06/10/2010 01:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Freedom a Universal Value? -- Maybe Not

If you're Barack Obama, president and constitutional lawyer, you've recently released a National Security Strategy that lays out how you'll advance democracy around the world. "We are promoting universal values abroad by promoting them at home and will not seek to impose these values through force," says your 52-page report. 'Universal values' means democracy and freedom.

If you're J. Rufus Fears, professor of Classics and chair in History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, you're pretty sure that freedom is NOT a universal value. You believe we've made major mistakes when we base our foreign policy on the belief that all people at all times want freedom and that freedom will grow naturally.

Provocative concept? Oh yeah. Fears calls this a basic law of history, and it's just one the of many laws he lays out in a remarkably engrossing, thirty-six lecture audio or video course called, The Wisdom of History, produced by The Teaching Company.

Of course, one person's wisdom is another person's twaddle and many purple-fingered Iraqis, who proudly voted in their first democratic election a while ago, might see Fears' take on freedom as the Arabic equivalent of cow plop. America has certainly spent enough blood and treasure over the years defending freedom. You bet. But the operative word here is 'defend' -- which is not the same as a duty or our destiny for America to BRING freedom to the rest of the world.

Freedom means many things to different people. Prof. Fears breaks it down into three separate components to better quantify it's meaning:

NATIONAL is the freedom of an entity, a nation, or a tribe, to be independent of any foreign domination or control.

POLITICAL is the freedom to vote and to choose your own officials, the right to say what you want in political discussions, to govern yourself under the laws that you give yourselves.

INDIVIDUAL freedom is the freedom to believe whatever you choose and live as you choose as long as you harm no one else.

These three freedoms are not mutually inclusive. Example - North Korea has national freedom but no political or individual freedom. Same was true for Hitler's Third Reich. The Roman Empire did not have national and political freedom but had enormous individual freedom. Throughout history, says Fears, nations have been willing to give up political and individual freedom to protect themselves against foreign intrusion or invasion.

America has achieved a remarkable and unique intermingling of all three freedoms, says the professor. But in doing so, it has given us the illusion that the rest of the world also wants our kind of freedom. While many nations have successfully followed America's democratic model, history shows many civilizations have chosen otherwise. Fears details examples in breath-taking scope that encompasses everything from the birth of civilization in the Middle East to the impact of 9/11 on the U.S.

Today, there's South America and Africa, where authoritarian rule consistently trumps the rule of freedom in many nations. And there's China, one of the world's oldest civilizations. They've never even tried freedom. And then there's the Middle East. Since the beginning, the Middle East has been a crucible of conflict. "Freedom is a very difficult plant to grow in the Middle East. The Egyptian language has no word for freedom," the professor tells us.

So if freedom is not a universal value, what is? Power! Power is the constant in history; the desire to dominate others runs throughout civilizations. Fears also subscribes to the great-man theory that history is not made by enormous social and economic forces, it is made by great individuals. Empires rise and fall because of individual decisions made by outstanding leaders.

So, what about Lord Acton's famous dictum: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What does that say about power as a desirable universal value? Maybe George Bernard Shaw got it right: "Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power." Makes sense.

The ultimate question this course asks: Is there a chance we mortals are learning and applying any of the lessons from recorded history? The professor's answer comes from the Greek historian, Thucydides: Human nature never changes. Therefore the lessons of history are eternally valid.

Whether you buy into Thucydides or Prof. Fears, or not, The Wisdom of History is an itch that needs to be scratched, a fascinating audio course delivered with exceptional and entertaining skill by a master teacher.