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Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life

Explore one of the most important questions of all in this brilliant and insightful course taught by an acclaimed professor of philosophy.
Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life is rated 3.1 out of 5 by 59.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Sad My wife and I have watched over 200 courses from the Teaching Company, over the past twenty years (no exaggeration), most excellent, some mediocre; but this is the first course we've ever watched that was just bad. There was some good stuff here, which might have made a good 12-lecture course, but mostly there was just a lot of word salad that was meaningless. We have never sat through a lecture mocking the lecturer before, as he beats words and metaphors to death. Now I know what a pedagog sounds like. Sorry, Prof. Ambrosio, just tellin' it like it is.
Date published: 2024-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intellectually Rigorous I can't believe this course isn't more highly rated. The professor is exceptional, and the subject is approached from a creative and informative stance. Challenging (it is, after all, a course on the meaning of life) and absolutely worthwhile.
Date published: 2023-11-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A philosophical tryout There is something vital missing from this endeavor. I purchased this set of lectures less than a month ago and assumed the instructor would provide an alternate set of approaches to one's life journey. Instead he seemed to have come up with a perspective of "Hero or secular saint," never defined what he meant by this choice or how or why he came up with it, and proceed as if trying to appeal to some panel of academic acquisition editors, substituting abstract words here and there searching for ways to underscore his argument. Not only that, but he kept shifting his body and employing the same tone and rhythm which often became soporitic. On the plus side, there were moments when he read from a subject's writings, like Flannery O'Conor, became involved and, if nothing else, gave the listener a touch of life from a uniquely mystical, Southern sensibility of yesteryear. It's hard to say what to make of all this except to say, as the philosopher Heidegger would put it, it all depends on what realities you were "thrown into" (his was Nazi Germany) and how you learned to cope or thrive. In fact, putting aside the amorphous hero and secular saint guideline, Heidegger's approach alone might have been more meaningful.
Date published: 2023-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life Extraordinary introduction to the critical questions preoccupying mankind in western civilization, organized thoughtfully around two easily understood archetypes -- the Saint and the Hero. This is erudition in all of its mastery and beauty on full display. When money and power finally purge the humanities from our educational system leaving only STEM courses for our children, at least we will have this gem in the archives. Thanks professor Ambrosio for this heroic and saintly contribution.
Date published: 2023-02-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Philosophy, Religions and the Meaning of life To me, this course was a very detailed exploration of Hillel’s conundrum “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”. Professor Ambrosio’s passionate and poetic presentation examines this question through two lenses: one of “honor” (hero) and one of “agape” (saint). My only real objection is with the title of the course. With a title of “Philosophy, Religion and the Meaning of Life”, it is natural to expect a broad overview of how people throughout the world use philosophy and religion to find meaning. But as Professor Ambrosio clearly stated in the fourth sentence of the fifth paragraph of the summary, this series “…focuses on one particularly central dynamic in Western history.” A better title would have been: “The Hero and the Saint; Two Paths to Find Meaning in Life within the European Tradition.”
Date published: 2022-01-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Philosophy, Religion, and the meaning of life I have not finished the course, I have just started listening. A point of clarification, you do not win the Medal of Honor it is awarded, for gallantry above and beyond call of duty.
Date published: 2021-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, very knowledgable The professor is knowledgeable, articulate and excellent. Like many of the courses, the detail is more grad level than undergrad, and like many of the courses, have to listen multiple times to many of the lectures for the full meaning presented in the words. I am impressed how the information is parsed in such a careful meaningful way. With knowledge of the last century that includes growing up in a museum with old timers telling stories, I appreciate the philosophic depth with the history to help build the picture being presented.
Date published: 2021-06-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from 18 hours of my life I will never get back! I suffered through this series in hope that it would get better and I would learn something about the meaning of life. Unfortunately, my hope was never fulfilled. The instructor is too arrogant and his word choices seemed like he was more interested in showing how many $5 words he could string together to impress the audience with his extensive vocabulary than to teach at the level of education that the Great Courses students generally possess. Don't wast you money even if it is on sale!
Date published: 2021-02-10
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What is the meaning of life? Philosophy


Francis J. Ambrosio

I hope this course will help us better understand our own values, as well as the values of those who differ from us, so that we can cooperate in meeting the challenges that confront humanity now more urgently than ever before.


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 by the student body to the faculty member who has had the strongest impact on the students' university experience. Professor Ambrosio is widely published in scholarly journals, such as the International Philosophical Quarterly, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal for the British Society for Phenomenology. He is the editor of the books Text and Teaching (1991) and The Question of Christian Philosophy Today (1999). In 1997, he published a study of the painting of Fra Angelico titled Fra Angelico at San Marco: The Place of Art. His most recent book, Dante and Derrida: Face to Face, was published in 2007. Professor Ambrosio teaches courses on Plato, Existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and Dante. In 2000, he founded the MyDante project at Georgetown University, which has been widely recognized as one of the most innovative and effective educational websites currently available in the field of humanities.

Meaning—A Question and a Commitment

01: 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.

32 min
Hero and Saint—Mapping the Cultural Genome

02: 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.

31 min
The Heroic Age—The Greek Worldview

03: 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.

28 min
Heroism and the Tragic View of Life

04: 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.

30 min
Plato—Politics, Justice, and Philosophy

05: 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.

32 min

06: 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.

31 min
The Heroic Ideal in Late Stoicism

07: 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.

29 min

08: "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."

30 min
Father Abraham, the First Saint

09: 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.

30 min
Saintly Types in the Hebrew Bible

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.

31 min
Jesus as Saintly Innovator—Forgiving Love

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.

32 min
Hero or Saint? Saul of Tarsus

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.

31 min
Hero or Saint? Augustine of Hippo

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.

32 min
Mohammed—The Prophet as Saintly Innovator

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.

30 min
Saint Francis and Dante—Saintly Troubadours

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

32 min
The Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo

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.

32 min
Enlightenment Patterns of Cultural Mutation

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.

31 min
Mt. Moriah Revisited—Saintly Transgression

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.

32 min
A History of Suspicion—Marx, Darwin, Freud

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.

30 min
Nietzsche—The Return of the Tragic Hero

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.

32 min
Dostoevsky—The Return of the Saint

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.

31 min
A Century of Trauma

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.

30 min
The Quantum Leap

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.

32 min
Existentialism—Sartre and de Beauvoir

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.

32 min
Camus and the Absurd Hero

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.

33 min
Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Grace

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.

32 min
The Holocaust and the Crisis of Forgiveness

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.

29 min
Faulkner and Beckett—Images of the Forlorn

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.

32 min
Viktor Frankl—Freedom's Search for Meaning

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."

32 min
Simone Weil—Imagining the Secular Saint

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.

32 min
Simone Weil—A New Augustine?

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."

30 min
Identifying the Secular Saint

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.

32 min
The Secular Saint at the Movies

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."

33 min
Ernest Becker—The Denial of Death

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.

32 min
Terror and Hope in a Planetary Age

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.

32 min
The Secular Saint—Learning to Walk Upright

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.

29 min