Learn Timeless Life Lessons from the Great Books
Life Lessons of the Great Books is a series of lectures written by J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D., that highlights the insights from 36 of Western civilization’s greatest literary works. Using these 36 great books as touchstones, Fears is able to condense the history of humanity, explore timeless ideas and values, and help listeners find a wealth of advice on living life well. It is a unique lecture series that ties the past to the present and explores myriad lessons worth learning.
Who was J. Rufus Fears?
J. Rufus Fears was born on March 7, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was a professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He also taught at Indiana University and Boston University before coming to OU.
Fears taught several courses during his long academic career and received more than 25 awards acknowledging his teaching style, including OU Professor of the Year and the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching. At OU, his “Freedom in Rome” and “Freedom in Greece” classes were widely popular, and often had long waiting lists. He was known for acting out historic battles in class, often brandishing a broomstick as a spear or javelin. He also taught ethics and leadership.
Fears was a passionate believer in the relevancy of history to modern life. He also believed that the great leaders in Western civilization provide moral examples of how to live our lives with courage and humanity.
Fears passed away on October 6, 2012, at the age of 67.
His expertise in the classics, along with his authoritative personality and enthusiastic teaching style, make Life Lessons from the Great Books a lecture series that’s well worth anyone’s time — whether you’re an avid reader, a history buff, or you’re just looking for some life advice from some of the greatest minds the world has produced.
The series was born from Fears’ belief that the great books of Western civilization have much to teach us about love, courage, freedom, and patriotism, and even though some of them were written 2,000 years ago, they still speak to us with insights that are relevant for modern life. These books include famous works like the Odyssey, Hamlet, Animal Farm, and the journals of Lewis and Clark.
In Life Lessons from the Great Books, the lectures are divided into six universal themes that incorporate what Fears deemed as history’s most captivating stories. Through the lectures, Fears explores new perspectives about these stories and how they relate to the human condition.
Highlights of the Lectures in the Series
The first lecture in the series, The Unconquerable Human Spirit, hones in on the great ability of the human spirit as it struggles through sensual temptations, violence, and the unknown and unexpected things in life. The lecture focuses on stories of people who endured the worst, most nightmarish experiences in history, like the Holocaust, and somehow triumphed. The books referenced include The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Night by Elie Wiesel.
Youth and Old Age is about surviving the adversities of being young and the progression into old age over a lifetime. Youthful passions contrast with the wisdom of old age in many of the works referenced in this lecture. The great books that exemplify these themes include Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther and Cicero’s On Old Age.
Next, Romance and Love grapples with the universal experience of love — its euphoria and its heartbreak — and how to survive a broken heart. The great works Macbeth, by Shakespeare, and Tristan and Isolde, by Richard Wagner, inspired this theme.
The Adventure and Courage lecture addresses the question of how and where one finds the inner strength to deal with the endless challenges of life. One of Fears’ biggest influences for this lecture was the story of a soldier fighting in the Middle East during World War I, which came from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The Laughter and Irony lecture is all about how humor can comfort us during the darkest times. The satire and political commentary found in George Orwell’s Animal Farm come into play here.
Patriotism touches on the writers and prominent figures from the past who felt a passionate devotion to their country. The lecture examines the farewell address of America’s first president, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography. These and other works offer clues and perspectives on the true meaning of patriotism.
From the simplest teachings to the most complex, there’s always some lesson that can be learned from the great books in the Western canon. Fears’ analysis and engaging lecture style bring these towering works to life, even if you haven’t read them in full yourself. Above all, the lectures may deepen your understanding of fundamental concepts like love, patriotism, bravery, and the human spirit.