angry agitator who spent years in scholarly silence in the British Library Reading Room. A family man who got the housekeeper pregnant. A brilliant mind who argued against exploitation, but lived off wealth exploited from workers in Engel’s family mills.Yet despite the paradoxes this philosopher’s ideas had a greater influence in a shorter time than any other thinker in history.  During his lifetime he was a little-known, impoverished intellectual, living on the charity of friends and spending his days reading and writing.  But within seventy years of his death in 1883, almost a third of the entire human race was living under governments that called themselves by his name – Marxist.

Bettany begins her journey in the city of Trier on the banks of the Mosel in Germany.  It was here on the 5 May 1818 that one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century was born. 

The 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most brilliant and dangerous minds of the 19th century. His uncompromising and often brutal ideas smashed the comfortable presuppositions and assumptions of religion, morality and science. His was a world not just bereft of God, but almost of humanity – breath-taking in both its post-religious starkness and its originality.

In this episode Bettany will go in search of the beliefs of a man whose work is possibly the most devastatingly manipulated and misinterpreted in philosophical history. Nietzsche’s dislike of systems and of seeking truths left his ideas ambiguous and sometimes incoherent. It was this that made him vulnerable to interpretation, and as a result his thoughts – which warned against the very notion of a political system like totalitarianism – were manipulated to strengthen its ideals. Violently opposed to anti-Semitism throughout his life, his anti-Semitic sister made sure he became the poster boy for Hitler’s drive for an Aryan ideal. Anti-nationalistic he came to symbolise a regime he would have loathed. 

Sigmund Freud was dubbed the “Father of psychoanalysis”.  And certainly no other individual exploration of the human condition has had such a lasting and profound effect on the understanding of the psyche. His work changed the climate and the context in which we understand our lives, as well as the landscape of the inner workings of the human mind.

The film begins in Vienna. Sigmund Freud arrived here in 1860 aged 4 and for the next 80 years this was the context for his radical and often disturbing insights into the human psyche: Insights that would wipe away the horizon of all that had come before, and re-envisage the landscape of the mind.

Bettany travels to Vienna to discover that when Freud first came here, this was a city of political and economic turbulence. It was one of the capitals of the Austro Hungarian Empire, and its population of one and half million, half were immigrants. Germans, Poles, Slovaks, Serbs, Italians, and Hungarians filled the streets. And it was in this atmosphere riven with inequalities, that the ideas that would become Freud’s obsession were forged.


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