I can remember my first Great Course – How to Listen to and Understand Opera. It featured Dr. Robert Greenberg, a funny and informative lecturer. He made learning about opera exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed that course.
Independent of my discovery, a discussion group of which I was a part discovered The Great Courses (The Teaching Company back then) for other topics – philosophy, history and religion. Soon, we began watching lectures given by various professors and discussing them. While they had valuable information, it was only limited information. But it was not because of the lectures. Rather, it was because of my limited capacity.
Many years later, I can finally appreciate the breadth and scope of these lectures. I have been able to fit together the various lectures and people named in the lectures. It as like a giant piece of the puzzle coming together in my mind.
It took many years for me to be able to fit the pieces together. It took a lot of listening, thinking and discussing. It required a lot of watching and re-watching. Each time, I understood only a fraction of the lecture, but the fractions were adding up. I had to hear about Aristotle multiple times from multiple professors. I had to hear about a battle or an event explained slightly different each time in order for me to grasp its significance.
It was hearing about these people and events in different contexts and different wordings that helped me to understand the bigger picture.
These famous people were real people in a real place and real time. They were not movie stars or some fictional characters out of a novel. They had the human experience just like I have the human experience. They dealt with the same issues that I did; they had the same emotions I did; they responded in ways that I could understand.
But it was not just being able to identify with these various people of antiquity. It was understanding how their lives were part of the big picture. It was understanding how civilizations affected each other and interacted with each other. History was not a clean and neatly-divided distribution of groups of people who never knew about each other.
Instead, history was like a sea in which nations collided into each other through conquest and trade. The clashes could be brutal or productive.
Historians, especially ancient ones, tended to focus on the conflicts. That is when a ruler got the chance to tell everyone how great he was.
Stories, whether they can be believed or not, are the only means of knowing what happened back then. Understanding these stories and the story-telling, are the clues we use to know what happened a long time ago.