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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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 knowledgeable, enthusiastic lecturer. I am technical guy trying to broaden my knowledge. Found the topic a bit dry but I feel good about finishing it. And it did broaden my scope. I would recommend it especially at sale price.
Date published: 2020-06-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Please remind the professor of the lecture title Awful, disjointed and not representative of the quest for the meaning of life. The professor didn't even pronounce the names of several famous philosophers correctly. Over and over he referred to the "secular saint" as a description of the various people discussed. I cannot make this connection and he seems to assume it is obvious. It isn't. I left the lecture series with no insight into the meaning of life. I am a graduate of his alma mater and wish to tell prospective students that he is not representative of the quality of education at Georgetown. He said that he was told by a colleague to inject some fun into his lectures. He decided to devote a lecture to media, mostly films representative of man's search for meaning. He spoke for 20 minutes without even mentioning a single film. He spent this time discussing media in general. Not exactly an injection of fun. I have purchased 50+ lectures from The Great Courses and this was the only one I considered putting into the trash compactor to ensure that I never accidentally watched it again. Overall.....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Date published: 2018-10-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from not for the general audience takes a while to develop his thesis. uses a lot of metaphors that detract from the rigor with which his thesis is developed. his presentation style is an acquired taste, and I suspect that most will give up watching before acquiring the taste.
Date published: 2018-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life I bought this DVD about a month ago, and I am very pleased with the overall experience. The professor is very knowledgeable and is able to convey complex ideas in a way that is interesting, compelling and accessible.
Date published: 2018-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I found this course an excellent way to look at philosophy and history. East lecture stood on its own but connected well to the course as a whole. The professor is brilliant!
Date published: 2017-07-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Ideas, Mixed Delivery There's a lot of great content in this course, and I have no doubt that the professor knows his stuff. Regrettably, he spends almost half the course explaining what he's going to say, leaving less time to actually say it than I wish he would. Others may have found this course too complex, but I wish he would have delved deeper into his subject and devoted less time to introductory matters.
Date published: 2017-07-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Catchy I have been listening for about two weeks. Maybe it's me but this professor is the most boring teacher I have ever heard. His voice is monotone and he uses no humor what so ever. He is without a doubt a very knowledgeable professor but I can't see how he could connect with his students. It is like being in a class that is a required course where no one wants to be there and the professor is out of touch with his class
Date published: 2017-03-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from So-so The content was fair, however the presenter kept repeating the same thing over and over, He did use different ways of saying the same thing-but it was still the same thing. Also, he has a very dry style. My copy is a CD and I may be a little off base. Perhaps it is because my mind would not stay on focus-kept drifting off to other thoughts.
Date published: 2016-11-07
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