What do you do?

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.

  • Transcript


Question: How would you describe what do you do for a living?

Ferguson: I commune with the dead. That’s what historians do. I spend as much time as possible in the company of dead people, which sounds a little bit morbid and perhaps it is.

I think in some ways to be a historian you have to be a little asocial, because to commune with the dead requires a great deal of solitude. You can’t really spend too much time with the living if you want to really understand the dead. You have to spend your time in archives and libraries reading what they wrote down and all, whatever trace they left of their past thoughts.

Now it’s not very often that historians talk about what they do this way, but that’s how I’ve come to understand it. My role is really to try to interpret the majority of human kind – because the majority of human kind are dead – to the minority who just happen to be alive.

In that sense being a historian is really rather an awe-inspiring activity. It’s also an impossible task because you can never really know what somebody thought 100 or 200 years ago, much less 1,000 years ago. You can only infer it from what they left behind and what has survived by what they left

Question: What are you working on today?

Ferguson: I’m writing two biographies, one of which I’ve nearly finished, which is about a banker. As I said earlier, sometimes it’s worth studying the less famous players because they may have been just as important as the famous ones. And in the 20th century, finance in my view, has been as important as politics.

_____ Warburg was the nephew of that banker I mentioned earlier, Max Warburg, who was the central figure in my doctoral thesis. And in recent years I’ve worked my way through Warburg’s papers, which are a wonderful chronicles of the financial history of the 20th century, most of which he lived through, much of which he wrote about and thought deeply about. So that’s one project.

My more prominent project is also a biography of a famous man. I’m writing a biography of Henry Kissinger whose contribution, not only to international relations and American politics requires, in my view, reassessment; but also whose contribution to history is a neglected subject.

The reason I was attracted to this project is that Henry Kissinger is a very rare thing – an academic historian trained to a very high level who enters the world of power. And we can therefore see how far history influenced his decisions, and see to what extent his actions can be understood as part of a broader philosophy of history.

Now two projects would never suffice. I’m rather promiscuous when it comes to research. And of course teaching obligations at Harvard mean I have to think about this stuff, too. So I have a small, modest side project which is a financial history of everything.

The great realization I had was that most people don’t understand the first thing about the financial world, whereas a tiny elite understand everything about it. And what I think I can contribute, at this point, is a book that illuminates how the financial world originated, where it all came from, how it works, so that the lay reader can gain some insights into what can often seem a dangerous and intimidating financial world.


Recorded on: Oct 31 2007