Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life

Course No. 4600
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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Course No. 4600
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 300 photographs, portraits, and illustrations. There are portraits of the authors of these masterpieces (including Dante, Solzhenitsyn, Goethe, Cicero, and Churchill) as well as photographs and illustrations capturing the historical eras in which they lived and worked. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

What makes a written work eternal—its message still so fundamental to the way we live that it continues to speak to us, hundreds or thousands of years distant from the lifetime of its author? Why do we still respond to an ancient Greek playwright's tale of the Titan so committed to humanity's survival that he is willing to endure eternal torture in his defiance of the gods? To the cold advice of a 16th-century Florentine exiled from the corridors of power? To the words of a World War I German veteran writing of the horrors of endless trench warfare?

Most important of all, what do such works—"Great Books" in every sense—mean to us? Can they deepen our self-knowledge and wisdom? Are our lives changed in any meaningful way by the experience of reading them?

In this course, Professor J. Rufus Fears presents his choices of some of the most essential writings in history. These are books that have shaped the minds of great individuals, who in turn have shaped events of historic magnitude.

This course does not analyze the literature or discuss it in detail; rather, it focuses on intellectual history and ethics. What Professor Fears does is to take the underlying ideas of each great work and show how these ideas can be put to use in a moral and ethical life.

Beginning with his definition of a great book as one that possesses a great theme of enduring importance, noble language that "elevates the soul and ennobles the mind," and a universality that enables it to "speak across the ages," Professor Fears examines a body of work that offers an extraordinary gift of wisdom to those willing to receive it.

From the Aeneid and the Book of Job to Othello and 1984, the selections range in time from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 20th century, and in locale from Mesopotamia and China to Europe and America.

A Chronology of Fundamental Choices

And though every thoughtful reader's list of historically important books will likely differ, few would argue against the profound importance of any of these selections. Together, they show how humankind has dealt with the choices revolving around the three themes of God, Fate, and Good-and-Evil—and how those choices shape our morality and direct our lives as we answer the question in the fourth main theme of this course: How should we live?

This course by the University of Oklahoma's three-time "Professor of the Year" is a vital intellectual and moral journey that remains constantly invigorating because of a teaching style that keeps even the most abstract concepts readily accessible.

Professor Fears is especially diligent about referring back to the main themes identified at the beginning of the course and comparing the position taken by each new author to what previously discussed authors have said. As a result, you'll find that each new lecture is smoothly layered into an ever-growing accumulation of knowledge. Each work comes alive, its ideas rich in consequence.

Even if you're already familiar with these works from a literary standpoint, this is a course well worth your attention; Professor Fears approaches each of these works from an entirely different direction, considering philosophical and moral perspectives that superbly complement a purely literary understanding.

Ideas Crucial To Every Thoughtful Person

And as Professor Fears is eager to point out, a grasp of those perspectives is crucial to the education of every thoughtful person.

"History is our sense of the past," he notes. "And these great books are our links to the great ideas of the past. This course is built upon the belief that great books, great ideas and great individuals make history.

"That's not a popular notion today, and certainly not in the academic world. In the academic world, we like to think that it is anonymous social and economic forces that make history. Slavery, for example, is the great object of study for those who ponder the lessons of the ancient world. Well à they're wrong. Karl Marx, who is the intellectual father of this notion that social and economic forces make great ideas, was wrong.

"It is the great ideas that propel men and women to become great in themselves. It was the great idea of truth that made Dietrich Bonhoeffer [the Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler and was hanged as a traitor] into a great man. It was a great idea of truth—and the great idea of God and of conscience—that made Socrates into a great man and left those Sophists, those academics, those professors of his day, trailing in the dust bin of history.

"History will say how well we have learned these values from the great books... all come together to educate us. For that is the ultimate goal of a course on the great books: wisdom."

What Can We Learn From The Great Books?

The point, of course, is that it is not the Great Books themselves that are important, but the values we learn from absorbing them. Professor Fears offers dramatic illustrations of choices taken and values chosen, and of the lives lived as a result.

He speaks, for example, of how Mohandas Gandhi relates the impact on his life of the time he spent each day reading the Bhagavad Gita's "Song of God" as he brushed his teeth.

A willingness to gain wisdom was also a characteristic of Gandhi's great antagonist, Winston Churchill, as Professor Fears shows us when the course turns to three of the works authored by the British statesman.

Fundamental ideas about right and wrong reverberate through these lectures, as history's most profound thinkers ponder questions about life, death, God, and morality:

  • In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, you'll see how words written as a means of self-education by a man who knew how ephemeral Rome's empire really was became an enduring guidepost on the path to wisdom.
  • In comparing the funeral orations given by Pericles in Athens and Lincoln at Gettysburg, you'll experience two of the most profound statements ever made about the necessity for just wars, as two great leaders grapple with the same questions addressed by Vergil in the Aeneid.
  • In Gilgamesh, you'll see how a search for eternal life and an understanding of why we must die teaches a questing ruler the greater importance of how we should live.
  • In the three plays of the Oresteia, you'll see how murder, revenge, duty, and divine intervention are used to show how the power of choice given us by free will is not, by itself, enough, and that disaster can ensue when choice is not guided by wisdom.

A Blueprint for "The Good Life"

This course encompasses Professor Fears's blueprint for "the good life," from the point of view of a historian who has ventured into philosophy and ethics, stemming from his own interest in great historic statesmen and from his interest in the history of freedom.

The themes in this course make it an ideal companion to other Teaching Company courses by Dr. Fears, including Famous Greeks, Famous Romans, Churchill, and especially A History of Freedom.

A Course Imbued with Optimism

According to Dr. Fears, optimism is the ultimate lesson of these great books.

"Never give up. Live your life and realize that every day, just as Thoreau told you and just as Homer tells you, every day you can begin again."

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison
    This lecture uses the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sacrificed his life to fight totalitarianism, to illustrate a great book's most important attribute—its ability to speak to you as an individual and help shape the ideals by which you live your life. x
  • 2
    Homer, Iliad
    We discuss the Iliad's role as one of the most deeply religious books ever composed, an enduring statement of the living tradition of polytheism and a profound effort to understand the meaning of life. x
  • 3
    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
    Though written to himself, this Roman emperor's great work has proven an enduring legacy, a reflection of an ethical life as applicable today as it was almost 2,000 years ago and a monument to self-sufficient wisdom. x
  • 4
    Bhagavad Gita
    Composed in the same period as the Iliad, the Bhagavad Gita is regarded as the supreme creation of Sanskrit literature. Though an epic statement of polytheism, it proclaims truth as an all-encompassing, single, divine power. x
  • 5
    Book of Exodus
    The most influential religious book ever composed, the Book of Exodus has shaped three great living religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—in its proclamation of a single, all-powerful God. x
  • 6
    Gospel of Mark
    Each of the Gospels presents a portrait of Jesus differing in emphasis. Mark, drawn from the firsthand account of Peter, is the most concise and dramatic. Its Jesus is both prophet and philosopher, testifying to his search for wisdom by his trial and death. x
  • 7
    We examine the sacred book that holds for Muslims the same place that the words of Jesus do for Christians, the words of the book itself held as the revelation of God to humankind. x
  • 8
    The question of fate or destiny is at the core of the earliest literary work to come down to us, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, composed in the 3rd millennium B.C. in what is now Iraq. x
  • 9
    Gilgamesh proclaims a heroic ideal: We are fated to die, but in the meantime, let us strive to be as great as possible. This same message is the theme of the first great work of English literature, the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. x
  • 10
    Book of Job
    If God is good, why does evil exist? The Book of Job is the most enduring attempt to answer that question, a profound disquisition on the ultimate mystery of God and the frailty of any human attempt to understand the divine. x
  • 11
    Aeschylus, Oresteia
    The three plays of the Oresteia rank with the Oedipus of Sophocles as the greatest of Greek tragedies, a story of murder, revenge, duty, and divine intervention that raises in stark form the dilemma of free will. x
  • 12
    Euripides, Bacchae
    For the great Athenian tragedians, it is moral blindness that leads to hybris (also hubris) and ruin. Pentheus in the Bacchae of Euripides exemplifies those who believe themselves wise but are, in fact, fatally ignorant. x
  • 13
    Plato, Phaedo
    Fifth-century Greece sees the development of a more profound concept of the immortality of the soul. For Socrates, the belief in such an immortal soul was the ultimate question, as portrayed by Plato in the Phaedo. x
  • 14
    Dante, The Divine Comedy
    The Divine Comedy is the supreme summary of the thought of medieval Europe, ranking with the Aeneid of Vergil as one of the most influential epic poems ever composed and key to shaping the Italian language as it is spoken today. x
  • 15
    Shakespeare, Othello, the Moor of Venice
    The ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a figure comparable to Satan or the devil. To them, evil came in the form of human actions. In Renaissance England, this same idea was portrayed magnificently in Othello. x
  • 16
    Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
    Aeschylus, like the other great Greek tragedians, believes that we gain wisdom from those who suffered on a titanic stage—in this case, the great rebel Prometheus, who defied the will of Zeus to benefit humanity. x
  • 17
    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's book stands as a massive indictment of the evil of Joseph Stalin and of the Communist system, portraying with chilling insight the role of ordinary people in carrying out this evil. x
  • 18
    Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
    Like Othello, Julius Caesar was written at the height of Shakespeare's creative talents. Its theme is honor and duty, the duty of a man to resist evil by violence and murder if necessary. x
  • 19
    George Orwell, 1984
    In his novel 1984, George Orwell raises the pertinent and disturbing question of whether any individual can resist the modern power of the state, brilliantly illuminating the logical consequences of subordinating the individual to anonymous social and economic forces. x
  • 20
    Virgil, Aeneid
    We examine Virgil's epic as both a work of literature and as a powerful and influential statement of the necessity of war in a just cause and the moral value of duty. x
  • 21
    Pericles, Oration; Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
    Two great democratic statesmen used the occasion of a public funeral for the war dead to proclaim democracy an absolute good. Separated by almost 2,500 years, these two funeral orations represent the most profound statements of the necessity of just wars. x
  • 22
    Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
    Published in 1928, the best novel about war ever written gave voice to the feeling that nothing was worth another war, paving the way for appeasement policies in both Britain and France that in fact made another and even more horrible war inevitable. x
  • 23
    Confucius, The Analects
    Few intellectual figures in history have so influenced a civilization as Confucius, the teacher whose wisdom guided the intellectual, political, and ethical life of China for more than two millennia. x
  • 24
    Machiavelli, The Prince
    Confucius taught the art of government as it should be; Machiavelli as it really is. Written in 1513, The Prince might be called the handbook of modern politics and foreign policy, just as useful now as it was then for anyone interesting in gaining and keeping power. x
  • 25
    Plato, Republic
    Plato's Republic might be called the greatest book on politics, education, and justice ever written. As The Divine Comedy embodies the values of the Middle Ages and the Aeneid those of Rome, the Republic embodies the ideals and values of classical Greece. x
  • 26
    John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
    Published in 1859, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is the classic statement of the liberal ideal of democratic government and social justice. For Mill, government exists to serve the individual, and individual liberty is the end of government, not a means to an end. x
  • 27
    Sir Thomas Malory, Morte d'Arthur
    Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur captures the passion, consequences, and contradictions of romantic and spiritual love. One of the first great works of English prose, it summarizes the civilization of medieval chivalry in its ideal form. x
  • 28
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part 1
    Goethe ranks with Shakespeare and Dante as one of the three supreme geniuses of European literature, comparable to Homer and Vergil. In the first part of Faust, Goethe grapples with the implications of attaining knowledge at any cost. x
  • 29
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part 2
    The question of the role of beauty and cultural standards is one that every thoughtful person must decide on his or her own terms. We explore these themes against the backdrop of the moral growth and ultimate redemption of Dr. Faust. x
  • 30
    Henry David Thoreau, Walden
    Thoreau, the most American of thinkers, is an unabashed Romantic in exploring the relationship of Man to the natural world. Walden is the journal of his recovery of self-meaning and independence by his return to nature. x
  • 31
    Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
    Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the greatest history written in the English language. Here, we look at Gibbon and his history as a statement of "a philosophical historian," who searches the past for laws to guide us in the future. x
  • 32
    Lord Acton, The History of Freedom
    Though Acton never wrote his planned history of liberty, he left behind, in numerous essays and unpublished notes, a legacy of historical thought that remains a message of supreme importance to us today. x
  • 33
    Cicero, On Moral Duties (De Officiis)
    On Moral Duties is one of the most influential works on education ever written, directly contradicting the view that might makes right and making clear that an immoral act can never be expedient. x
  • 34
    Gandhi, An Autobiography
    By drawing on the traditions of Indian thought and reading the Bhagavad Gita daily, Gandhi makes his own path, focusing his entire life on a search for truth and teaching us that there are many roads to wisdom and victory. x
  • 35
    Churchill, My Early Life; Painting as a Pastime; WWII
    Churchill might well be called the greatest figure in the 20th century. We look at three books by this Nobel Prize–winning author and find wisdom to guide us in drawing fundamental lessons for our own lives. x
  • 36
    Lessons from the Great Books
    We review the lessons of the course and our definition of what makes a great book—a definition as true and vital today as it was in the age of Socrates and Cicero. x

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Your professor

J. Rufus Fears

About Your Professor

J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
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...
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Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 155.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The course gave me a new awareness of the lessons to learn from the books Professor Fears discusses, which will enhance the pleasure of my future reading.
Date published: 2018-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Thoroughly Enjoyed this Course... I actually bought this course many years ago and have listened to it occasionally over the years with great pleasure. Recently I bought it again as a gift for someone and was prompted via the website to write a review. The late Prof. Fears is (or was) a truly outstanding speaker, an old-school scholar, and a genuine delight to listen to. I revisit all of his courses once or twice a year and always enjoy them immensely. I personally have an M.A. in German Literature and I am fully aware of the limitations of his scholarship from a modern perspective. For example, you will not learn about Derrida, Kristeva, Judith Butler, Zizek, Lacan, deconstructionism, or the rest of post-modern and contemporary literary criticism, theory or perspectives. Instead, you will explore a vast array of great books, review their plots and main characters, and learn about some common themes in those books as proposed by Prof. Fears. And let me tell you, very few professors can bring a great book to life like he can. He is an exceptionally eloquent speaker, full of energy, wit, and charm, and an extremely knowledgeable classical scholar. He also has that divine spark of optimism and an almost irresistible sense of old-world moral values that I find thoroughly uplifting, refreshing, even inspiring. If you look at the other reviews of this course, you will find a split down the middle between people who love it and those who criticize his old-school approach to literature. So, forewarned is forearmed -- praemonitus praemunitus. If you think you'd be satisfied with a lucid and entertaining perusal of some great world literature, you'll likely find this course a genuine delight and perhaps also morally inspiring. If, however, you are a specialist or a current literature student at the graduate level, you'll probably find this course deficient by current critical standards. Personally, I'm a little bit of both, an avid reader of world literature, new and old, and I'm well-versed in modern theory and criticism. And hey, I liked this course very, very, much. Go figure! Maybe it's because the lecturer really is that dynamic and interesting. And let's face it, you can always re-examine the great books from a more contemporary perspective later. And when you do, let's hope you're even half as eloquent and charming as Prof. Fears.
Date published: 2018-08-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Happy with the content but disappointed I can’t access on my iPhone while walking.
Date published: 2018-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Books that changed the world Excellent lectures. Very enjoyable! Will buy again from you
Date published: 2018-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Books That Have Made History An excellent course taught by J. Rufus Fears, an excellent teacher. Dr. Fears has a tendency to let his voice soften at the end of a sentence which is sometimes a problem for me, an 82 year old. Several of your professors do this but they, apparently, are not trained in oral journalism. Note that those who are look directly at the camera when speaking giving the illusion of eye-contact with the viewer. That helps but so would closed captions. Probably too expensive? I also like both of Dr. Fears ties.
Date published: 2018-02-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I found his lecture style a bit off putting. The point of view of the lecturer often over shadowed the book he was discussing.
Date published: 2018-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, Charming Professor Fears is a dynamic lecturer, dramatizing much of his material. I thoroughly enjoyed this course and being reintroduced to classics I hadn't perused since my youth and college days. I may not agree with all his observations, but that's what learning is all about: testing your opinions against new information and adjusting them or not.
Date published: 2018-01-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Prof used platform to express his values I was looking forward to this course, but the Professor let me down. He has the knowledge of great books, but he used the course to express his personal views about "absolute right and wrong," "duty," and much more. He should have been more professional in his selections and more objective in his reviews and lectures.
Date published: 2017-10-20
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