J. Rufus Fears
Jesse Rufus FEARS was born in Atlanta on Mach 7, 1945 to Emory Binford and Hazel Elizabeth Davis Fears. He graduated summa cum laude from Emory University in Classics and history in 1966, the year he married Charlene Louise Bauer. He received an M.A. from Harvard in 1967 and a Ph.D. in 1971. His dissertation, “Princeps a Diis Electus: A Study of the Monarchical Theory of Divine Election in the Roman Empire before the Official Adoption of Christianity” (published by the American Academy at Rome in 1977) made plain his notion that ideology rather than wealth, power, or birthright was a causative force in Roman history. He joined the Department of Classical Languages at Tulane as an assistant professor in 1971, but the next year moved to the history department of Indiana University, where he rose from assistant professor (1972-75) to associate professor (1975-80) to professor (1980-86). His numerous publications on Greek and Roman history in leading American and European publications helped secure him both a Guggenheim (1976) and a Humboldt fellowship. In this period he also wrote three monograph-length articles for ANRW. In 1986 he moved to Boston University as chairman of the department of Classical Studies and was soon appointed associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts (1987-89) and director of the Boston University Humanities Foundation (1988-90). While he continued to write on classical subjects, he also edited a selection of the writings of the English Catholic historian and politician Lord Acton (1834-1902), who thought that the form of government most capable of insuring individual freedom was not a strong central government, but a confederation of individual states. Acton thus sympathized with the South in the Civil War, believing with Plato that centralized government was the prelude to tyranny. Fears’s interest in liberty gradually overtook his interest in original research in ancient history. In 1990 he moved to his final academic home, the University of Oklahoma as professor of classics (1990-2004), dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (1990-92), and in 1992 was awarded the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, which he held until his death. He took leave from his deanship to become director of the Division of Research at the NEH for one year (1992-93).
Following his return from Washington he devoted himself more and more to his classroom teaching and the promulgation of his ideas on liberty in recordings of his classroom lectures and his lectures before largely conservative audiences. He believed that “The first lesson of history is that we do not learn from it,” but nevertheless conducted his classes on the assumptions that the lessons of history always come down to the choice citizens make between the efficiency and security of tyranny and the responsibility of the individual in a system based on freedom. His signature course was a two-semester sequence, “Freedom in Greece” and “Freedom in Rome,” which regularly closed at 300 students each and had long waiting lists. His 2007 student Billy Adams recalled Fears acting out battles in class: “He would carry around a broomstick and it would become a spear, pointer, or javelin.” His intention was a kind of moral instruction by which students could shape their lives according to the examples of great leaders from Pericles to his beloved Churchill. Students warmed to his view that “Today we have a tendency to believe that science and technology put us beyond the lessons of history. But we as a society still need to think historically.” Fears believed himself an agent of outreach. He recorded a course of eighteen lectures entitled “The Story of Freedom” and took an active role in the University of Oklahoma’s Life Long Learning Institute, bringing “Freedom and Morality: The Great Books Tradition” to seniors and alumni both in Norman and in Oklahoma City. He recorded 21 lectures for “The Teaching Company,” later called “The Great Courses” and led tours for alumni on the theme “In the Footsteps of…” visiting Philadelphia, Monticello, and Civil War battlefields as well as sites abroad. David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, wrote that Fears was “one of the most gifted teachers in American higher education.” Fears won teaching awards at every institution he served. At Oklahoma he was three times named Professor of the Year and won the medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence in Teaching. In both his teaching and his later writing Rufus Fears eruditely explored conceptions of liberty throughout history.
He died in Norman on 6 October 2012.
— Ward Briggs