History of Freedom

Course No. 480
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Share This Course
4.2 out of 5
65 Reviews
64% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 480
Audio Streaming Included Free

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.

Hide Full Description
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

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Audio Includes:
  • Download 36 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 36 lectures on 6 DVDs
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 192-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

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...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


History of Freedom is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 65.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent instructor!!! Highly recommend this course to every one.
Date published: 2019-02-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The way to american revolution and civil war Beggining of this course is fine, professor tells us about ancient greece, rome, birth of christianity, but then problems appear. He jumps straight up to the reformation and misses almost thousand years of history. Ok, this is still acceptable, but then history of world comes to end and history of america beggins, i would say out of 36 lectures about 13 are about america and its domestic problmems this is not normal at all. In some lectures he tells about insignificant battles of american civil war, insignificat debates over american constitution, in some he tells about biographies of american politicians . Almost nothing said about abolishion of slavery in the whole british empire, one lecture spent on french revolution and following events. Almost nothing said about wave of revolutions in europe in 1848. He not just misses a lot of very important events of "freedom" but .after lecture about reformation and luther he almost completely ignores everything in the world in duaration of several centuries except the united states and england. this course should be called a way to american revolution and civil war but not history of freedom. after ending with america he jumps to ww2 churchill, hitler and stalin and then again to US and civil right movement. .
Date published: 2018-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course could have been presented yesterday This 2001 course, along with #4360 ("The Wisdom of History", from 6 years later), ranks as the best history course among the 20 or 30 Teaching Company courses I’ve taken that could be classified as dealing with history. It’s Fears at his best. The individual lectures on Jesus and Machiavelli, the half-dozen dealing with the founding fathers and the constitution, and the two on Hitler and the “illiberal tradition”, are absolutely superb. Tracing the history of freedom since the ancient Greeks, and tying it all together with his recurrent themes of history being primarily brought about by great individuals rather than by ideas, as well as repeated references to the four essential attributes of a statesman, comprise Fears’s central interest and his contribution as a historian, and it’s great to be exposed to it. Watching this course at the end of 2018, it could just as well have been published this week rather than 17 years ago. All the main points and summarizing principles apply perfectly to the issues and controversies in the news today, and Professor Fears, if he were still with us, could have been presenting “a historian’s perspective on the current American administration.”
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Old friend I first purchased this course almost two decades ago, as a matter of fact my initial treasure was in the long demised cassette tape format. Those old tapes had been rewound, played, fast forwarded and played again so many times by myself, family and friends in them early years that old Rufus's classic had been condemned to the proverbial scrap heap of the historic book shelf. Enter TTC 90% sale and Ruie has come home to roost comfortably in my ever expanding digital library. Professor Fears ability to sing the sources of antiquity has added to the collection of smile lines that abound upon this old weathered face and I had forgotten just how welcoming his unique style was in breathing life back into more modern history Maybe some of the liberties PF takes with the sources are not for all (I envision the bitter reviewer stammering on about this or that incorrect "fact"), yet I for one am truly thankful that those sources belong to all of us and our bard a can continue to sing us tale of those days gone by. We miss you Rufus Fears.
Date published: 2018-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly inspiring teacher Professor Fears is such an amazing teacher. This course is one of his best. Thank you for creating these courses. The Great Courses truly is an archive of the wisdom of mankind.
Date published: 2017-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Past as More Than Prologue Dr. Fears culls from history how we came to think of freedom, the citizen, the state, and government as we do. Though exposed to most of these periods, places, and ideas before from various perspectives, my understanding of when, why, and by whom our most important legacies have come has been deepened and sharpened. He uses language well, without jargon or pretension but with precision and period context. And Dr. Fears surprises. Perhaps I'd not been quite as informed on these ideas as I preferred to think.
Date published: 2016-11-01
  • y_2019, m_10, d_22, h_11
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_2.0.13
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_2, tr_63
  • loc_en_US, sid_480, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 6.47ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought

Buy together as a Set
Choose a Set Format