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History of Freedom

History of Freedom

Professor J. Rufus Fears Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Course No.  480
Course No.  480
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

It can be argued that one simple idea—the concept of freedom—has been the driving force of Western civilization and may be the most influential intellectual force the world has ever known. But what is freedom, exactly? Join historian and classical scholar J. Rufus Fears as he tells freedom's dramatic story from ancient Greece to our own day, exploring a concept so close to us we may never have considered it with the thoroughness it deserves.

Delve Into the Meaning of Human Freedom

What did freedom mean to Abraham Lincoln—or to Robert E. Lee? To Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King?

What does it mean to us today?

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It can be argued that one simple idea—the concept of freedom—has been the driving force of Western civilization and may be the most influential intellectual force the world has ever known. But what is freedom, exactly? Join historian and classical scholar J. Rufus Fears as he tells freedom's dramatic story from ancient Greece to our own day, exploring a concept so close to us we may never have considered it with the thoroughness it deserves.

Delve Into the Meaning of Human Freedom

What did freedom mean to Abraham Lincoln—or to Robert E. Lee? To Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King?

What does it mean to us today?

Indeed, to consider freedom is to ask questions. Many questions.

  • What does it take to be free, to have and to hold liberty?
  • What moral questions did freedom raise for our forebears?
  • What questions does it raise for us?
  • What role do the liberal arts and the world of the intellect play in the life of a free society or a free individual?
  • What does democracy have to do with freedom?
  • Can a democratic politician be a statesman?
  • How should we understand the relationship among freedom, religion, and morality?
  • Is there a dichotomy between public and private morality in a free society?

You ponder these questions and more in this moving and provocative course, brought to you by a teacher whose 15 awards for outstanding teaching include three-time recognition as University of Oklahoma Professor of the Year.

Professor Fears combines a fine actor's captivating presence, superb timing, and feel for the telling anecdote with the broad and humane learning of a seasoned classics scholar.

A History of Real People and Real Events

A firm premise of the course is that history is made by great individuals and great events, not by anonymous social and economic forces.

In fact, Professor Fears opens the course not with a dry presentation of liberty's philosophical requirements but by plunging you into the chaos of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

This was the seminal event in the history of freedom, with 9,000 citizen-soldiers of Athens defeating the much larger and better-equipped army of the Persian king Darius and thwarting his attempt to subjugate Greece.

This battle highlights dramatically the contrast between the political liberty of the Greek city-states and the absolutism of the monarchies of the ancient Near East.

It also highlights Professor Fears's approach to this course, as he focuses your engagement with the history of freedom on six seed times of liberty, along with the great people and events that helped shape the character of each.

Six Crucial Epochs, Revealed in Riveting Detail

With Professor Fears guiding and informing your thinking, you explore:

  • the birth of the idea of freedom in Greece and the story of the world's first democracy the Athens of Pericles, Socrates, and Sophocles
  • the status and meaning of freedom in both the Roman Republic and the Empire, and the new forms of liberty that flowered from the Roman legacy
  • the role of Jesus, Saint Paul, and Christianity in that flowering of freedom, and the Christian view of the true meaning of human liberation
  • the American colonies' resistance to British rule and their decision to declare their independence
  • the debates about freedom that informed the framing and ratification of the United States Constitution and its awful testing on the battlefields of the Civil War
  • the struggles of free peoples against domestic injustices and foreign dictatorships during the 20th century and the questions about freedom we still face as we enter the 21st .
Informed by Thousands of Years of Thought ,

To illustrate thought-provoking accounts of freedom's triumphs and travails, Professor Fears draws on Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero, Paul, the English common-law tradition, Machiavelli, Lincoln, and the American Founders.

And he includes such towering intellectual champions of English-speaking liberalism as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Lord Acton.

To clothe this impressive framework of analysis with the stuff of real history, Professor Fears brings to life critical episodes within each key period, explaining what was at stake each time.

  • You witness the outnumbered Greeks charging the Persians at Marathon, the Minutemen challenging the redcoats at Lexington, and Lee and later Lincoln surveying the great battlefield of Gettysburg.
  • You compare the trials of Socrates and Jesus, witness the signing of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, and study the debate over the U.S. Constitution.
  • You recapture the confidence and buoyancy of Franklin Roosevelt's swift response to the Great Depression.
  • And you thrill to Winston Churchill's bulldog defiance as he and his island nation stand alone defending freedom and humanity against Hitler's war machine.

To cap this extraordinary series, Professor Fears steers your thoughts to the Cold War and the remarkable march toward freedom witnessed by the last decade of the 20th century.

A Look Ahead—and a Cautionary Note

Professor Fears closes with a look at the future and a word of warning.

"Americans entered the 21st century convinced that we are the only superpower and that the innovations of science, technology, and industry have opened a new era of individual liberty, prosperity, and peace. It should be remembered that Europeans entered the 20th century under similar delusions.

"This course of lectures ends on a cautionary note, one that was already voiced in the Athenian democracy of the 5 th century B.C.

"Excessive individualism is not liberty but, rather, license. There can ultimately be no separation between public and private morality. A democratic society can survive only if its citizens have a shared set of moral and political values.

"Excessive prosperity can lead to that public apathy about politics which is the death knell of liberty.

"In the end, the true test of a free society is its ability to produce leaders of ability, vision, and moral character."

These lectures invite you to look at our nation's most formative idea from a fresh perspective.

Accept the invitation with enthusiasm and intellectual anticipation. Your perspective on politics, society, and history—or your place in them—may never be the same.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Birth of Freedom
    In the gray dawn of September 21, 490 B.C., 9,000 citizen-soldiers of Athens formed ranks on a plain by the Bay of Marathon. Before sunset, they would fight the seminal battle in the history of freedom. Who were they? What were they fighting for? With these questions, our course begins. x
  • 2
    Athenian Democracy
    The Persian Wars made Athens the leader of the Greek world. Under Pericles, Athens became history's first true democracy—and an imperial power. What is the Athenian legacy to freedom? x
  • 3
    Athens—Freedom and Cultural Creativity
    Athenian freedom sparked an intellectual revolution that rivaled the scientific revolution of our own day. The Athenians invented the liberal arts in order to educate free citizens for self-government. x
  • 4
    Athenian Tragedy—Education for Freedom
    Tragedy was the characteristic cultural statement of Athenian democracy. Sophocles's plays about the House of Oedipus are key documents in the history of freedom, exploring enduring questions of morality, law, and conscience. x
  • 5
    Socrates on Trial
    In 399 B.C., a recently defeated Athens executed Socrates for impiety. The trial remains a test case for all democratic societies, and Socrates an enduring witness to freedom and the power of ideas. x
  • 6
    Alexander the Great
    The conquests of this young prince of Macedon opened a new epoch in the history of Greece, the world, and freedom. x
  • 7
    The Roman Republic
    The American Founders took the Roman republic's balanced constitution as a model. It secured liberty under law. Under it; Rome rose to mastery of a world empire. x
  • 8
    Julius Caesar
    By the first century B.C., Rome was the only superpower in its world. Yet at the height of their power, the Romans lost their political liberty and turned to Julius Caesar. How did this happen? What did it mean for freedom? x
  • 9
    Freedom in the Roman Empire
    If the Caesars ended political liberty, they also expanded individual freedom. A look at a day in the life of Pompeii suggests that, in many ways, the Rome of the Caesars is the model for America today. x
  • 10
    Rome—Freedom and Cultural Creativity
    As in the Athenian democracy, freedom in the Roman Empire led to a burst of intellectual creativity that would lay the foundations for the next 1,000 years of European civilization. x
  • 11
    Gibbon on Rome’s Decline and Fall
    For the Founders and Edward Gibbon, the fall of Rome was the tale of how a people had traded republican liberty for the false security of absolutism. What can the Roman Empire's decline teach us today? x
  • 12
    What makes Jesus of Nazareth, who, like Socrates, never wrote a book or had any wealth or worldly power, one of the most important figures in the history of human freedom? x
  • 13
    Jesus and Socrates
    Jesus and Socrates invite comparison as awe-inspiring teachers, as seminal figures in the history of freedom, and as witnesses to the claims of conscience. x
  • 14
    Paul the Apostle
    Paul's preaching drew upon concepts of freedom in some of the most innovative currents of Roman imperial thought. His letter to the Galatians is rightly regarded as the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. x
  • 15
    Freedom in the Middle Ages
    Far from being an age of absolutism, the Middle Ages in Western Europe saw the growth of ideas and institutions basic to the history of liberty, including representative government and the right to revolution. x
  • 16
    Luther and the Protestant Reformation
    Luther is one of the proofs that great men and women—not anonymous forces—make history. He shattered the medieval world and unleashed currents that continue to shape the history of freedom. x
  • 17
    From Machiavelli to the Divine Right of Kings
    Are the state and its leaders bound by the same moral values that should govern private conduct? Machiavelli said no. His praise of the absolute, amoral state laid the basis for the greatest single challenge to freedom in the modern age. x
  • 18
    The Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty
    State absolutism received its preeminent early modern statement in the belief that kings are accountable to God alone. But this notion met with differing fates in France and the English-speaking world, with vast implications for freedom. x
  • 19
    The Shot Heard ’Round the World
    In the predawn darkness of April 19, 1775, 77 citizen-soldiers of Lexington, Massachusetts, formed ranks on their village green. Before noon, they would fight the greatest battle in the history of freedom since Marathon. Who were they? What were they fighting for? With these questions begins the second half of our course. x
  • 20
    The Tyranny of George III
    What turned loyal British colonists into armed traitors declaring their independence? Edmund Burke suggested the answer when he observed that in England, "the great contests for freedom were, from the earliest times, chiefly upon the question of taxes." x
  • 21
    What the Declaration of Independence Says
    America is the first nation in history founded upon a statement of principles. The Declaration draws upon two great legacies of freedom: the natural-law tradition of Greece and Rome, and the experience of England. x
  • 22
    Natural Law and the Declaration
    Born in democratic Athens, refined by Cicero, affirmed by St. Paul, and incorporated into first Roman and then the English common law, natural law would prove crucial to the American founding. x
  • 23
    Miracle at Philadelphia
    "Miracles do not cluster. Hold on to the Constitution," said Daniel Webster. Wondrous as the Constitution is, it is also explicable as the work of statesmen educated for freedom, and steeped in the lessons of history. x
  • 24
    What the Constitution Says
    Here you will "visit" a state ratifying convention in order to analyze both the Constitution (especially as explained by The Federalist) and the case made by its Anti-Federalist foes, who argued that small republics and virtue both private and public are the best safeguards forliberty. x
  • 25
    The Bill of Rights
    Basic to the Constitution's success has been the ability to amend it. A careful analysis of the first two Amendments paves the way for discussions of the relevance of the Framers' intent to America today and of the Founders' belief that every right entails a corresponding duty. x
  • 26
    Liberty and Lee at Gettysburg
    The American founding did not resolve the questions of slavery and union. Both were settled only by the Civil War. This lecture asks why a man of Lee's character, who saw the wrong of slavery, chose nonetheless to follow his state and the Confederate cause. x
  • 27
    Liberty and Lincoln at Gettysburg
    Lincoln's address over those who fell in the Civil War's biggest battle took only moments, but spoke to the ages. It is as basic an American founding document as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. x
  • 28
    FDR and the Progressive Tradition
    FDR's reforms played a crucial role in meeting the awful test of the Great Depression, and may have saved constitutional government in America. x
  • 29
    Why the French Revolution Failed
    The excesses of democracy in France spawned tyranny and wars of conquest. Why did these excesses occur, and how did the young American republic manage to avoid them? x
  • 30
    The Liberal Tradition
    The mighty tradition of liberty under law and representative government runs back to the Magna Carta and beyond. More recently, this tradition has been powerfully shaped by great classical liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Lord Acton. x
  • 31
    Churchill and the War for Freedom
    On June 4, 1940—amid the sternest days in his country's history—Britain's new Prime Minister vowed that his island nation would "never surrender." He was a model of true statesmanship, and freedom's champion in an hour of urgent peril. x
  • 32
    The Illiberal Tradition
    This lecture examines the ideas that shaped Hitler's nightmare vision. Despite Hitler's defeat, nationalism, socialism, and vulgarized Darwinism remain influential today as counterfeit forms of liberty. x
  • 33
    Hitler and the War Against Freedom
    Hitler's career shows what happens when a nation and its leaders lose their moral compass. His terrifying story teaches us that free peoples must hold the values of liberty as universal and be willing to defend them if liberty is to endure. x
  • 34
    The Cold War
    World War II added to the power of Stalin, a tyrant no less despotic than his enemy Hitler. But standing guard over freedom was an America led by presidents like Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan, all of whom shared the great liberal idea that those with power have a moral duty to defend the weak. x
  • 35
    Civil Disobedience and Social Change
    In the decades after 1945, nonviolent campaigns for freedom—and above all the movement against racial discrimination led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.—made key contributions to the growth of liberty. x
  • 36
    Freedom and the Lessons of History
    Americans enter the 21st century convinced that we are opening a new era of liberty, prosperity, and peace. Europeans entered the last century with similar beliefs. We close with a cautionary note, taking up a theme first sounded in Athens 25 centuries ago. x

Lecture Titles

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J. Rufus Fears
Ph.D. J. Rufus Fears
University of Oklahoma
Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer at Indiana University, and Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. An acclaimed teacher and scholar with more than 25 awards for teaching excellence, Professor Fears was chosen Professor of the Year on three occasions by students at the University of Oklahoma. His other accolades included the Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Great Plains Region Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the UCEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Professor Fears's books and monographs include The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology and The Theology of Victory at Rome. He edited a three-volume edition of Selected Writings of Lord Acton. His discussions of the Great Books have appeared in newspapers across the country and have aired on national television and radio programs. Professor Fears passed away in October 2012.
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Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 48 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by history of freedom -best lecturer of 60 I recently evaluated the course on the brief customer survey form but was impressed by the course and in particular the lecturer (Rufus Fears) that I've decided to add some additional comments as well as some comments about the Great Courses company itself. I gave the course on the form and the lecturer a rating of 9 and a half but am updating it to a 10. Both the course content and the lecturer were excellent. Prior to ordering the course I was somewhat put off by the customer reviews which gave it only a 4.1 star and 71 percent rating: I usually do not order a course if its ratings are at least 4 stars and 70 percent recommended s this one just barely met my criteria. I don't understand why those overall customer ratings were so low. My main reason for finally deciding to order this course was because of its lengthy coverage of the U.S. government which has been my primary interest for the last several years. In indeed, Fears' lectures in this area were very well presented and made made me aware of facts previously unknown to me. These were the very first lectures of the series that I viewed. They more than met my high expectations both for their content and the lecturer's delivery. I then went on to the lectures on Hitler and Stalin which were also full of facts I had not been aware of. And next to those on Greece and Rome. These were so informative and so well presented that I have just ordered Fears' courses on Famous greeks and Famous Romans. His lecture on the Trial of Socrates was SUPERB ! His story-telling talent for delivery matches that of Barbara Tuchman's written works: iSome reviewers may have been put off by that style of delivery but I thought it was so good that I wished it were longer. At several points in his lectures Sears made allusions to trends and events in our U.S. government which were "spot on". I wished he has gone on a little further in that regard and in fact said in my survey form that the company should convince his to put together a course on trends occurring in the U.S. government which are contrary to what the Founding Fathers intended. It would have been very interesting to hear Fears' views on recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United vs Federal Elections Commission, Hobby Lobby vs Sebelius and the Obamacare ruling. In general then, this was one of the very best courses of the 60 or so I've encountered over the past 2 and a half years. On a totally different topic, here are some observations on the Great Courses company itself. Overall there course offerings have been first-rate. I have returned only 2 of them and in both cases it was not because they were sub-bar but only because their content was not exactly what I had expected. The company's customer service is excellent- far above what the average company these days provides. The fact that I can place orders immediately by phone while talking to an informed LIVE representative is almost a thing of the past- no rat-maze of several layers of choices to endure before finally being able to place an order or ask for a piece of information about a particular course. The company's return policy is also exceptional. And finally, its policy of allowing the customer to update a course at a substantial price reduction is almost astounding. Around 2000 I purchased 4 courses in the VHS format: when I decided to update 3 of them in DVD format, I was given a very generous discount. And when I decided to update a CD version to the DVD version, I was again given a hefty price reduction. Most recently, after viewing the Fears' History of Freedom course and being so impressed with his delivery, I decided to order both his courses on Famous Romans and Greeks. The Roman corse was on sale for the surprising cost of only $50. but the Greek course was still priced at its full price of $255. When i mentioned to the rep. that I'd have to wait til it also went on sale, he almost immediately said I could order both of the at the same $50. price - yet another example of the company's outstanding customer service. There's nothing more I can add to top that. P.S. excuse the typos. I use the Hunt and Peck method. By the way, I'm considering resurrecting my 4 years of high school Latin with the company's LATIN 101. I'd be interested in hearing any comments on that course. Evidently some viewers were put of by the lecturer's pronunciation. October 27, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Really Interesting Story! AUDIO DOWNLOAD This course rates high among the TC courses I have viewed/listened to over the years. It is not the most rigorous and tightly argued, but Professor Fears excels here in telling an interesting and, at times, stirring, story. Beginning with the ancient Greeks at Marathon resisting the might of the Persian Empire in 490 BC through to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles with racism in 1960s America, to today’s hot-button issues like abortion and euthanasia, Professor Fears traces the history of an idea, freedom, “… the definitive idea of our civilization…” (Course Guide, Page 1), exploring its development in political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. It should be noted that the freedom he discusses can at times be a bit fuzzy, but never totally out of focus. Professor Fears equates freedom and liberty in a “… a two-fold working definition. Liberty is freedom under the law: the freedom of a People to govern itself under laws it gives to itself. Complementing this political freedom is the freedom of the individual: the liberty of the individual to live as he or she chooses as long as that individual does not infringe upon the rights of another individual. Finally, our working definition of freedom maintains that responsibility is the other side of liberty and that for every right there is a corresponding duty” (Page 1). Bound up with this is Professor Fears’ belief not only in the power of ideas, but also “…that history is made by great individuals and great events, not by anonymous social and economic forces” (Page 1). The bottom line for Professor Fears is that “Excessive individualism is not liberty but rather license. There can ultimately be no separation between public and private morality. A democratic society can survive only if its citizens have a shared set of moral and political values. Excessive prosperity can lead to that public apathy about politics which is the death knell of liberty. In the end, the true test of a free society is its ability to produce leaders of ability, vision, and moral character” (Page 3). I am sure that there are some who might be put off by the story-telling aspect of this course, and I am sure Professor Fears can be faulted for biases in what he treats (as is possible with just about any course), but there are many solid lessons here. I am familiar with most of the historical events and eras dealt with by Professor Fears, and truly appreciated the perspective he brings to bear, sometimes casting events and individuals in a new light. Among the most interesting, for me, are his explanation of how and why Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus contributed to freedom; how important Natural Law is to freedom, especially regarding the Founders; and how Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should be understood as a “deeply religious document” (Page 120). Professor Fears also puts us in touch with two great 19th century British thinkers on freedom and liberty, Lord Acton (of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” fame) and John Stuart Mill. At times, however, the course seems a bit overwhelmed with context, for instance in detailing archaeological evidence from Pompeii, the events leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the later Constitutional Convention, the American Civil War background to the Battle of Gettysburg, and the treatment of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. In each of these and other instances, however, the context provides excellent support to Professor Fears’ points. Bear in mind that Professor Fears not only holds that ideas have power and that men and women rather than economic and social forces make history, but also that he acknowledges absolutes, right and wrong. He points out that “Greece, Rome, Christianity, and the Founders of the United States believed in an intimate nexus between liberty and morality” (Page 156), and discusses, for example, the especially divisive issue of abortion in the context of freedom as, “…a moral issue as profound for us today as slavery was for 19th-century America. It poses most dramatically the tensions inherent in the ideals of individual freedom” (Page 155). I recommend starting with lecture 36 rather than at the beginning. I wish I had, as it really helps in getting an overview of where Professor Fears is going in the absorbing trek through so much of Western civilization. As Professor Fears passed away in 2012, there will be no more of his entertaining and so enlightening TC courses beyond what is now available. I will definitely listen to this course again, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this important and ever timely subject. You are in for a real treat! June 23, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fears is a great story teller Professor Fears opens the course with a very dramatic presentation of the Battle of Marathon. This sets the mood for a lively discourse on events that promoted and/or hampered our path to freedom. I say 'our path' as this course clearly presents a Western point of view. Other reviews seem polarized -- one either likes Fears or doesn't. Some say his views are not very historical or accurate. As in his other courses he presents his opinion and allows you to make your own. What I enjoy most about Professor Fears' courses is how he brings you into the event he is discussing. Even if you don't agree with what he is saying, he makes you think about your position on the subject. For example, comparing Socrates and Jesus. He does the same with many of his other courses. One should enter into this course freely and enjoy the ride. As a ride it is. It is an entertaining and thought provoking ride. April 17, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by One Man's VIew Prof. Frears argues that we must accept that there are absolute, unconditional answers to all important questions about truth and value. Ironically, anyone who believed this would be obligated to dismiss these lectures as idiosyncratic opinions. Frears has his own completely original take on American History. He doesn't fit into either contemporary mold of Liberal or Conservative, giving equally high praise to FDR and Reagan, and it is refreshing to encounter someone who knows history well and is not afraid to form his own well-thought-out opinions about it. You probably won't agree with most of what he says, wherever you are on the political spectrum. But he will make you feel and think, and show you that history really does matter. October 29, 2013
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