History of Freedom

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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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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History of Freedom is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 71.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Diffuse and dull This course has left me unsatisfied and unimpressed. I'm about halfway through and still not sure what points Dr. Fears is trying to make. He seems to be talking off the cuff, and sometimes makes factual errors (For example, calling English King James II the son of Charles II --he was his brother). One of his frequent topics is the right to bear arms, and he discusses the Second Amendment in terms that the most fervent right-winger would approve. It's possible that the remainder of the course will bring matters into sharper focus, but I plan to take some time off and view another course or two before resuming.
Date published: 2020-11-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good-Stuff !!! If your interested in the subject, regardless the course, Prof. Fears I can say without doubt will exceed your expectations. The key is reading the historical works yourself, which will take a few years, maybe decades, but until then, Prof. Fears can give you the highlights and additional revealing stories that you won’t find in those works… Kinda reminds you of a modern day Dr. Franklin, with his carried over humor and wisdom from those long ago times at the Pennsylvania Gazette. Whichever course it is, I am sure you will enjoy Prof. Fears, and what you learn will stick with you for Life. So what are you waiting for? Add it to the cart & check it out. You’ll be Happy, and the smarter once U complete the course, along with those books you chose from the Bibliography. Happy learnings with the Good-Stuff.
Date published: 2020-09-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from History of Freedom Disappointing. And disturbing. I have bought many titles from the Great Courses, and have watched many more using The Great Courses Plus. Never have I been so disappointed and highly disturbed. Actyally, I've never been really disappointed. And never disturbed. Until now. Firstly, one of the lectures was really a sermon. Besides that, ststaments were made which hardly any historical or Biblical scholar supports. The Gospel of Mark was NOT written by an associate of Peter. And there was no Roman census where people were required to return to the home of their ancestors as this lecturer asserts. Secondly, I did not appreciate personal opinion. The lecturer is highly conservative, and even goes so far as to say the PBS is unconstitutional. Nor did I appreciate the fact that he implied that public schools should not be trusted. These are just a few examples of the lecturer's outright bias. He states his opinion as facts. I do not appreciate that from anyone and I certainly did not expect it from a course in The Great Courses.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Such a great deal It’s a gift for my husband. He won’t open it til his birthday July 5th
Date published: 2020-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Lecturer Over the years I have purchased dozens of courses form Great Courses. Rufus Fears is the most outstanding of lecturers. He tells a story in each lecture that enables you to recall the historic event readily...whether about an ancient Greek or Winston Churchill you will understand the people and the history. Fears is my all time favorite. Sadly he passed away a couple of years ago. I am thankful that Great Courses continues to offer his work.
Date published: 2020-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fears At His Best! Prof. Fears, who died in 2012, is one of TGC's best-known professors. As a classicist and a historian, his twin passions were the study of liberty and freedom. This 2001 course originates from that focus and is among his very best. The topics are well-chosen, and the lectures are clearly presented and uniformly interesting. The audio version is entirely satisfactory. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-01-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History of Freedom--Informative and entertaining. This Professor was the reason I bought this course. His presentations are concise and based on "stories" of History that all relate to the subject--in this case, Freedom.
Date published: 2019-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful Prof! I purchased this course because I had enjoyed another course by Rufus Fear so very much... This is the best course of all purchased. I am cherishing freedom and this country increasingly with each lecture, and the history of freedom is fascinating, including the description of Socrates on his death bed and, of course, the intricacies of Winston Churchill. Thank you!
Date published: 2019-06-28
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