Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past

Course No. 8818
Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.
Princeton University
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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.
Princeton University
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. 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...
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Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 70.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Makes How History is Written Clear After having read history for the last 50 years and having earned a PhD myself, I have been quite pleased with the quality of the lectures in this series on the way the great historians of the past did their work. Allen Guelzo is as clear as a bell. It is a good review or introduction to the discipline of historiography or history writing. Exactly what is history and how is it done? Guelzo unpacks the answer with a simple definition and thenhe offers illustrations from the history of history writing. Guelzo himself is a first rate historian so he practices what he preaches.
Date published: 2019-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Maybe it's not perfect, but it's a great intro Prof. Guelzo is excellent and a pleasure to listen to. This course is well organized and interesting. My only complaint, and it is a minor one is that the course is maybe a bit too academic. Prof. Guelzo is an excellent storyteller and the lectures themselves are a pleasure to listen to. However, I did have trouble figuring out what the point was. It really is much more of a history of history-writing, whereas it's presented as a course on historiography (i.e., the study of history as a disciple). To be fair to Prof. Guelzo, he actually says at one point, when he first uses the term "historiography", that there are as many definitions of the term as there are users of it. So his presentation is just one approach. I read NYNM's review of this course (it is the featured "negative" review), and while I agree with almost every word, I think the rating is totally unfair. As I mention above, this course is a history of history-writing. It is not really a course on what NYNM would apparently define as historiography. But that's fair enough. We're not all fellow history teachers (as NYNM apparently is) and aren't necessarily put off by Prof. Guelzo's dismissal of the postmodernist critique. Again, to be fair, Prof. Guelzo, when he "dismisses" the postmodernist critique, makes it very clear that this is his own personal opinion. And he makes it clear that there are (at least) two schools of thought on the issue. Personally, and as a novice to "historiography", I thought this course was excellent. If I choose to delve into the larger debate, I will. But this course gives a reasonable grounding (for a 24 lecture course) in the background. Which is all any of us can expect. As I said, this course is a pleasure to listen to. The only reason I give it four and not five stars is that there doesn't seem to be any real thematic cohesion. Yes, there are broad themes of history writing as celebration, declension, evolutionary, etc., but he doesn't put all that together into a theme. On the other hand, this is "history". It's not clear that it necessarily follows a theme. It may just be the course of events. I recommend it highly.
Date published: 2019-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best I am a longtime Teaching Co fan and probably own more than 30 of their courses by now. This course is excellent, one of the best to which my wife and I have listened on the long drives to our cottage. Guelzo is an excellent story teller, mixing his outstanding knowledge with a little philosophy here and there and an occasional humorous comment. He may be a bit opinionated at times, but even his opinions make his telling of history more exciting and interesting. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-02-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Don't Drive and Listen This is one of the more difficult courses I have listened to in the car. He is a bit theatrical and I find it tough to stay focused while driving. If you are going to buy the audio, I would recommend sitting in a comfortable chair with a glass of wine and the guidebook handy.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thick, but delectable Prof. Guelzo is animated, and very long-winded. At first I found it too hard to keep up, and so I started over, re-hearing the beginning of the first "class" numerous times until I started to feel I had actually heard and understood what he was saying. Once I got to that point, I found that not only was he presenting a fundamental definition of history and using the history of history to illustrate the various stages of its development, but he is also inviting us to swoon at the delectable details of this magnificent thing, this human thing, a recording of the past for the future to be edified. He is profoundly prosaic, and at times I have to stop and do something else. But I love this class, and I have only studied the first couple of classes. I though to give it only four stars because, for me, without digging in deeply, I was not enjoying the surface of his presentation. It was too challenging to follow, and I am concerned it will be for others. But he is brilliant, this class is brilliant, and that fact that you have to listen closely and pay attention, well, that cannot be seen as a fault, right? Here's a tip: Prof. Guelzo is actually a lot of fun, and quite funny. Don't let how smart he is and how deep the level of discussion let you miss this fact. You have to listen closely to catch it... so dive in and received his riches! You won't regret it if this subject is of any interest to you at all.
Date published: 2018-12-06
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
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