One must have courage, they must overcome, they must achieve and they must be willing to do these things or be these things with an end result that will benefit others. To do so is to fulfill one’s own fate; to know that all is done that can be done. These things, according to Professor Ambrosio, are the characteristics of a hero in the Greek cultural tradition.
Even Zeus was limited by necessity, that is, he was limited by ananke. In the Greek mythopoetic tradition, ananke is only one of the central concepts: ananke, moira and arête. Ananke creates moira and by accepting moira people have arête. Necessity creates one’s fate and by accepting that fate people can reach heroic excellence. An example of moira was, for Zeus, accepting that his son must die, that he can not intervene because by necessity he needed to act as a god first, a father second. Though this acceptance was painful, he did reach heroic excellence, or arête, by doing so. He had to live out the destiny before him in such a way that only he could do.
In the historical development of the heroic ideal, the meaning of human existence surrounds the idea that fate is the primary goal, the thing that will provide the human with a chance at self fulfillment and an opportunity to fulfill their personal goal. While reaching one’s goal does not depend on a god or on the hereafter in any way, it is religious based on the fact that it is bound by a type of vow or commitment, as religion is. While working toward staying true to this vow, this fulfillment of one’s fate, there is a struggle. This struggle is the main point of it all. In order to be the heroic ideal, the struggle must be pursued to the end with the hero doing everything that he can in order to reach the goal, everything that is possible, and everything that he is capable of doing.
During the time when the Greek city-state was emerging, there was a change of focus. Individualism was no longer the primary goal as it had been in the time of tribal organization, when there was a class structure within Greek society. At this time, the Oresteia was introduced and there began tragic drama. In the Oresteia, there was the playing out of the first trial by jury. These tragic dramas were a new way of honoring the gods, as well as entertaining the people. For these dramas, just like the Olympic games, there was a competition. And in this competition the chance did exist to fulfill arête. That is, through competition with others, one had to compete with their own self in order to produce the best work possible.
According to Aristotle, the best of the tragic hero would be art that should imitate life, in that people should be able to identify with the hero character in a play. People, as well as the gods, should be excited by either fear or pity or both. Aristotle did not feel that a true tragic hero was neither all good nor all bad; he felt that the average citizen had to be able to see themselves in such a person in order to be able to identify with them.
Looking at Plato’s work, he delves more deeply into root of what makes a heroic citizen tick. He asks and attempts to answer the question of whether or not citizenship itself gives meaning to one’s life, does it provide hope? In the Apology, Plato recognized and portrayed Socrates on trial. Socrates is well known, according to Professor Ambrosio’s lectures, as the father of questioning. In the Apology, we get to see Socrates and the ideal of the citizen hero play out from its beginning to its end. Socrates was the living answer to his own questioning. “I shall give you proofs of this, not words but what you esteem, deeds.” (Plato, 2006) and in the Apology we get to see what a living answer is, how he traveled about asking this question and having dialog with others in order to find out his place in the world and what it all means. Socrates famously died for this, he died for living out the question of what his arête would be, and as he accepted this fate, he became the ideal.
By the time the Roman empire took over, the questions that Socrates, Plato as well as Aristotle had presented had been mulled over and discussed within text and in the classroom of life for many years. The differences between Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, were profound. Plato believed in Socratic existence as the primary way to reach the heroic ideal, theory was secondary. Aristotle believed theory should come first and then one could live out the heroic ideal. For both, however, contemplation was the highest level of human fulfillment.
Then came Marcus Aurelis. Next to Socrates, according to Professor Ambrosio, he most likely has the strongest claim to living out the heroic ideal. However, by the time of Roman stoicism, which was the time when Marcus Aurelis lived, the rules of the game had begun to change quite a bit. People no longer had their focus on nature or how they would draw their fate from it; they rather had their focus on the rule of human law. Marcus Aurelis tried to keep the idea of heroic ideal alive. Through his beautiful meditations, he attempted to make it live on but instead it appeared to be the last hoorah of the living out of fate that can only come from a citizenship that existed in a world that was falling by the wayside.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 3.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series), Lecture 4.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series), Lecture 5.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series), Lecture 6.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series), Lecture 7.
Plato. (2006). Apology. Classics of Western Philosophy, 7th ed, 36.