The Wisdom of History

Narrated by: J. Rufus Fears
Length: 18 hrs and 18 mins
Categories: History, World
4.6 out of 5 stars (486 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Do the lessons passed down to us by history, lessons whose origins may lie hundreds, even thousands of years in the past, still have value for us today? Is Santayana's oft-repeated saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", merely a way to offer lip service to history as a teacher - or can we indeed learn from it? And if we can, what is it that we should be learning?  

In this unflinching series of 36 lectures, a world-renowned scholar makes the case that we not only can learn from history, but must. 

Drawing on decades of experience as a classical historian, Professor Fears explores history's patterns to conclude that ignoring them - whether by choice or because we've never learned to see them - is to risk becoming their prisoner, repeating the mistakes that have toppled leaders, nations, and empires throughout time. 

In this personal reflection on history, Professor Fears has taken on the challenge of extracting the past's lessons in ways that speak to us today, showing us how the experience of ancient empires such as those of Rome and Persia have much to teach us about the risks and responsibilities of being a superpower. 

He shows how the study of those who left their impact on an earlier world - Caesar Augustus or Genghis Khan, George Washington or Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi or Josef Stalin - can equip us to make responsible choices as nations, citizens, or individuals in a post-9/11 world where those choices are more crucial than ever.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2007 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2007 The Great Courses

What listeners say about The Wisdom of History

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    4 out of 5 stars

A great performance on the myth of history

If history is a lie we choose to believe, than these lectures deliver it in a palatable form. I think of this as a counter balance to Zinn revisionist history. It gives clear, almost simplistic "lessons" we learn from all of history. Dr Fears always gives a performance that, to me, even rivals Dan Carlin.

23 people found this helpful

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Sweeping Unsubstantiated Claims, but Insightful

This title is different from most Great Courses - those that set out a premise, and carefully build to substantiate these premises. Instead, this title aims to superficially compose a sweeping narrative to contextualize Western history and our prospects for the future. I did enjoy the presenter. He glides through key historical moments and draws out some insights. The grand scope leaves a ton of material to cover, so it can be forgiven that he doesn't dive too much into details, or take much effort to carefully substantiate his beliefs. Some may find the glib treatment as shallow, some may find it humorous. I enjoyed this title more after considering it entertainment, rather than education. The huge - and I mean huge - negatives are the embarrassing statements about Judaism and the Old Testament. Many of the reviewers have commented on this aspect, and they are spot on. History and the lessons to be learned from history - always and into the future - started with Ancient Israel (and to a lesser extent the Greeks) according to Professor Fears. Not only for Western Christian Man, but for all the world, according to him. Truly cringeworthy for non-zealots. If you can get past the sections about "Yahweh" and "Books of Samuel," this might be worthwhile.

6 people found this helpful

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Good stories, weak superstructure

I am a huge fan -- virtually a groupie -- of Prof. Fears. This course falls short. The individual stories are engaging, as he is always. But his attempt to pigeon-hole history into certain rules is shallow. He takes the "great man" theory of history to untenable lengths.

6 people found this helpful

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Best set of lectures in the great courses

I have listened to many of the lectures given by the great courses and this is by far the most relevant, most eloquently performed and the most informative of all of the lectures I have listened to so far. The professor was engaging, the subject matter was well prepared and the information was brought into the perspective of our own day and age. Rufus Fears shall indeed be missed.

20 people found this helpful

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Fascinating performance by a master historian.

What did you love best about The Wisdom of History?

I enjoyed Dr. Fears' observations of how history was shaped through the decisions made by both great leaders and those who were faulted and near-sited.

What did you like best about this story?

I liked the flow of how historic decisions affected, or should have affected, subsequent decisions. The leadership characteristics of both strong and weak were discussed in detail and provide great insight into the value of a strong leader who is not afraid to go it alone and do the right thing, which often was different than the popular opinion for the time.

What about Professor J. Rufus Fears Ph.D. Harvard University’s performance did you like?

I loved the presentation style of Dr. Fears and the concise yet informative review of historic events that have shaped history.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The book grabbed my attention immediately. I found it hard to find a good stopping point for a break because the narrative keeps you thirsting for the next bit of information.

Any additional comments?

A very good piece of work from a master historian.

4 people found this helpful

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History in broad strokes

Any additional comments?

An insightful, entertaining search for the patterns of history. Reminds me of a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes".

8 people found this helpful

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Misleading and simplistic

After reading such good reviews of Fears, I was disappointed in this class. Fears is a dramatic and even spellbinding lecturer, but he often presents a misleading view of history. For example, he asserts that WW II would not have occurred without Adolph Hitler — even though it’s highly conjectural whether the Germans would have refrained from war under a different leader (and, Hitler or not, the Japanese were waging war in Asia). He also claims that wars last longer when democracies are involved, which fails to account for the 100-years war and other multidecadal wars during Europe’s bloody history long before democracies emerged. I really wanted to like this class. But I gave up after three lectures because I no longer found it credible.

21 people found this helpful

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Application to everyday life

What made the experience of listening to The Wisdom of History the most enjoyable?

Being a history buff and applying lessons learned from history to my everyday life, this was a book that was EXTREMELY interesting to me. The practical application of lessons that have been taught time and time again throughout history allows for a new perspective on lifeto be fored.

What did you like best about this story?

The multiple examples of the impact of behavioral patterns have developed over time was the biggest takeaway for me.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

no, it was more of a textbook for me.

2 people found this helpful

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amazing lecture series!

this is a completely amazing at lecture series! Everyone should be required to listen to it. Being a student of history is extremely important. Dr. fears really describes this well.

2 people found this helpful

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So important to learn.

Great information and wisdom from an extraordinarily thoughtful scholar. I will listen to this Course again. Was it my favorite broad sweeping historic Audible 'book?' No. Most, if not all, of my criticism toward this course has to do with Professor Fears' presentation of the material. While his narration was extremely articulate, vibrant, and clearly a passionate subject for him, his way of speaking just really grated on my nerves. Perhaps it hearkens back to my youth being forced to sit for what seemed like endless hours listening to Baptist preachers' affected sermons... No, Prof. Fears isn't soooo bad in comparison, but the way he spoke, the emphasis he used in certain places, and the tones he used all reminded me of those preachers -- and it drove me a bit batty. Its as if he has a religious fervor over his subject, which is something I admire greatly, but all the aforementioned inflections and emphases ended up making me feel condescended to and patronized. Finally, every single time he spoke the word "Idea" (and there are a LOT of *ideas* throughout history to be discussed), Fears pronounced the word, "Idear" with a clear *rr* sound at the end. As a misphobic person to begin with, that additional *R* made me want to turn off the program and send it back. Lol. Overreaction much? Yes indeed. XD I managed to finish the sermons... I mean, courses, because the content was so enlightening. Fears focuses on many of the foibles and grand successes of cultures and individuals in Western civilization from the Greeks to the the American superpower that developed after the World Wars. All the truly notable individuals are discussed from Xerxes to Alexander III of Macedonia to Napoleon and Winston Churchill. Its a broad swathe of history to be sure, and more than a little regrettable that he neglected to cover Eastern or much of African and Indian history beyond how they pertained to Western cultures, though I can't imagine how he could have added much more material to his lectures. If you are hoping for any histories beyond Western civilization and its contemporaries, this sadly isn't the course for you. I will say that he seemed to treat fairly those "other" cultures he did discuss, not always framing the Greeks as somehow superior to the Persians, for instance -- simply different. So while it is an ethnocentric course, it isn't treat as superior. The topics he addresses are often heavy though. He doesn't skim over the rarionale behind slavery or how an entire country could think themselves so superior to another race that they would be willing to commit genocide. He addresses all this unflinchingly as another critical 'lesson of history' by which we must learn. History repeats itself because human nature never changes. I think that may be the greatest lesson from this Course/book, as well as the many others I have listened to or read. The only way to improve ourselves as a society and as individuals is to study history, to understand the reasoning, however occassionally flawed, behind the decisions people made and to make a sincere effort to learn from those mistakes and evils others have committed in the past, so that we may never again repeat them. For that lesson, I deeply appreciate what Professor Fears accomplished here and I would recommend this Course to every single person alive. Some things we mustn't ever forget.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Deus
  • 01-19-17

A lecture by Uncle Sam himself

If this book wasn’t for you, who do you think might enjoy it more?

It will be enjoyed more by the jingoistic crowd from America. The America F&$k yeah type.

What could The Great Courses have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

Removing factual inaccuracies. His grasp of history seems very slim.

What about Professor J. Rufus Fears’s performance did you like?

Nice storytelling.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from The Wisdom of History?

The later aspects involving Lincoln, Roosevelt and the Vietnam war.

Any additional comments?

Please do not label this as "The wisdom of world history". That is false advertising. This should be labelled as "An American perspective on world history" or something of the sort. This is the most biased course I've ever listened to. Even things I generally agree with come out as propaganda in the manner with which it is told.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Rob.
  • 02-21-19

The distortion of history.

The narrator needs to stick to the facts and keep his personal opinions to himself, especially towards the end of the lecture.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-17-19

Wonderful and delicious

It is a very interesting approach to history. The lecturer reminded me of the inspiring teachers I had in university. This is not a course, it is an amazing experience.

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  • AtreidesOne
  • 10-31-14

The wisdom of history (assuming you're American)

Prepare to have history analysed from an American perspective and to have it assumed that you are also living in America. This was the strongest impression I got from this book, which was otherwise quite easily forgettable. The lecturer's voice is pleasant to listen to, and he tells a good overview of history as an engaging story. However I don't think that I have taken away much wisdom from this lecture.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Alison
  • 02-23-18

brilliant

very thought provoking and challenging. the presentation and the presenter were so good I didn't want to stop listening. for anyone interested in learning from history or to increase in wisdom... thoroughly recommended.