Life Lessons from the Great Books

Seneca-"On Providence"
1: Seneca-"On Providence"

In this introductory lecture, Professor Fears explains how wisdom enables us to take information and apply it to our lives. You begin with the Roman Empire and Seneca's "On Providence," which asserts that evil cannot befall a truly good man because, if a man believes that God is good, then there is no real evil....

32 min
The Gospel of John
2: The Gospel of John

Learn how the Gospel of John differs from the other synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in both its majestic language and the ways it reveals Jesus's character. This text can teach you that the message of a single teacher can be more powerful than the rule of a massive empire....

30 min
Boethius, Martin Luther King-Conscience
3: Boethius, Martin Luther King-Conscience

See how Boethius's On the Consolation of Philosophy instructs us on how true wisdom resides in recognizing the harm caused by returning evil with evil. Also, see Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a profound testimony to our ability to change the world....

30 min
Dostoevsky-The Brothers Karamazov
4: Dostoevsky-The Brothers Karamazov

Evil, suffering, and death have important purposes that we oftentimes can't understand, according to Professor Fears. In this lecture, see how Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the depths of the Russian soul and teaches us about the very meaning of human existence....

30 min
Elie Wiesel-Night
5: Elie Wiesel-Night

Elie Wiesel's Night shows us how we can triumph as individuals in the face of great evil. In this lecture, you examine Wiesel's life and family before the Holocaust and witness how he survived the worst genocide in history. Both Wiesel's life and his novel are testaments to the unconquerable human spirit....

30 min
Schweitzer-Out of My Life and Thought
6: Schweitzer-Out of My Life and Thought

Albert Schweitzer was one of the greatest humanitarians of his time. His autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, is a fascinating study of his spiritual journey bringing modern medicine to Africa. Learn how this work teaches us that our very humanity rests on our reverence for all life....

30 min
Goethe-The Sufferings of Young Werther
7: Goethe-The Sufferings of Young Werther

Discover how Goethe advises us to move on with our lives rather than succumb to the tragic fate of lovesickness in The Sufferings of Young Werther. The most famous literary figure of his day, Goethe based the work on his own near-tragic experience with unrequited love....

30 min
8: Shakespeare-Hamlet

A meditation on the perils and merits of revenge, Shakespeare's Hamlet demonstrates its author's keen understanding of human motivations. The greatest lesson to be learned from this Great Book, you find, is this: Move on-vengeance will change nothing....

30 min
9: Sophocles-Ajax

Learn how Sophocles' Ajax examines the ideas of pride and honor. Set against the violent backdrop of the Trojan War, this tragedy teaches us that even the best human qualities can become destructive when pushed to excess....

30 min
Plato-Epistle VII
10: Plato-Epistle VII

Plato's Epistle VII is a revealing and rewarding study of how even great philosophers can make nearly fatal mistakes. In this lecture, read the iconic Greek philosopher's letter as a valuable lesson on how to admit mistakes....

30 min
Cicero-"On Old Age"
11: Cicero-"On Old Age"

The Roman answer to Plato, Cicero achieved a successful legal career before entering the tumultuous world of politics. Investigate Cicero's "On Old Age" and his beliefs that older people are beneficial to society because of their experience, wisdom, and good judgment-despite what young people may say....

30 min
Isaac Bashevis Singer-The Penitent
12: Isaac Bashevis Singer-The Penitent

The Penitent, written by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Singer, is a powerful tale of a Jewish man who achieves worldly success in New York City but soon realizes how hollow that success is. The Penitentteaches us the lesson that the only reason to live a long life is to continue growing and developing....

30 min
13: Euripides-Alcestis

What do we mean when we talk about true love? Greek tragedies like Euripides' Alcestis teach us that anything taken to excess-even something good-leads to destruction. In Alcestis's self-sacrifice for her husband's immortality, you find the higher ideal of love that leads us to put others before ourselves....

30 min
14: Euripides-Medea

Turn from the idea of love as self-sacrifice to the idea of love as all-consuming hatred. In Euripides' Medea, the jealous title character's passion for revenge is so potent that she slays her own children to punish her husband for his infidelity....

30 min
Von Strasburg-Tristan and Isolde
15: Von Strasburg-Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde teaches us about the overwhelming power of love to make people abandon codes of honor and betray those to whom they owe the most. In this lecture, consider how the tragedy also instructs us on the medieval ideal of human passion as an allegory for the love of God....

30 min
Shakespeare-Antony and Cleopatra
16: Shakespeare-Antony and Cleopatra

Explore yet another side of the power of love in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In this tragedy, learn how a man of enormous talent and opportunity can throw away world rule for the love of a woman. What makes this lesson all the more effective? Its basis in historical fact....

30 min
17: Shakespeare-Macbeth

Like his Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Macbeth depicts the use of love as a tool for achieving power. You see how Lady Macbeth uses her husband as a surrogate for authority and fuels his decisions with her misguided love-a plan that contributes to the play's tragic outcome....

30 min
Aldous Huxley-Brave New World
18: Aldous Huxley-Brave New World

In contrast to earlier works that deal with the theme of love, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World takes you to a society devoid of love-one where sex and reproduction happen outside the world of affection and relationships. Professor Fears emphasizes how this futuristic satire is a warning about the perils of technology for humanity....

30 min
19: Homer-Odyssey

Begin your look at what lessons can be found in history's great adventure stories by studying Homer's Odyssey. The epitome of adventure tales, Odyssey teaches us invaluable lessons about how to survive in a world of temptations, dangers, and questionable decisions....

30 min
20: Sophocles-Philoctetes

Focus on Sophocles' Philoctetes as a lesson in the cruel business of war. Even though war brings untold suffering, wisdom and redemption can still emerge. This powerful lesson, you learn, is one that each generation must learn anew....

29 min
The Song of Roland-Chivalric Adventure
21: The Song of Roland-Chivalric Adventure

A tale of bravery, treachery, and loyalty to one's faith, the French epic The Song of Roland teaches us that honor is an external value. Explore how The Song of Roland also warns us about the destructive nature of honor when pushed too far....

30 min
Nibelungenlied-Chivalric Romance
22: Nibelungenlied-Chivalric Romance

Composed around A.D. 1200, the Nibelungenlied is a masterpiece of medieval literature. Examine how this Great Book brings together a number of themes from the course, including the creative and destructive power of love and how to courageously find one's destiny....

30 min
Lewis and Clark-Journals
23: Lewis and Clark-Journals

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark lived one of the greatest adventures in history: the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. This scientific and diplomatic mission was detailed in The Journals of Lewis and Clark, which you consider as a way to get valuable lessons on both friendship and personal destiny....

30 min
T. E. Lawrence-Seven Pillars of Wisdom
24: T. E. Lawrence-Seven Pillars of Wisdom

T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, lived a life of grand adventure. His life story, recorded in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, provides you with the perfect image of a man of destiny-one whose imprint is still left on the map of the Middle East and in the hearts of anyone longing for personal challenge....

31 min
25: Aristophanes-Comedies

Laughter is a universal human action. In the first of a series of lectures about lessons of laughter and irony, you investigate the comedies of Aristophanes-including Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata-and how they reflected the mood of the Athenian people during the Peloponnesian War....

30 min
Menander-The Grouch
26: Menander-The Grouch

Menander's The Grouch tells a humorous tale of love hindered by a grumpy old man who is protective of his daughter and who is rescued from a well into which he has fallen by her would-be suitor. An important lesson you glean from this Great Book is that making happiness your ultimate goal leads to true happiness....

30 min
Machiavelli-La Mandragola
27: Machiavelli-La Mandragola

When we are seduced and betrayed, it is often because we have seduced and betrayed ourselves. See how this unpleasant point is illustrated in Machiavelli's Italian comedy about love, lust, and betrayal: La Mandragola (The Mandrake)....

30 min
Erasmus-In Praise of Folly
28: Erasmus-In Praise of Folly

Erasmus's In Praise of Folly is written as a speech given by Folly, personified as a clown. This Great Book teaches us how to step back, see ourselves as others see us, and frequently pause to laugh at ourselves and our follies....

30 min
Thomas More-Utopia
29: Thomas More-Utopia

While Erasmus teaches us to see ourselves as others see us individually, Thomas More (a close friend of Erasmus) does so nationally in Utopia. More conceived of Utopia as the tale of a mythic land where all goods are held in common and all needs are fully met....

30 min
George Orwell-Animal Farm
30: George Orwell-Animal Farm

Learn how George Orwell's Animal Farm uses social satire to bring attention to conditions in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. This scathing critique of the dangers of Communism under a ruthless dictator was aimed at exposing the evils of totalitarianism....

30 min
Josephus-History of the Jewish War
31: Josephus-History of the Jewish War

Focus now on the final universal theme of the course: patriotism. Come to see History of the Jewish War by the historian Flavius Josephus as a moving lesson in the human love of freedom. To fight and die in the noble cause of freedom, you learn, should never be considered a defeat....

30 min
Joseph Addison-Cato
32: Joseph Addison-Cato

Although not commonly read today, Joseph Addison's Cato was one of the most influential intellectual models for the American Revolution. This 1713 play-about the struggle of the Roman Cato the Younger under the tyranny of Julius Caesar-has much to teach us about the ideals of our nation....

30 min
George Washington-Farewell Address
33: George Washington-Farewell Address

As a general and a president, George Washington was a great model of civic virtue and patriotism. His farewell address, an open letter to the American people, addresses national issues still with us today, including party division, foreign policy, and fiscal responsibility....

31 min
Abraham Lincoln, George Patton-War
34: Abraham Lincoln, George Patton-War

Explore the many ways in which war defines what it means to be patriotic by looking at two great wartime leaders: Abraham Lincoln and George S. Patton. Lincoln's 1864 letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby teaches us about the costs of personal sacrifice, while Patton's life and career as told in War as I Knew It teach us about valor in the midst of battle....

30 min
Theodore Roosevelt-An Autobiography
35: Theodore Roosevelt-An Autobiography

Chronicle the development of Theodore Roosevelt's ideas and his rise to political fame, as detailed in An Autobiography. Roosevelt's travels into and exploration of the American frontier helped him-and can help you-understand what makes a political leader truly great....

31 min
The Wisdom of Great Books
36: The Wisdom of Great Books

Professor Fears concludes the course by reminding you about the tried-and-true lessons to be found in the pages of Great Books. Although the world has changed throughout the course of human history, themes such as love, courage, and patriotism have always been-and will continue to be-part of our lives....

32 min
J. Rufus Fears

We are no wiser than the Athenians of the 5th century B.C., no wiser than Sophocles for our science of today has shown us the overwhelming power of genes, of DNA.


Harvard University


University of Oklahoma

About J. Rufus Fears

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 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer at Indiana University, and Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. An acclaimed teacher and scholar with more than 25 awards for teaching excellence, Professor Fears was chosen Professor of the Year on three occasions by students at the University of Oklahoma. His other accolades included the Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Great Plains Region Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the UCEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Professor Fears's books and monographs include The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology and The Theology of Victory at Rome. He edited a three-volume edition of Selected Writings of Lord Acton. His discussions of the Great Books have appeared in newspapers across the country and have aired on national television and radio programs. Professor Fears passed away in October 2012.

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