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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.

Visit Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses) to read more...

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