Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past

Course No. 8818
Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
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Course No. 8818
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Course Overview

History is not truth. While it forms the backbone of our knowledge about the world, history is nevertheless only a version of events. History is shaped by the interpretations and perspectives of the individual historians who record it. Consider:

  • Sallust, writing his dark history of Rome to rail against the political corruption he saw consuming the empire—while artfully concealing his own role in it;
  • John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, writing about church history to discredit the Catholics and legitimize the reign of Elizabeth I;
  • David Hume, penning his massive History of England with the deliberate goal of creating a potboiler that will earn him a fortune.

What, then, is the motive and the vision of the historian? How do historians create their histories? And what role does the historian's viewpoint and method play in what we accept as truth?

These questions underlie a history lesson of the most revealing kind.

In Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past, award-winning scholar Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College takes you inside the minds of our greatest historians. Over 24 intriguing lectures, he challenges you to explore the idea of written history as it has shaped humanity's story over 2,000 years. Told through enthralling historical anecdotes, the course travels deep into mankind's fundamental desire to record and understand the world, to shed new light on the events and experiences of yesterday, and to use the past as a window onto the present and the future.

History: The Art of Discovery

"History is more than merely a pile-up of facts or a chronicle of the past," notes Dr. Guelzo. "It is an art—and a very complicated one at that. And like the others arts, it has techniques and perspectives, some of them old and long-since retired, some of them in violent conflict with each other."

The actors in this art of discovery are the great historians themselves, from the ancient Greeks to our own time. You look through the eyes of our civilization's greatest historical minds to ponder why they conceived and wrote history the way they did.

In key sections, you explore the seminal thinking of these men:

  • Herodotus, considered by many the first history writer, who replaced the epic imagination of Homer with istorieis, or inquiry
  • Livy, the author of a 142-volume didactic history of Rome that spanned three continents and seven centuries
  • David Hume, who framed English history with an evolutionary vision of economic, political, and intellectual freedom
  • Edward Gibbon, whose monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forged a complex picture of epic collapse and decay

Beneath the Surface of Written History

With Professor Guelzo's penetrating perspective, you examine the processes that create accepted views of historical events. As you take apart the elements of history writing, you discover how the great stories of the past were chosen and how they were interpreted.

In considering the key choices the historian makes, you uncover the ways in which understanding how history is written is crucial to understanding historical events themselves. You also explore how the version of history you accept reveals much about you as an individual and as a member of a community.

The journey rewards you with an unforgettable insight into our human heritage and the chance to look with discerning eyes at human events in their deeper meanings. Anyone with an interest in history, philosophy, or intellectual history will find these lectures a far-reaching meditation on the evolution of historical thought.

"Constructing" the Past

As a core feature of Making History, you explore the major interpretive concepts or historical genres that form the backbone of Western history writing. These are among the many fundamental genres you examine:

  • Celebration: History writing as the remembrance or glorification of great deeds or events, providing a cultural identity for a given people
  • Declension: An interpretive model of decline, charting the deterioration of political, social, and moral systems
  • Continuity: The understanding or justification of present events as they conform to patterns of the past
  • Apocalyptic: A view of human events as moving toward an ultimate, devastating rupture with the past, leading to a new order

You follow these core genres through time and learn how they interact with other ways of viewing history, including history as science, as economics, as progress, as class struggle, and as culture. You also chart the ways these themes intersect and oppose each other across the centuries, as they illuminate the origins of our contemporary thinking.

In the Trenches with Great Minds

Professor Guelzo's storytelling enriches the background of the writing. In the Greek world, you travel with Xenophon and Thucydides through their own dramatic military exploits, as they develop models of history writing that still carry weight. In the early Christian era, you witness Augustine's personal trials as he defends Christianity against the pagans. In the 19th century, you trace Macaulay's dynamic career and his white-hot impact on the reading public.

From Thucydides, you hear Pericles' great articulation of democracy. You hear Sallust's reasoning that ancient Rome declined due to moral rot, Luther's condemnation of the papacy, and Macaulay's soaring rhetoric in his contemplation of the Puritans.

Throughout the story, the evolving arc of historical thought plays out as a heated series of battles of interpretation.

In the bloody era of the Christian Reformation, you see how the conflict of Luther's ideology with Catholic dogma takes the form of warring views of church history. In the revolutions of the Enlightenment, Gibbon, Leopold von Ranke, and Auguste Comte overthrow the Christian influence, advocating the use of scientific systems in understanding history.

Rejecting the logic of Enlightenment ideals, the Romantics develop another method for understanding history: the glorification of emotions, nature, and the sublime. On the heels of Romanticism, you meet another breed of historian, from Wilhelm Dilthey to Arnold Toynbee, who demands understanding of cultures and patterns.

On our own shores, you taste the poignant struggles of the Puritans, the Indian wars, and the closing of the frontier, as history writers come to grips with the promise and disillusionment of the new nation.

Professor Guelzo highlights compelling connections in theme and thinking between historians of different epochs. You see how Bancroft and Prescott's narratives of the American Revolution hearken back to the ancient Greeks, and how Karl Marx's writing echoes themes articulated by Augustine in the 5th century.

This is knowledge to enrich all the history you know and all the history you encounter. Join one of America's outstanding historical scholars in this bold engagement with critical thinking about the past.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    History as the Second Question
    You explore and define the nature of history writing, taking account of the historian's vital act of choosing the elements to include in a narrative. x
  • 2
    Homer and Herodotus
    You probe the pivotal transition between epic storytelling, the literary or religious interpretation of political events, and written history. Herodotus, in his account of the Persian Wars, breaks new ground, rejecting the causal power of the gods and the right to describe the past without evidence. x
  • 3
    Marching with Xenophon
    Leading from Herodotus's conception of history as celebration, Xenophon writes of dazzling military exploits he personally lived. Thucydides' firsthand account of the Peloponnesian War brings a starkly different cast of questioning and futility. x
  • 4
    The Unhappy Thucydides
    Here you look deeply into the vision of Thucydides—arguably the beginning of true history writing. Thucydides asks uncomfortable questions and draws equally uncomfortable conclusions about chance, free will, human nature, and the fixtures of character that rule civilizations. x
  • 5
    Men of Mixed Motives—Polybius and Sallust
    The personal character of the historian comes dramatically into play. Polybius, the Greek, living in luxurious exile in Rome, becomes an apologist for Roman conquest. Sallust, the Roman, writes to condemn the moral degeneracy of Rome—while shielding his own complicity. x
  • 6
    The Grandeur That Was Livy
    Here you contemplate the monumental achievements of Titus Livius. In his universal history of "the world that was Rome," grounded in centuries of Roman annals, Livy dramatically extends both the timeframe of history and its geographical reach. His complex frame of moral judgment prefigures the writing of history as both rational inquiry and art. x
  • 7
    Tacitus—Chronicler of Chaos
    Tacitus, the second Roman giant of history writing, records the murderous string of emperors of the 1st century. You meet the first philosophical historian, who reflected deeply on the nature of purpose, action, and fate in a world turned upside down. x
  • 8
    The Christian Claim to Continuity
    The rise of Christianity brings a radical new twist to history writing—the ethos of continuity. The claim reconciles Christianity with its roots in Judaism and with the bloody history of Rome. x
  • 9
    Augustine's City—Struggle for the Future
    Augustine's theological writings spurred far-reaching innovations in interpreting history. You witness his passionate defense of Christianity against the pagans, in the dynamic opposition of his spiritual ideal to the corrupt societies of men. x
  • 10
    Faith and the End of Time
    You trace the twisting, regressive path of history writing in the Dark Ages. As the Roman Empire disintegrates, Christian annals and chronicles take prominence. The evolving tenets of history writing dissipate, often revealing a grim vision of apocalypse—a radical, divine ending. x
  • 11
    The Birth of Criticism
    You focus on the dramatic transformations in historical method in the Renaissance. A new brand of intellectual turns in disgust from the church, setting forth a secularized conception of human events. Classical history writing is reclaimed, then challenged, in defining history as a wholly reasoned inquiry. x
  • 12
    The Reformation—The Disruption of History
    Martin Luther's protest against church corruption ignites religious wars and a Protestant reconstruction of the church across much of Europe. You probe the far-reaching conflicts of historical interpretation that flowed from these events. x
  • 13
    The Reformation—Continuity or Apocalypse?
    You track the intimate embrace of historical interpretation and politics. In Britain, Protestant history writing legitimizes both the monarchy of Elizabeth I and the early, pre-Catholic English church. In the civil war under Charles I, the apocalyptic vision of the Protestant Puritans does battle with the king's claim to divine authority. x
  • 14
    Enlightening History
    Hume interprets English history as containing the seed of political and intellectual liberty. In charting the rise of commerce as an equalizing force, Hume becomes the first historian of progress and freedom. x
  • 15
    The Rise and Triumph of Edward Gibbon
    Hume interprets English history as containing the seed of political and intellectual liberty. In charting the rise of commerce as an equalizing force, Hume becomes the first historian of progress and freedom. x
  • 16
    History as Science—Kant, Ranke, and Comte
    You enlarge the scientific frame with Kant's bold "propositions" on universal history. Following Vico's notion of an inevitable pattern in historical development. Leopold von Ranke embodies Kant's challenge, writing histories based in meticulous study of primary sources, while Auguste Comte urges a rejection of the Divine, aiming to make history writing consummately rational. x
  • 17
    The Whig Interpretation of History
    Contrasting markedly with scientific principle, the worldview of the British Whigs serves a different purpose. Thomas Macaulay traces British political life to its "ancient constitution," based in deep notions of liberty. You probe the validity and role of this version of celebration, one of history writing's original impulses. x
  • 18
    Romantic History
    Romanticism rises to oppose the Enlightenment ideals of reason and order. In Germany, Johann von Herder champions the unique essence of the Volk—the people—in shaping historical events. Hegel argues history charting the dialectical evolution of nations as a divine movement toward ultimate freedom. x
  • 19
    The Apocalypse of Karl Marx
    You explore Marx's influential ideology and its roots in historical thought. Marx adopts Hegel's "dialectic" of progress but applies it to economics and materialism. With echoes of Augustine, Marx predicts an inevitable political apocalypse as the bourgeoisie engineers its own destruction. x
  • 20
    Culture and History
    In the latter 19th century, Wilhelm Dilthey and Jakob Burckhardt define the notion of cultural history, at the crossroads of individual experience and the larger social existence of the individual. x
  • 21
    Civilization as History
    You study the larger patterns of civilizations. Oswald Spengler's "arc of Destiny" prefigures the rise of Fascism. Freud and followers extend psychoanalytic theory to cultural and historical issues. Arnold Toynbee maps patterns of growth and deterioration of civilizations. x
  • 22
    The American History Lesson
    The tenets of history writing arise in startling contrasts in narratives of the American "experiment." Strong currents of decline and apocalypse figure in accounts of the Puritans. Conversely, the founding of the new nation is heralded as a fulfillment of the ideals of the Enlightenment. x
  • 23
    Closing the Frontier
    Here you follow deepening complexities of historical interpretation. The first great post-Revolution historians glorify the triumph of liberty and political autonomy. Darker views appear with the closing of the frontier and the disillusionment with the Civil War and its aftermath. x
  • 24
    The Value of History
    You follow changes in the discipline of history over the last century, considering the influence on history writing of philosophy and ideology. You mark trends in history writing through Marxist, structuralist, and postmodern phases, in ruminating on the history writer's dedication to truth. x

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Your professor

Allen C. Guelzo

About Your Professor

Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.
Gettysburg College
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania. Among garnering other honors, he has received the Medal of Honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution. He is a member of the National Council on the Humanities. Professor Guelzo is...
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Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 65.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another winner from Guelzo Prof Guelzo knows how to strike to the core of what is important, while keeping all in broad significant perspective, and to bring out the genuine drama of developments in a highly interesting way.
Date published: 2018-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Takes you through time and what to expect. I bought this because of Professor Guelzo. I always like his presentations and learn much. If I often repeat his lectures to be more enlightened. The progression of historians and their styles were very interesting.
Date published: 2018-05-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from An annoying delivery and mediocre content I generally enjoy listening to history courses and own many of them. But, I found this one difficult to go through. I hated the declamatory style of its delivery and did not find the content especially insightful.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent historical analysis! I've listened to 16 of the 24 lectures, and I look forward to listening to the rest! Professor Guelzo is one of my favorite professors. He lectures with clarity and passion. It's a pleasure to hear his presentations!
Date published: 2017-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Challenge is "Interpretation" As with many courses that deal with opinions and specific views of history you are going to raise a healthy debate by just addressing the topic. For starters Prof. Guelzo is top notch whether you agree with his views or not. His passion for the subject matter, research, development and presentation is among the best TGC offers from the academic field. Throughout this series I found his take interesting because he moved through the major periods of time, events and influencers of the historical narrative by showing how much history is really history. This, in of itself, poses a remarkable challenge because there are many divided camps in how we come to understand or trust the history. Personally, I found he did a fair job and holding his "cards to his vest" and didn't allow his biases to influence the content. While, at times, it feels as if he is just reciting some history I found it to be helpful since the events that shaped the philosophy and world views are influenced. But here is the challenge....this lecture almost borders on philosophy because so much of history is colored by opinion, religion, culture and not just the cold hard facts. I enjoyed this series and would highly recommend content from this professor.
Date published: 2017-11-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Often misses the mark. I was disappointed in the quality of the lecture on this course. Guelzo seems to focus on the individual motivations of those historians and he's very subjective about it. His overview of Polybius repeatedly describes him as a Quisling-like figure. Fine, once is great but under Guelzo you come away scratching you head thinking; 'well what is his history like?'. His commentary on Sallust is a real mess. He criticizes Sallust for his opinionated views, slams Caesar and seems to be a fan of Cato and Cicero. Many scholars of the Roman Revolution weigh any condemnation of Caesar with an equal condemnation of Cato's almost pathological intransigence and Cicero's own both culpability [he murdered Roman citizens without trial] and defense of murderers. He seems to defend the patrician class without mentioning the myriad of corruption, self-dealing, blocking of plebeian rights, etc. Goelzo's view is an old-fashioned conservative one and quite biased.
Date published: 2017-10-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Makes you think Good to be made to think about what has gone into the writing of history. Presentation may be a little over done but informative just the same.
Date published: 2017-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant! I am a retired history teacher & I was enthralled & informed.
Date published: 2017-06-08
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