Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life

Course No. 4610
Professor Francis J. Ambrosio, Ph.D.
Georgetown University
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Course No. 4610
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Course Overview

What is the meaning of life? Is human existence meaningful or absurd? Is it even worth asking this kind of question? Anyone who has ever pondered these fundamental questions has an extraordinary adventure in store. In 36 inspiring lectures, award-winning Professor of Philosophy Francis J. Ambrosio fields the biggest of the "big" questions, in a boldly revealing inquiry into one of the most fundamental of all human concerns.

Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life charts how the question of life's meaning has been pursued through the ages, highlighting the Western philosophical and religious paths in the human search for meaningful living.

Embracing a wide range of perspectives, Professor Ambrosio demonstrates that whether we are philosophically inclined or not, religious or atheistic, cynic or optimist, the question of life's meaning is shared universally by human beings, as an essential dynamic of human existence itself.

In revealing the ways in which our civilization has grasped the question of meaning and by proposing a specific type of purposeful inquiry, these lectures provide you with the tools to come to terms with the question in a direct, practical way. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life delivers a clear and useable framework for both understanding the history of the human path to meaning and for navigating that path as an individual, personal concern.

Two History-Shaping Archetypes

First, the lectures lead you through the history and evolution of two Western traditions that address the question of meaning: the Greek-derived, Humanist philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian/Islamic theistic tradition. Most centrally, you encounter two key metaphorical figures:

  • The Hero: Reflecting the worldview of secular, Humanist philosophy, the Hero's universe is shaped by impersonal forces of necessity and fate, indifferent to human desires. The Hero realizes the goal of self-fulfillment and self-mastery through achievement and the overcoming of obstacles to fulfill his or her fate wholly and perfectly. The Hero's identity emerges in contexts ranging from the lives of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius to Nietzsche's Zarathustra and the Existentialist vision of Jean-Paul Sartre.
  • The Saint: The Saint affirms a contrasting sense of life, identifying selfhood primarily in relation to others, human or divine; a covenant bond of care, concern, and responsibility whose purpose is love itself. You find the Saint's identity in figures such as Abraham and Jesus, and later in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard and the novels of Dostoevsky.

You track these two archetypes as they react to and evolve with cultural changes across the centuries, from the ancient world and the rise of Christianity through the medieval era and the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and our own times, where you find them still vibrantly alive. You locate these hugely influential figures in scripture and ancient philosophy, but also in Renaissance art, contemporary literature, and the movies.

  • In the persona of Michelangelo, you find the expression of Saintly passion through the power of art, as well as the Hero's identity in the artist's arduous inner struggle.
  • You uncover the Saintly ethos in the short stories of Flannery O'Connor as she articulates contemporary spiritual poverty and affirms the deep need for the Other.
  • You witness in the personal trials of St. Augustine the problematic attempt to synthesize the Hero and Saint in the name of a unified culture of spiritual Humanism.

Philosophy as a Dynamic, Creative Tool

But there's something else at work in Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life, which takes you far beyond an exercise in intellectual understanding: If philosophy is the "love of wisdom," Professor Ambrosio draws a wisdom from this inquiry that has a palpable, concrete connection to human living.

From the very first lecture, he aims the philosophical problem of meaning squarely at the student, inviting us to actively engage with it—to take it personally. He does this, first, by asking you to grapple with questions that are truly universal, such as "How should I live my life?" and "What is the relationship of death to life? Is there some deep, sustainable connection between the two?" He also asks you to consider the direct, experiential evidence for both the notion of meaning itself and the perception of meaninglessness and absurdity.

Drawing on the work of thinkers from Plato and Epictetus to Simone Weil and Viktor Frankl, you probe the empowering existential choices regarding meaning and value that exist as potentials in the fabric of our experience and that call forth the dignity and possibility of our own living.

  • You contemplate Epictetus's seminal proposition that what disturbs human beings is not events or experience themselves, but rather the way we interpret or view them.
  • You read between the lines of the French Existentialist Albert Camus' classic literary and philosophical works to discover how he endowed the absurdity of the human condition with dignity.
  • You investigate Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's liberating conception of meaning, affirming people's power to choose their relationship to any given circumstances and to choose what their identity as people will be.

A Fateful Interaction Across the Centuries

In delineating the metaphors of the Hero and the Saint, the lectures bring to life the highly charged drama of their interaction through Western history in the lives of captivating individuals such as Mohammed (who was both a religious leader and a political ruler) and St. Francis of Assisi (who merged the two archetypes in the image of a Romantic lover and his heavenly lady).

The Enlightenment sees the death of the dream of synthesis, as the rise of empirical science and capitalism bring the dominance of the secular worldview of the Hero. Among many examples, you explore Heroic identity in the work of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, and the passionate backlash of the Saintly impulse in the writing of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.

In the later lectures, you see the 20th-century mutations of the "anti-Hero" in writers such as Sartre, Faulkner, and Beckett, and the figure of the "secular Saint" in the voices of Simone Weil, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, and others, as the Heroic and Saintly archetypes arise in the face of humanity's extreme contemporary challenges.

In the Presence of Visionary Teaching

Professor Ambrosio's penetrating eloquence gives the lectures the quality of an epically compelling story. In every case, he locates the philosophical problems at hand directly in the personal experience of the people who lived them historically. You travel into Socrates' intimate thoughts at his trial and into the tortured psyche of Michelangelo as he takes his chisel to smash the Florentine Pietà. You witness the searing moment of St. Augustine's conversion in the garden, and Elie Wiesel's courageous words as he accepts the Nobel Prize.

Throughout Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life, the unfolding drama of the Hero and Saint serves to focus Professor Ambrosio's larger, extraordinary purpose—to bring you face to face with the power of the question of meaning—both in humanity's past and in the present, living moment.

And it's here that Professor Ambrosio's brilliance as a teacher becomes most clear: In his hands the question touches you, inescapably, as a daring affirmation of freedom.

"Our situation can be understood as articulating a question directed to us as free; that question: What response will I choose to make to my situation; what does my situation mean?" he says. "What meaning will I attribute to it through the relationship I decide to have with it; a relationship that is not a matter of ideas, but rather a relationship that is established through concrete, specific attitudes, choices, actions, and commitments?"

Using the gripping story of two human archetypes, Professor Ambrosio offers you a concrete and practical context in which to pursue your own search for meaning—a way of looking that allows you to determine your own path, while palpably sensing your intimate, personal connection with history; a way of questioning that makes philosophy itself a real and immediate way to address your most essential concerns.

Join a masterful teacher in this engaging study of Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life—an intellectual adventure that speaks deeply to an inspiring, creative dimension in living.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Meaning—A Question and a Commitment
    What gives meaning to human existence? Consider two pivotal Western approaches to the question—the Humanist-philosophical and monotheistic wisdom traditions—and delineate the key metaphorical figures of the Hero and the Saint. Consider also the value of a commitment, not to an answer about meaning, but to a way of life based in questioning. x
  • 2
    Hero and Saint—Mapping the Cultural Genome
    Explore the notion of Mystery—the tension between meaning and absurdity—as the fundamental condition of human existence. Deepen your encounter with the Hero and the Saint as human archetypes using the metaphor of the genome, as the two figures represent identity traits that can be passed on across time and cultures. x
  • 3
    The Heroic Age—The Greek Worldview
    Focusing on the Greek epic Hero, probe the worldview against which the Hero's journey unfolds. From Homer's Iliad, identify the core concepts of "necessity," "fate," and "heroic excellence" as they define the Hero's life mission and task. Consider the notion of agon—the struggle of the Hero to fulfill his or her destiny. x
  • 4
    Heroism and the Tragic View of Life
    This lecture explores a new form of cultural expression, Greek drama, and a further incarnation of the Heroic ideal, the tragic hero. Follow the emergence of the Greek dramatic festival, and contemplate Aristotle's and Nietzsche's seminal ideas on tragic drama, where beauty and transcendence arise from a willing embrace of life and death. x
  • 5
    Plato—Politics, Justice, and Philosophy
    In his account of the trial of Socrates, Plato was instrumental in shaping the primary legacy of Greek culture to the modern world: the figure of the citizen-hero. Ponder the deep implications of Socrates' heroic virtue and philosophical identity in his commitment to personal integrity and to "not-knowing" as the ultimate wisdom. x
  • 6
    Plato's Republic—The Hero's Reward
    What is the reward, the "payoff" in the Hero's journey? Discover Plato and Aristotle's poignant answers to this question. Study Plato's core ideas in the Republic, equating meaning and transcendence with living justly, and Aristotle's ethics, where virtue and integrity of character become the wellspring of happiness. x
  • 7
    The Heroic Ideal in Late Stoicism
    Learn the meaning of heroic citizenship in Roman Stoic philosophy, as movingly expressed by Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Consider an "interior divinity" and self-esteem rooted in clarity of mind and purposeful embrace of one's personal fate. Consider also how the Hero archetype shapes our own modern human identity. x
  • 8
    "In the Beginning"—The Hebrew Worldview
    Enter the worldview underlying our second archetypal figure: the Saint. Probe the heart of the creation story in Genesis, in two encounters with Mystery: Creation itself, in the relation of God to man as one freedom to another, and the "other side" of freedom—the possibility of refusal called "sin." x
  • 9
    Father Abraham, the First Saint
    From the biblical story of Abraham, you encounter the three fundamental features of the Saint's identity: a calling by God, a promise or covenant with God, and a testing of that bond. Reflect deeply on the nature of the covenant relationship and on the enigmatic meaning of Abraham's sacrifice. x
  • 10
    Saintly Types in the Hebrew Bible
    Within the single figure of Moses, we find the archetypes of Prophet, King, and Priest, which embody the three features of the Saint's identity. Explore the meaning of these roles in the stories of Elijah, King David, and Job. Probe the core value of sacrifice in awakening the sense of life's sacredness. x
  • 11
    Jesus as Saintly Innovator—Forgiving Love
    In this lecture, discover how Jesus appears in the Saintly tradition as a radical innovator—creating a dramatically new understanding of the covenant of God with humanity. Contemplate the profound symbolic effect of the Resurrection as a transformation of human identity through the possibility of forgiveness. x
  • 12
    Hero or Saint? Saul of Tarsus
    The achievements of Saul of Tarsus, later Saint Paul, mark a critical moment in early Christianity. Follow the dynamic thrust of his journey as he opposes the original apostles, proclaiming the universality of Jesus's mission, and uniting in his actions the qualities of Heroic citizenship with those of Saintly faith. x
  • 13
    Hero or Saint? Augustine of Hippo
    Augustine follows Saint Paul as a pivotal figure in the path of "conversion"—the attempt to integrate Heroic and Saintly ideals to find a more powerful human identity. Trace Augustine's dramatic life, from his restless youth to his compelling embrace of Christianity and his developing vision of a perfect world order. x
  • 14
    Mohammed—The Prophet as Saintly Innovator
    The culture of Islam shows underlying links to both the Greek and Christian worldviews. Study the five "pillars" of Islamic faith and the journey of Mohammed as both religious leader and political ruler. Reflect on Islam's divergence from Christianity and Judaism and on the nature of conflict between religious cultures. x
  • 15
    Saint Francis and Dante—Saintly Troubadours
    The medieval notion of romantic love marks the birth of the modern Western conception of individuality. See how both Saint Francis and Dante converted the Romantic impulse to serve a mystical, intimate connection with God—God incarnated in the human identity of woman, whose love is transforming x
  • 16
    The Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo
    Michelangelo embodies the struggle for integration, the struggle between life and death, as expressed through the visionary power of art. Uncover the Heroic substance of Michelangelo's life and the symbolic meaning in his David and the three incarnations of the Pietà as they express the stages of his own arduous journey. x
  • 17
    Enlightenment Patterns of Cultural Mutation
    In the Enlightenment, a series of critical cultural changes marked the ascendency of secularism and the Heroic worldview. Consider the far-reaching implications of Martin Luther's challenge to papal authority, the victory of empirical science, and the ideologies of capitalism and the nation-state as new formulations of human identity. x
  • 18
    Mt. Moriah Revisited—Saintly Transgression
    Nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reacted violently against the current of European cultural evolution in the wake of the Enlightenment. Investigate Kierkegaard's radical rejection of Hegelian rationalism and his passionate, subjective vision of faith rooted in the Saintly sacrifice of Abraham and a spiritual acceptance of universal absurdity. x
  • 19
    A History of Suspicion—Marx, Darwin, Freud
    In the 19th century, the work of Marx, Darwin, and Freud represented a multilevel reassertion of the Humanist-Heroic worldview, based in radical reinterpretations of history. Assess Marx's "historical materialism" and Darwin's biological determinism as theories of meaning, and Freud's conception of the ego as the struggle of the tragic hero. x
  • 20
    Nietzsche—The Return of the Tragic Hero
    Friedrich Nietzsche's writing played a pivotal role in the movement toward a re-conceptualization of the Heroic figure. Here you encounter Nietzsche's fictional character of Zarathustra and his revelation of the "Overman" that is to come, living out the will to self-mastery as a dynamic embrace of reality as it is and must be. x
  • 21
    Dostoevsky—The Return of the Saint
    As Nietzsche did for the Heroic, Dostoevsky calls for the return of Saintly identity in a time of crisis. As Dr. Ambrosio reads from The Brothers Karamazov, chart Dostoevsky's mystical appeal for the covenant bond between human beings, and consider the ways in which the Saint and Hero, in reaching wholeness, cannot dispense with each other. x
  • 22
    A Century of Trauma
    This lecture explores the ways in which 20th-century wars, totalitarianism, and political strife reflect a trauma or "death" of the human imagination. Consider how new means and magnitudes of destruction fracture the human sense of reality, calling for new structures of meaning that might be equal to the scope of humanity's challenges. x
  • 23
    The Quantum Leap
    The scientific revolution that brought relativity theory and quantum mechanics derailed the Enlightenment conception of science as a purely objective, unchanging context. Explore the cultural backgrounds of scientific "paradigm shifts" and their poignant human consequences, as in the case of Robert Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb. x
  • 24
    Existentialism—Sartre and de Beauvoir
    Existentialism arose as a response to the dehumanizing threat to human meaning posed by the forces of totalitarianism. Study the core principles of Sartre's philosophy, asserting the possibility of Heroic freedom and meaning based in absolute responsibility for self. Consider de Beauvoir's insights into patriarchal oppression and gender as a meaning construct. x
  • 25
    Camus and the Absurd Hero
    Albert Camus' Existential vision shows a contrasting methodology to Sartre's. In The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, contemplate his notion of "rebellion" as a path to meaning and the human possibilities that arise from a refusal of comforting social conventions and the core awareness of an indifferent universe. x
  • 26
    Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Grace
    In Flannery O'Connor's writing we find the metaphoric identity of the Saint pushed to its limit by the inhumanity and cultural upheavals of the 20th century. Track her unique sensibility, steeped in a sense of Mystery, as she articulates the limitation of individual existence and the deep need for the Other. x
  • 27
    The Holocaust and the Crisis of Forgiveness
    This lecture explores the Holocaust's impact on the human search for meaning through the voices of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Elie Wiesel. Consider the Saintly impulse in the face of man's greatest horror, in the ultimate questions of responsibility to others and forgiveness for the death of humanity. x
  • 28
    Faulkner and Beckett—Images of the Forlorn
    Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner articulate a cultural current affecting both Hero and Saint. In Waiting for Godot, investigate the crisis of meaning that shapes the characters' nonaction. Enter Faulkner's nonlinear fabric of time in The Sound and the Fury, suggesting a refusal of causal explanations for human experience. x
  • 29
    Viktor Frankl—Freedom's Search for Meaning
    Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, proposed a radical view of freedom, forged in the death camps. Learn about his empowering conception of meaning, rooted in the attitude taken to experience and suffering, as he affirms the human capacity, in all circumstances, to choose one's identity, one's "own way." x
  • 30
    Simone Weil—Imagining the Secular Saint
    Simone Weil's philosophical writings reveal the qualities of the secular Saint, living both archetypal paths of meaning simultaneously. Uncover her moral and political worldview, based in an uncompromising vision of justice and in the human impulse to transcendent good as the foundation of true meaning and value. x
  • 31
    Simone Weil—A New Augustine?
    This lecture delves further into the sensibility of Simone Weil, in her parallel hunger for social justice and for intimacy with divine truth. Trace her mystical spiritual conversion and her rejection of institutional religion, in choosing to live "at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity." x
  • 32
    Identifying the Secular Saint
    Delineate the metaphor of the secular Saint in two contemporary lives. In Martin Luther King's words and actions, see how he moves freely between a call for political justice and for spiritual principle. Observe how Mother Teresa lived the way of the Saint in the world and the Heroic in her own internal struggle. x
  • 33
    The Secular Saint at the Movies
    The highly sensitive medium of film is particularly well suited to portraying the contemporary blurring of the images of Hero and Saint. Trace these archetypes as they appear in the genres of Western, war, biblical, and fantasy films, and locate the traits of the secular Saint in the enduringly popular Casablanca. x
  • 34
    Ernest Becker—The Denial of Death
    Psychoanalyst Ernest Becker identifies the relationship of Hero and Saint as analogous to that of human life and death. Grapple with his conception of the necessity of confronting ultimate limitation and finitude, as integral to a "contemporary spirituality" that yields the possibility to always begin life anew. x
  • 35
    Terror and Hope in a Planetary Age
    How can we, as individuals, live the human search for meaning effectively in the face of humanity's current, unprecedented challenges? Consider the human stance and "binocular" vision of the secular Saint as we might respond through them to the crisis points of worldwide terrorism, globalization, and our imperiled environment. x
  • 36
    The Secular Saint—Learning to Walk Upright
    In concluding, reflect on the commitment to questioning and responsibility that we've explored and its core implications for human living. Reflect also on the present-centered awareness of the human archetypes that live in and through us, as they affirm our own path to meaning, our humanity, our freedom. x

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Your professor

Francis J. Ambrosio

About Your Professor

Francis J. Ambrosio, Ph.D.
Georgetown University
Dr. Francis J. Ambrosio is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University, with a specialization in contemporary European philosophy. At Georgetown University, Professor Ambrosio received the 1998 Bunn Award for Faculty Excellence and the 2000 Dean's Award for Teaching. In 2009 he received the Dorothy Brown Award for Outstanding Teaching Achievement, given...
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Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life is rated 3.1 out of 5 by 51.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unnecessarily Obscure and Verbose No question this professor knows his material, but, unfortunately, he is unduly obscure and extremely verbose. I found his presentation not only annoying stylistically, but actually an impediment to learning. Admittedly, parsing his sentence construction,I found his statements logical; but his manner and syntax are so complex that they detract from meaning. His delivery is also so deliberate-- so plodding--that it adds to the burden of slogging through. Having said all that, on balance, I'm still glad I completed the slogging. The subject is deep, the overall theme and structure here-- the dual perspective of hero and saint-- are informative, and the range of thinkers and source materials is wide. The first lecture is by far the best, in my opinion. And a select few others are relatively to the point and effective, though the majority suffer from the verbosity. The focus is explicitly on Western philosophy so anyone interested in a more global perspective (including Eastern religion and philosophy) should take a pass.
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A mixed bag, but overall, worthwhile This course had a lot to recommend it, but my primary substantive critique is the professor's insistence of sticking to the Saint and Hero metaphor as the touchstone for EVERYTHING even when the metaphor didn't fit, or was explained so obtusely that it sounded like all the adults in a Charlie Brown episode. Some of the lectures were excellent; the sections on Dostoyevsky and Camus, for example. But others were average or just plain incomprehensible, which was not aided by the professor's insistence of forming uncommon adjectives or nouns out of other words just for the sake of sounding literary. As with any course that is listened to in a brief time, the speaker's verbal tics become more noticeable so that by the end I wanted to yell "It's pronounced HUMAN not YUMEN." Despite the strained Saint/Hero template and some of the more dense lectures, I overall did get a lot of this course and it encouraged me to go back and re read certain texts.
Date published: 2016-04-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed I gave up after 3 lectures – my first failure to complete a course. After over 80 satisfying and, yes, thrilling Great Courses, I am sorely disappointed. They reminded me of the very worst college classes that I managed to sit through over 30 years ago. Perhaps it is a personality thing, but I found the lectures to be pointless and quite a stretch as the mental gymnastics of constructing metaphors became so much more important to the professor than the actual meaning of the content. For those of you who found more meaning here, I commend you for your ability to connect to this message.
Date published: 2016-04-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Finally finished this course! Whew! I finally made myself plow this course. I've listened to or watched over 20 Great Courses in the last year and this was the only one that was a struggle to get through. I felt it was more of a graduate level course than a course for a casual learner with only a little background in philosophy. The professor was very knowledgeable but his voice was often a monotone that made it difficult to follow, especially as I listen to these courses while driving.
Date published: 2016-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep, subtle, mind-expanding. An excellent course! Professor Ambrosio is articulate, precise, thorough, and does a superb job in presenting a difficult but crucial subject matter. It is one of my all-time favourite courses. I just wish it would have been longer.
Date published: 2014-08-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Challenging & Rewarding This is a greatly under-rated TC course. I am glad that I did not stop at the quite limited information in the course description and that I gave full credit to the comments of the minority who find merit in the course. What intrigued me the most was that the lectures featured a great number of individuals and their works, all from the perspective of life’s meaning. I got much more than I initially expected in a course that I am sure to listen to again. Absolutely key to this course are the terms “hero” and “saint”, representing metaphoric approaches to the meaning of life with distinct worldviews: “For the hero, reality appears as fundamentally shaped by the human struggle with impersonal forces of necessity and fate that are in the end indifferent to human hopes and fears; for the saint, reality is ultimately configured by the bonds of a covenant relationship among persons, human and divine, based on an exchange of promises offered in the mutual hope of unconditional trust. Put briefly, for the hero the meaning of life is honor; for the saint, it is love. We look to heroes with admiration and respect, seeking inspiration. We turn to saints with gratitude and humility, asking help” (Course Guidebook, Page 2). As Professor Ambrosio states, “The subject matter of this course is unusual and unique. It is not a body of knowledge to be investigated or method of inquiry to be mastered, but rather the dynamic history of a mystery which reveals itself through the power of a question: the question of the meaning of life” (Page 1). Professor Ambrosio traces “two parallel but distinct genealogical histories of cultural heredity. One line of descent originates in Greek culture with the figure of Socrates, the other line of descent traces from Abraham” (Page 3), in effect “…two sets of eyes, to look at reality and seeing our situation, searching in that situation for a sense of meaning and a sense of identity that can sustain both our life and our awareness of the necessity of death” (Audio, Lecture 24). By the end of the course, Professor Ambrosio not only takes us to the extremes of each, in Albert Camus (hero, or more properly, anti-hero) and, most importantly, Simone Weill (saint, though really a “secular saint”, an “evolutionary adaptation” to 20th Century forces and trauma), but also reformulates the original question to: “What is the meaning of life and death taken together, inseparably interconnected as a whole?” (Page 106). Professor Ambrosio is a slow and careful speaker, which really helps in understanding the subject matter. While some of his hero/saint designations seem strained and maybe even off-base, they are not wildly so. (How about Professor Ambrosio’s suggesting Frodo in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a secular saint?). I especially appreciated Professor Ambrosio’s treatment of St. Augustine, “his pivotal role in patterning the tension between the heroic ideals of an expanding Christianity into the civilization of the West” (Page 40); Saint Francis of Assisi, demonstrating that the “…dangerous heretical impulse within Romantic love could be converted to the service of Christian faith, hope, and love and to the betterment of society” (Page 46); Kierkegaard’s “radical and harrowing” interpretation of Abraham and Isaac; the novel explanation of Nietzsche’s Will to Power that Professor Ambrosio claims is “Frequently misunderstood and sometimes willfully distorted” (Page61); how Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas correspond closely to the worldview of quantum mechanics; the treatment of the Holocaust through the memoirs of Elie Wiesel, quoting at length harrowing passages from his ‘Night’, and Victor Frankl, who, in his ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, “replicates Socrates’ ‘Apology’ by translating…[the] notion of the “care of the soul” into a more contemporary language and situating it in an encounter with a contemporary monstrosity of evil (Page 91); and the “secular saint” Simone Weil, clearly a favorite, refusing to choose between hero and saint, finding life at once absurd and meaningful. Finally, the treatment of Ernest Becker’s ‘The Denial of Death’ (1974 Pulitzer Prize winner), prompts Professor Ambrosio’s startling reformulation of the original question, bringing death front and, literally, center, and adding to his trove of terms and phrases, “humiliated hope”. Professor Ambrosio ends the course without giving an answer to the meaning of life, despite 36 lectures based on the West’s “wisdom tradition”. That is as it should be, given all that he discussed regarding the complexities, ambiguities, and mystery of life and the need to “live the question”. Without choosing to answer, however, his “response” (Page 112) is the secular saint: “…an ideal type of person who lives the question of meaning in human existence fully open to its mystery and fully committed to searching for meaning along the paths of both the hero and the saint” (Page 94), representing respectively “self-fulfillment” and “the gift of love” (Page 106). Professor Ambrosio encourages us to exercise our own freedom and responsibility: “My goal has been to help you equip yourself to live the question and commitment of the human search for meaning differently from here onward” (Page 112). You do not need to agree with all that Professor Ambrosio has to say in order to appreciate the richness of this course and, maybe, even change your life. I could go on even more about the merits of this course but I have to cut it off here. Though it has weaknesses and excesses, notably a tendency to the politically correct, they are easily outweighed by the positive elements. Of particular note are the excellent questions at the end of each lecture, a great glossary, and excellent annotated bibliography. The only regret I have about this course is that I did not order the transcript book. Give this course a chance!
Date published: 2014-04-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mostly Solid I found this course very thought provoking and enriching until the last four or so lectures when I think it became unanchored, by moving from addressing from contemporary thinkers to treating types of the secular saint. This was really evident in the lectures on the movies and on Dr. King and Mother Theresa. Then, in the last two lectures, Professor Ambrosio generalized and drew from his own ideas on the contemporary world and the secular saint rather than contemporary thinkers and writers. Still, I found the course very valuable up through the two lectures on Simone Weil. High points (and there are many) include his treatments of the Greek and Judeo-Christian world views and of writers from both World Wars. Professor Ambrosio has written a book where he engages both Dante and Derrida, and I wish he could revise the final lectures to incorporate a deeper view of the contemporary world which and his figure of the secular saint.
Date published: 2014-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking Despite the many less than flattering reviews I decided that , given my personal interest in a search for meaning across theology, philosophy and intellectual history, it was worth listening to a course whose title addressed the very question that I had asked. Professor Ambrosio gives a subtle, sympathetic and at times inspiring insight into numerous thinkers who have addressed the "big question" of the meaning of life. The Professor's empathy and passion for his subject come across very well and lectures 34-36 are quite simply beautifully articulated exhortations to us all to take the time to study and find our own meaning in life. I am not entirely convinced about the Professor strictly dividing the thinkers he covers into "hero" and "saint" archetypes as at times this can come across as arbitrary. That being said there is enough depth in the course to illuminate those that need a pathway to discover some of the greatest efforts to decipher the meaning of life. The Professor faces the issue of evil and particularly the horrors of the 20th century with courage and erudition. He also inspired me to investigate further some of the works he covers in the course. I have for example ordered some works of Simone Weil, whose name I knew but whose writings I have never studied and I am also going to read St Augustine's Confessions. Very good and thought provoking course.
Date published: 2013-07-31
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I gave up on this course. DVD REVIEW: Professor Ambrosio ~ the king of metaphor, taking us on a confusing tour of approaches to tackling the question of the meaning of life. This presents as a deeply intellectual and scholarly series of lectures, calling for continual careful attention; the lecturer treats the protagonists in his presenatation as "heroes" and "saints" (his metaphors for the different ways of conducting your life). He sometimes uses ridiculously convoluted terminology... I admit that often I felt lost with his expounding, could not get a handle on what he meant. This is a terribly difficult, challenging course, not for everyone, and I can appreciate why there are so many negative comments about it. 36 lectures is a long haul, and Professor Ambrosio has a very straightforward presentation, with no gimmicks, no humour, but, very happily, no oral tics, no annoying habits! He's very serious throughout and that can become awfully dull. I could not finish the course; it was too muddled and intricate for me to get anything meaningful out of it.
Date published: 2013-07-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Great Courses Like others, I did not order this course sooner because of the poor reviews. But once I did listen, I found it life changing. The idea of the saint and hero as a genome is so pervasive in our culture we do not even see it. When I did see it, I found that my desire to be a saint and live in sacrificial love had always been in conflict with the goal of living in heroic fulfillment. I have let go the one so I can have the other. This is one of my very favorite Great Courses. I recommend this highly to those who value faith.
Date published: 2012-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Hidden Gem After reading the relatively lackluster reviews on this course I felt obliged to offer an alternative perspective. The course is both bold and insightful. Professor Ambrosio takes the student on a journey of discovery and, unlike most other courses, when it ends a sense of a still incomplete but evolving mystery is your reward. The premise of the course is that there are two divergent and irreconcilable metaphors for living your life: the hero and the saint. The convergence of the two supposedly conflicting metaphors produces a third metaphor, which is the secular saint and this individual represents a unity of duality that adds wholeness to existence. What is uniquely brilliant about the course is that Professor Ambrosio gently gets his student, as well as himself, to recognize that what was originally thought to be impossible is the way to encounter that which is ultimately real.
Date published: 2012-09-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some Nice Content, Less Than Stellar Presentation I had expectations for this course that were not fully realized. The content in many areas was good, and I enjoyed an introduction to some great writers and thinkers with whom I was not fully familiar including Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil, and Ernest Becker. The contrast between the "Hero" and the "Saint", however, should probably have been done with 24 lectures and not 36 as in this course. In addition, Professor Ambrosia, while impressively erudite, has an earnest presentation style which I found to be too dry, pedantic and frankly dull. My attention wandered for too many lectures. The Course Guidebook is well-written, however.
Date published: 2012-03-07
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A disappointing course I have been purchasing courses from the Teaching Company for years. I had never been disappointed until this course. It was VERY difficult to follow, although I still learned a fair amount. However, the “penultimate lecture” (as named by Professor Ambrosio) was a disappointment. It evolved into a biased commentary on current events with undisguised Marxist views, anticapitalism, and antiglobalization. These topics are certainly worthy of commentary and debate, but I do not believe that they are pertinent to course’s topic of The Meaning of Life. This was not what I expected and could not find any comment that these issues would be discussed when I reviewed the material provided about the course on the web site. This course was a real disappointment.
Date published: 2012-01-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Little context, too advanced I'm a university professor with some background in this material. But even I didn't get what was going on most of the time. One problem is that he spends too much time describing and too little time explaining. That is, he'll say "Jones had a major impact on his time..." and ten minutes of other description, but without ever really explaining what that impact was, or why it was so pivotal or controversial. He doesn't "set the stage" or "put you there" or provide enough context for you to understand why things are important. A second problem, linked to the first, is that he often uses advanced or intermediate concepts without first establishing the foundation of basic concepts upon which they are built. There's also lots of philosophical jargon which never gets defined or explained. Hence it's a bit like a graduate class...and a dull, technical one at that. Put it this way, I teach Thomas Kuhn and yet I could only half follow his discussion of Kuhn. Too bad, I was really excited by the course and its first few lectures. If the professor would revise it and make more accessible and compelling, I'd try it again. But as is, it was a rare stinker in TC's inventory.
Date published: 2012-01-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Could not finish I picked up this course 4 times over the past year and each time stopped listening because I find it too unpleasant and pointless. I was a philosophy major and have a lifelong interest in religion and various viewpoints on the meaning of life, so I thought this would be a course I'd really enjoy. I've been deeply enriched by several other Teaching Company courses on religion and philosophy. Although I'm happy for others who were able to benefit from this course--and I admire whatever they have that I don't--I want to offer my two-cents here: Out of 20-some Teaching Company courses I've listened to over the past 8 years, this is the only one that I cannot bear to finish. The bottom line for prospective customers is don't assume, like I did, that your enthusiasm for the topics addressed in this course will compensate for the shortcomings identified by other reviewers here.
Date published: 2011-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mahlerian, but profound I recommend this course as a provocative inquiry into the "genome" of Western value systems. That said, I agree that Professor Ambrosio is "syntactically challenged" - or rather, that the listener is. But I defend the good professor on the grounds that his syntax and his hermeneutical method are probably linked. These lectures inhabit a post-Heideggerian space - a hermeneutical space - and those who expect linear thinking will be disappointed. Instead, these lectures seem to orbit, metaphorically, a "tragic" fault line in western culture between the values of the "hero" and those of the "saint," a fault line which if confronted courageously may produce an experience of what Heidegger called "Being" in the form of the "secular saint"; and if not, decay and war. For this reason, these lectures seem to have a moral mission, one that has probably never been more urgent. I found the lectures very hard to follow the first time through, a bit easier the second time through, and like a Mahler symphony the third time through - in other words, stunning and magnificent. Give 'em a chance. Let the pattern of associations build in your mind. Perhaps like a "magic eye" painting, an image of the hopeful absurdity of human life, the poignant confrontation of fatalism and free will, the dream of meaning and the terrible dignity of choice, will suddenly appear before your mind's eye and leave you - as it left me - speechless.
Date published: 2011-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Most Misunderstood Course I have taken several courses so far, all on DVD and mostly on Religion and Philosophy. This one is the MOST REWARDING ONE. it opened up my new way of looking at the Fundamenatal Question of the Meaning of Life. Many reviewers gave this course very bad reviews probably because Professor Ambrosio did not speak as eloguently as the professors of other courses. However, his presentation is good enough to get the message clear and he even gets better in the later lectures. Yes, he kind of repeats quite a few of the statements already made. But, it's quite acceptable to me since I am trying to digest what he is talking about. (I read the transcript and watch/listen the DVD at the same time. ) In many places he indicates that some topics could be covered more comprehensively if time permits. I certainly hope that the Great Courses would give him the opportunity to explore more on the topics he covers in this course. It is the contents of the course and the quality of the contents that make this course so rewarding. The professor's presentation skill is acceptable, not excellent. However, instead of spending time on improving his presentation skills, I would rather that he spends time on previding more of the same (or even better) teaching materials on this subject. I am more interested in the contents of the course than the presentation skill of the professor. (His presentation is clear enough.) Courses on humanity in general is very hard to teach. Good courses of this subject matter enlighten, not just provide knowledge. This course does a job of "enlightenment".
Date published: 2011-07-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Awful This course is so bad that I couldn't finish it, despite making a mighty effort (gave up at Lecture 28). As a result, I'm reluctant to write a review of it, but I think it's important to echo others in warning people not to bother with this course. I can't really even provide a detailed critique of the course because (a) the professor is painfully unclear most of the time and (b) to the extent that he has any clarity, his hero/saint dichotomy is rather simplistic and unhelpful. I'm afraid he's an academic in the worst sense: making things overcomplicated in order to impress, while simultaneously trying to cover up a lack of real understanding. Sadly, TTC's screening and editorial process utterly failed with this course. If I can find the time, this will be my first course returned to TTC for a refund.
Date published: 2011-05-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Syntacticly Challenged I have enjoyed at least a half-dozen Teaching Company courses, but this one was truly awful. This professor could not make a short, simple, concise statement if his life depended on it. Each statment begins with what you hope will be a simple sentence, but which turns out to be a long introductory subordinate phrase that is modifed, defined, explained and placed in a certain context, then loosely connected to another clause, which might turn out to be the independent phrase, but inevitably will be further modified, refined and explained, so that by the end of the statement your brain hurts from trying to hold all these qualifications together to come up with the idea the statement attempts to convey. You get the idea? In fact, the entire structure of the course is analogous to the complicated syntax of every statement. I stopped listening after the 29nth lecture. I gave up hoping to find some unifying idea, some point, some theory, anything that would pull this course together. Instead, I think the course was about reducing all meaning in life down to the choice between being a hero or a saint. Apparently it never occurred to the professor that every saint is a hero; after all, a finding of the life-long practice of "heroic virtue" is one of the essential findings for being declared a saint by the Catholic Church. It was extremeley disappointing, after investing 15 hours, to be told that the meaning of life is about deciding to live as either a hero of a saint. I really do not know how such a choice explains the meaning of life. This course did not live up to its title.
Date published: 2011-05-05
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Embarrasingly Bad I am sorry I had to give this course such a poor review. I should have paid attention to the other poor reviews before buying it. I have bought a good many TLC courses and enjoyed them. This one is largely the opinion of the professor. And his language is obtuse. I'm sure he knows what he means, but I sure don't know. On the other hand, like one of the other reviewers I would give him high marks on a few of the lectures -- Dante, Michelangelo, Wiesel. But he picked and chose a slim number of facts about the others to make his point. Having studied Plato for six years and taught it for 15 I can say with certainty that he has an extremely limited knowledge of Plato based upon two works -- the Apology and Chapter 7 of the Republic. And misses the point entirely of Plato's basic philosophy. Likewise with Dostoevsky -- very shallow knowledge of his works, another one of my specialties. If you can understand his fuzzy language you may find this an interesting course. I found his language a stretch. I made my living by the written word. And still could not understand what the man meant by his stretch of meanings of words. And as another reviewer said, I could not wait to finish listening to his last few lecures. Wouldn't have listened to them if I hadn't paid for the course. You'll do far better if you look for another TLC course.
Date published: 2011-03-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Focuses mostly on NEGATIVE aspects This is more about the meaning of DEATH than the meaning of LIFE. Of the extremely wide range of subjects in life, the professor seems to focus on the most extreme negative aspects & cases of life, using the worst examples of life (if you call that life). Granted, he briefly touched on some positive aspects because of the recommendations of a colleague, but this could leave someone in a negative mental state. Today I’m ordering the new course “Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions”.
Date published: 2011-02-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Stimulating philosophy, & boring religion lectures I started this course very excited. The intro and first section on Greek Philosophy were very stimulating and interesting. But, the he starts turning to boring lectures about religion. If you are someone who loves going to church everyday and can't get enough of listening to your pastor or priest, you'll probably love this part of the course. If you have ever attended sunday school or church and are easily bored by "sermons", you might be very bored with the "Saint" parts of the course. He rehearses bible stories as if none of us had ever heard them before. Abraham almost sacrifices his son for God as part of a covenant relationship. Jesus dies on the cross as an example of forgiving love. I could have gone to church for free and heard that stuff. Blah, blah, blah. I could be a biased, but for me I found the "hero" parts of the course to be the only parts worth while so far. I think in these parts he has suggested a few possibilities for meaning that are truly viable. (Though in a way he sounds sort of unsympathetic to someone who would take this "heroic" or Greek sort of world-view.) I am trying to listen through the course, but this unnecessary repetition of old bible stories is putting me to sleep. The philosophical insights in the "hero" lectures all in all, probably make this course worth buying. I think that has really added something to my life and view point. Maybe I will re-review again if I can wade through the rest of these bible stories to finish the course.
Date published: 2010-11-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Just like his Georgetown course I am an alumni of Georgetown. Many years ago, when I was an undergrad, a friend recommended that I take Prof Ambrosio's Intro to Philosophy course. It was one of the best courses I've ever taken, during a seminal time in my life. He offered other courses, particularly one on Existentialism that he offered every other year, which my friend also recommended. Due to scheduling conflicts I was never able to take this course, and it is one of my regrets that I wasn't able to take it. When I learned that Prof Ambrosio offered a course on the Teaching company, I was surprised and elated. Finally, I'd get the chance to take that course I'd missed out on in undergrad. I was not disappointed. Other reviewers have criticized the professor's style and use of metaphors, but honestly, that's his style. He's just so with his students at Georgetown, myself among them. And for those that don't feel satisfied at the conclusion, well his job is to make us think and come to our own conclusions, not to spoon-feed us what he thinks we should think. All in all, I'm grateful to have had the chance to nearly re-live sitting in Ambrosio's class. For me, I guess my nostalgia for Georgetown has biased my opinion of this course. But I felt it was time and money well spent.
Date published: 2010-09-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointed Still no answers to the course title after wading through this fantasy land. A lot of students of this lecturer must be getting a lot of sleep in his classes. Ended up guessing who was going to win the tag game between his eye contact and the camera. Do not waste your time on this one with all the other excellent courses available.
Date published: 2010-08-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Didn't Float My Boat I found this course disappointing. The ideas are good, but the presentation is boring and monotonous, and in some places goes around in circles. The Professor is obviously very intelligent and erudite, but his lectures failed to grab my attention.
Date published: 2010-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thirst-Quenching I had only a little philosophy in college and it left me rather cold. It was so dry I took my thirst elsewhere. Thank goodness, this course is different: Prof. Ambrosio sustained me well over the 36 lectures (audio, on iPod). He apparently reads his lectures, but very effectively. I was more familiar with some of his less-known examples, like Simone Weil and Ernest Becker and benefitted greatly from his concise, eloquent presentation of dominant figures like Plato, Dostoievsky and Faulkner. He handles his enviable erudition well. The whole course holds together thanks to his theme of hero and saint. Unlike some other very good philosophy courses, this one blends literature, history and psychology very successfully, making the course harder to define but easier to enjoy!
Date published: 2010-06-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing Unfortunately, this course was quite disappointing. Professor Ambrosia speaks of metaphors within metaphors within metaphors. Abstraction within abstraction. Get real. I have a philosophy degree, practiced environmental law for 30 years, and am a Judge, but, as far as I could tell, many of his statements, athough sounding profound, seemed to have no real or concrete meaning. As others have noted, he uses the concepts of "hero" vs "saint" and strains to label all historical figures as one or the other. Resorting, in the end, to the predictable synthesis "secular saint." It doesn't work and its not very profound. In the end I was bored and just wanted to get thro it all. Not one of the the Teaching Company's better efforts. I would not recommend this class.
Date published: 2010-06-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The "Cubbyholing" Doesn't Help In some ways, I regret giving this course such a low grade. The professor did a good job with several lectures where he has some expertise - the Greek and Hebraic worldviews and Dante, for example. Also, he did nice work with Nietzsche and Frankl, among select others. But the flaws washed over the strengths, so much so that by the end I was very grateful the course was over. His crucial reliance on trying to identify most of the figures he was discussing as a saint or hero was unhelpful, to say the least. Most of his subjects are, in fact, neither saint nor hero, though many of them have features of one or the other, and often not the one the professor ascribes. For example, is Abraham a saint? Hardly. Is Moses a saint? Hardly. Is David a hero or a saint? The professor gets wobbly there, too, but one thing is for sure: the cubbyholing doesn't add to understanding. In the middle of designating these figures from the Bible as saints, the professor wants further to characterize by designating them as king, prophet, or priest. Thinking he would discuss Aaron as the prototypical priest, I became dizzy when he taught that Job, of all figures, was an examplar of the priests. The professor lost further ground in his discussion of the 20th century. He gives passing glance to developments such as the Industrial Revolution and the arms race but never hones in on the ideological, cultural, or political causes of totalitarianism. This causes his discussion of thinkers and writers who responded to the trauma to be less grounded than it should have been. Finally, admitting my own intellectual limitations, I could never understand what the professor meant by the term, "secular saint." All I know is he used two very religious people, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa, to typify them, which added to my confusion. But, by this time in the course, there was such a mixing of saint AND hero, I was hopelessly lost. I wish the professor would simply analyze the material, which he is actually quite good at, and leave the cubbyholing and other unhelpful labelling out of his teaching. In the meantime, I would very strongly suggest that if you want a course on philosophy and the meaning of life, purchase instead the Teaching Company's very fine, 5 star course on Philosophy, taught by Professor Daniel Robinson.
Date published: 2010-06-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring and not useful I am a big fan of the teaching company's courses, but this course fell flat on several accounts. As to content, there was a broad array of points of view regarding the meaning life as seen from a secular vs religious viewpoint and the tension between these two were contrasted using the works of various thinkers. However, the logic employed was often circular in nature, leaving the listener without a clear sense about the main topic. Also, the teaching style was this monotone, uninspired recitation of sentences with all the dramatic appeal of the reading of a phone book. I kept feeling myself saying "get on with it, already" and he incessantly droned on and on. I stuck it out through all 36 lectures, but ultimately he never delivered the goods. I have have tried other courses and if you are looking for a good comparative religion review, the course "Comparative Religion" with Prof Charles Kimball was very informative and had a great informational and anecdotal quality that I really enjoyed. Hope this helps.
Date published: 2010-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The best course to date, by far. I have a sizable Teaching Company library and this is the most challenging and constructive course to date, by far. Professor Ambrosio is able to lead us along the main strands that comprise the fabric of our understanding in the Western traditions of life’s deepest question: Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. This title might seem to be more than ambitious, but it doesn’t stop there, for the synthesis he achieves goes on to recognize the necessary appreciation of Life’s counterpart, Death. While all of the thinkers he uses in this very well told and exciting story have worldwide name recognition, the wrap-up polymath synthesizer for the course is Ernest Becker, far from a household name. The Teaching Company uses Beckett in their promotional material where in terms of their importance to the overall accomplishment of the course Becker is the more representative. Is Beckett a misprint? I doubt it. Samuel Beckett is much better known and marketable than the academic nomad Ernest Becker who died at age 49 not knowing that his Denial of Death had won a Pulitzer Prize. Having traced the parallel paths of the Hero and the Saint historically, the course challenges us here at the history-making edge in the 21st century to mutate, with humiliated hope, toward the ideal of the Secular Saint. And, much as I like his endorsement of Becker’s synthesis, here Professor Ambrosio loses me when he says that the secular saint would not be a partisan in the evolution/intelligent design or pro-life/pro-choice debates. Ouch! But I’ve always known I was no saint. And yet I still think this is the best TTC course to date, by far.
Date published: 2010-03-10
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