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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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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  • 232-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

J. Rufus Fears

About Your Professor

J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
J. Rufus Fears (1945–2012) was the 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 the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his PhD from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was a Professor...
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Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 174.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Expand Your Knowledge, understanding, and learning Dr. Fears was a marvelous story teller who made The Great Books come alive as he explained their content in first person as if he were the author telling the story in a conversational but dramatic way.
Date published: 2020-11-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Storytelling at its best, At first, I wasn’t sure I would even keep the course, but as the lectures went on, the instructor got more animated and really into his lectures. He made the books come alive in his manner of storytelling.
Date published: 2020-06-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Sermonizing Professor Fears is more like a preacher on his pulpit delivering a sermon rather than a lecturer. His American bias sounds more like what was preached during the cold war. He is too dogmatic condemning Marx as "evil" rather than approaching Marx objectively. He also is too religious not considering that there are people who may be agnostic or atheists.
Date published: 2020-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absorbing in every way. I have loved lots of Great Courses, but I haven't found a better storyteller than Fears. Several notches above a good lecturer.
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just great! Professor Fears is like the guy sitting next to you at the diner who strikes up a conversation and then we're talking about the Iliad, Marcus Aurelius, the Baghavad Gita. It's easy and understandable. I would recommend this course to anyone interested in getting an understanding of the books that have shaped modern thought.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Famous Greeks Excellent program. Prof Fears tells stories about the subjects, rather than dry academic lectures. Much more enjoyable. Good value if you buy it while on sale.
Date published: 2020-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I thoroughly enjoyed this course! This was such a great course, my husband started watching it with me and I read the Iliad and am now reading The Decline and Fall for the Roman Empire with my adult daughter. Prof Fears is interesting, well informed and comprehensively analytical.
Date published: 2019-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Respite from an Unguided World Misery has persisted throughout the history of humanity though its facade changes. In an age of too frequent suicide, drug addiction and shootings, this course may provide answers. The late Professor Rufus Fears takes us on a 36-lecture masterpiece of self-understanding and humanity's best answers. The course is not just about books. The authors and/or the subjects were actually agents of change and influence: Bonhoeffer, Beowulf, Marcus Aurelius, religious figures, Arthur, Cicero, Gandhi, etc. What you hear are the inner thoughts of enormously powerful, dynamic individuals. Fears relates each author's struggles, demystifies their work, and then stands astride the works to show you how everything fits together. Such guidance is a bargain! Here are just a few of the challenges Fears clarifies: SUMMARY: (L31) "our era is essentially ahistorical" vs.: (Confucius, L23); "all 3 teachers (Jesus, Socrates, and Confucius) believed cutting off from the past leaves one without roots" and like a tree, a person w/o roots will topple; (Confucius, L23) "By being a good father or a good son, he was doing the most he could do for his government"; (all Greek drama, L12) "Sing, sorrow, sing; but good will come out in the end". IN DEPTH: Throughout, Fears returns to certain themes: (Aurelius, L3) "an individual has been harmed only if he believes he has been harmed", "everything that happens is good because god would not (otherwise) to happen"; (Bhgavad Gita, L4) "there is an all-encompassing single divine power...truth", "to do someone else's work is slavery but to do one's own work is freedom", "sacrifice is fundamental"; (Plato re. Socrates) "The immortality of the soul alone is the ultimate proof of absolute values"; (Shakespeare's Othello, L15) " (secular) humanity is prey to deception, power, jealousy, ambition, and manipulation"; (Solzhenitsyn, L17) In capitalism, "Spiritual(ity has) been replaced by the desire to (for)...useless things"; (Vergil's Aeneid, L20) what is the difference between a good individual's duty from the SS colonel's duty?...The belief in absolute right and wrong, drawn from a belief in God"; (Lord Acton, L32): "federalism, not centralization, was the hope for...liberty" vs. (Lincoln, L21) Gettysburg Address's two messages were nationalism and freedom for all - the latter depended on Lincoln's correction of the Constitution's omission of God, Lincoln & Pericles sought war because of their moral compass; (Mill, L 26) the state exists to serve the individual; (Goethe, L29) when the state is destitute, it can issue currency based on theoretical long as people accept the ruse; (Thoreau, L30) "to know himself was the work of (Thoreau's) life". For those who scoff at such yearnings by our forebears, there are stark warnings: (Solzhenitsyn, L17) "small people (vainly hope) that if they do nothing to resist, the evil will pass them by"; (Shakespeare's Caesar, L18) "this...(democratic) mob will welcome any dictator who fills their pockets..." (Orwell, L19) "If you have power, you can re-write history"; Machiavelli (L24) is the only philosophy prominent in today's news/political climate: "Anyone who contradicts...or give a frank opinion in public must be removed" & (L36) "there is a complete separation between public and private morals"; (Gibbon, L31) "Rome collapsed because of its involvement in the Middle East...In the 3rd century AD, Iran experienced a tremendous revival of fundamentalist religion"; (Cicero L33): "...all morality was founded on the idea that God exists and is revealed in the reason of nature","...passive to stand by and allow be wronged."; (Ghandi, L34) "...parents should be the source of education for their children"; "harm to harm to everyone", "the noblest work is to...make something with your own hands." PROS: There is so much more. Listening to a single lecture a day provides time to "process". Fears designed it into the course: the next lecture provides adds a brief review and new bonus concept based on what you just learned and these lead into his next lecture. It is easy to see why a few years after his death, my mentioning of Fears' name at a conference caused tears from his former U of OK students. CONS: The lectures are not in chronological order. This makes tracing the development of ideas difficult to map out. Using the timeline at the back of the guidebooks helps.
Date published: 2019-08-12
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