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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Qualities of the Secular Saint

Simone Weil, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa resided in three distinct and different places not only in their physical being but in their specific concerns as well.  At first glance these differences would appear to create a definitive rift in comparisons between the three but at a second glance, these differences become small and the overall message of each of their lives becomes nearly inseparable as one way of being that defines the secular saint.
            According to Dr. Ambrosio, the secular saint is a person who lives the question of meaning fully while at the same time they are committed to searching for meaning along both the paths of hero and saint.  It is common for the secular saint to work toward mastering their vision.  In the case of Simone Weil, she not only lived but also died her life in search of meaning.  She died of tuberculosis that was aggravated by lack of food.  This lack of food was self imposed as she was avoiding food in an effort to show solidarity with her countrymen in Nazi occupied France.  This act alone provides us with insight into what makes Simone Weil and how she defines the secular saint.  As someone who is trying to live a life that is meaningful at least to themselves, to die by this meaning would be to fulfill the meaning in its entirety.  Simone Weil, in her spiritual zeal, felt it was necessary to show solidarity with her countrymen as a way of finding meaning for herself.  She had lived her short life in such a way that this death comes as little surprise.  She had tried to identify with others through the course of her life, in other ways as well.  She had taken a year off from teaching to live as a factory worker, a way to better understand the challenges of such a life.  Through these examples from the life of Simone Weil, we can see how she did toe the line between the path of the saint and the path of the hero.  Through her spirituality and love of humanity as a whole, she exemplified the life of the saint while her commitment to living her life out in such a way as to find herself at death’s door while in the midst of living out the meaning of her life, she exemplified the life of the hero.
            Much of the same can be said for Martin Luther King as well.  He died as a result of following and living out the life he believed was necessary in order to bring justice to African Americans during the civil rights movement.  Mother Teresa, on the other hand, died a natural death without a direct correlation to the life of justice she required for herself and those around her, however, she did die in the midst of living out the example of the type of justice she fought for.  It is, for both Martin Luther King as well as Mother Teresa, this idea of justice that resounds so deeply within the heart of the hero that it becomes obvious that both, despite their religious affiliations, were living the life of the hero.  Yet, it is precisely because of their religious affiliations, with King being a reverend and Mother Teresa being a nun that the life of the saint for each of them is evident.  Just as Simone Weil had done as well, they lived out their vision of life fully, to the end. 
Mother Teresa ached for the recognition of the human being as well as the recognition of their suffering.  Though one may not be able to alleviate said suffering, one must try to be respectful of the whole human person and at least acknowledge it.  Martin Luther King believed that everyone deserved the same rights, despite the differences in skin color.  Simone Weil believed that while people may not be able to alleviate all suffering, no harm should be done either.  People should attempt, in Weil’s opinion, to alleviate any suffering they can, at any cost but if this cannot be done, one must at least live their life in a way that sees to it that all avoidable harm is, in fact, avoided.  In these stances in their lives, there is an overwhelming sense of the justice they were each seeking while an obvious love of humanity is also evident.  For Weil, it is in her sense of justice where we can see the life of the Greek citizen hero has been of particular influence on her; the way that she focuses her vision on all, not just some.
In this modern age, we have many examples of the secular saint.  These examples are a backbone of our society that people may not always recognize or consciously see as a “secular saint” but they do exist as a model for many.  Secular saints, whether real or imagined, such as in the movies are everywhere.  Whether looking on the news and seeing Mother Teresa serving the poor so diligently or watching the main character George in the holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there are examples of people who are trying to live their life not only in the spiritual realm but also in the very human realm, trying to find for themselves as well as others, a life of meaning.   
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 30.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 31
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 32.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 33. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Experience of Meaning: Through the Eyes of Buber, Levinas, Wiesel and Frankl

When evil abounds and challenges to the individual are at their utmost, is it possible to still find meaning in life and is it even a time to consider such a question?  For Buber, Levinas, Wiesel and Frankl, this question was not only a reality but also the precise place where the answer can and would be found.  After World War II and specifically after the Holocaust, Jewish philosophers had a new framework to work within.  Questions of God, man and humanity as a whole cannot help but come to the forefront of the mind after such events.  For these men, there was a need to look for some sort of answer and meaning within the answer to the questions that arose after having seen, and for some lived, through such horror. 
            In a time when the question of God’s covenant relationship to the individual as well as humanity as a whole was necessary for those with faith, particularly the Jewish faith, Buber saw a specific need; the need to rediscover this relationship.  In his view, there was only one place where this rediscovery and reawakening could take place, in the center of the relationship itself.  In Buber’s teachings in I and Thou, it is only in the midst of such a relationship between two persons or one person and nature, that the depth of experiencing meaning is possible.
            Emmanuel Levinas, a Russian born philosopher, taught that one’s responsibility is not solely in the midst of relationship but that which precedes the relationship as well.  He believed that meaning was not found in the way of the hero or self knowledge but within the love that exists between people.  Within this mutual love relationship one can find true wisdom, as opposed to the wisdom of the heroic tradition, which centers on the self.  For Levinas, it is the responsibility that we have toward one another that precedes the relationship and it is at this point where meaning can be found.  In Buber’s view it is within the relationship that meaning is found, within the dialogue and communication that takes place therein.  In Levinas’s view, such meaning does not need the face to face encounter that Buber’s view requires.
            Elie Wiesel, having survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp, raised the question of God’s covenant relationship with the Jewish people.  It is certainly understandable that such questioning would take place when God’s chosen people were so violently and inexplicably being exterminated as if they were nothing.  When Elie first arrived in the camp, his own mother and sister were immediately shipped off to die while he and his father were permitted to live.  This type of trauma, along with the countless other atrocities that took place within the camp, helped shape Wiesel’s viewpoint on the nature of the covenant relationship that he had been taught he and his people had with God.  The very questioning of where God was when a young boy was left hanging, unable to die quickly because of his light weight, was raised by another in the camp.  The only response was that He was hanging there with the boy, which begs the further inquiry of whether or not there is a God at all and if so, where is the responsibility being lived up to that such a relationship inherently brings with it.  It is within this second follow-up question that Wiesel rejects the notion of the I and thou dialog with God.  Wiesel therefore, according to Professor Ambrosio, began his quest to find a more humanly proportioned responsibility than the total responsibility that Levinas found to be necessary in his teachings about the search for meaning. 
            Viktor Frankl, in his search for meaning, which would become one of the most important books in modern times, Man’s Search for Meaning, takes into account three elements: freedom, responsibility and suffering.  For Frankl, as opposed to Buber, Levinas and Wiesel, who believed that meaning was found in relationship, freedom is where meaning is found.  Each person, despite their circumstances, always has at least some form of freedom.  Frankl, like Wiesel, survived a concentration camp.  However, Frankl found that within the confines of such a terrible situation, he still had freedom enough to determine how he would react to the situation at hand.  His reaction, whether negative or ultimately positive, depended largely upon himself, as it does for all people in whatever situation they find themselves.  One’s values and who the person decides to be in the midst of their struggle is a decision made by the individual.  Within this type of freedom is where the real responsibility and its function exist.  For each individual, the suffering or struggle that the person faces is unique and cannot be replicated because each individual and their reactions to their given situation are also unique.  For Frankl, the individual is responsible for finding their suffering, also spoken of as passion, and to make what they will of it.  It is within this suffering and finding personal meaning as such that man has the opportunity to find meaning at all.
            Looking at the experiences of Frankl and Wiesel, it is hard to imagine what they not only faced but lived through.  It is in these experiences that the depth of who they were when they came out the other side, resonates deeply within their teachings.  For the individual who faces their suffering in such a way that they find meaning in asking whether or not there can be meaning found in such awful circumstances, there is a strength to the argument that may not be as easily found in those who have not faced such a direct challenge to who they are and their beliefs.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 27.
Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 29.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Journey Toward Totalization: A Comparison of Saul of Tarsus, Augustine and Mohammed

In the three religious figures of Saul of Tarsus, Augustine and Mohammed we have similarities not only in their individual conversions to their respective faiths but also in their attempted conversion of a worldview that takes on the challenge of combining one or more elements of the cultures that have come before and led the way to answer the question of how to live a meaningful life.  For Saul of Tarsus and Augustine the end result is nearly the same in that they both looked to create a world in which Christianity is the primary, if not only, way of life.  Mohammed, on the other hand, looked to create a world in which a more complete and corrected version of Christianity, the worship of Allah known as Islam, would become the dominate worldview.

            “Moses wrote of Him: this He says, who is Truth.”  (Augustine 2006)  All three figures whole heartedly believed in this statement, in all respects.  They all came from a religious standpoint, once their personal conversions had taken place, that the text of the Hebrew scriptures revealed the belief that God is Truth, that there is no other truth but the one and only God.  In this way, all three of the men are in agreement on the basis for the worldview they believed to not only be right but also the truth that should be spread in order to create one worldview, one total worldview that could be and should be espoused by all people.

            Saul of Tarsus, according to Professor Ambrosio, lived a life that reflected the bidirectional nature of one identity, the Greek identity, influencing and transforming  a second identity, that of Christianity.  In this, the heroic ideal changes the Christian ideal and vice versa.  Saul of Tarsus had been well educated in Greek language and culture before his conversion to Christianity took place.  After Saul’s conversion, he spent the rest of his life preaching as an apostle of Christ to Gentiles, instead of Jews.  Once Rome got wind of this preaching, he was brought up on charges of creating unrest in the Roman dominion.  In a direct reflection of citizenship in the Greek tradition, Saul is aware of his rights to be heard by the secular authority and to face a trial as such.  Saul, by then known as Paul, died for his beliefs.  He lived out his life as a Greek hero would.  While the heroic standard in the Greek tradition would not have been focused on spreading Christianity, it would focus on the living out of one’s fate, one’s destiny to the end, to the death, if necessary.  Paul did exactly this.  Just as Socrates before him, he did not bow down to the powers that be in civil judgment for fear of losing his life.  He, instead, battled back with the knowledge that he was doing what must be done in order to live a life of personal integrity.

            Augustine lived at a time of relative peace in Christianity.  He would have no need for martyrdom as Saul did.  Augustine’s reflection of the Greek ideal came with his personal struggle, just as the Greeks believed that life was a struggle.  During the course of his life, Augustine took on many different roles, eventually becoming a leader and teacher in a culture that was shifting from Roman imperialism to Christianity as the dominant force.  According to Professor Ambrosio, the theme of searching for God and self is prevalent in Augustine’s most renowned work “Confessions”.  According to Augustine, it is human pride that thwarts the search for God and self.  It is in this thwarting that the struggle of life takes place.  One must work to overcome their pride in order to know God and by extension, know themselves.  In the Greek tradition, knowing oneself and living that knowing out was of utmost importance.  Just as Saul of Tarsus had been before him, he was well educated in Greek and Roman tradition and this influence is seen in his writings as well as how he lived his life after his personal conversion.  He believed as Socrates believed, that personal responsibility was a key to a meaningful life.  In his own words, which very nearly echo the voice of Socrates in Apology, “I would much rather say ‘I don’t know,’ when I don’t, than hold one up to ridicule who had asked a profound question and win applause for a worthless answer.” (Augustine 2006)

            Mohammed, had he been living at the time of the Greeks, would have been a man living as the heroic ideal, almost to the point of perfection aside from the obvious fundamental belief in the worldview of the saint.  As the model for all believers in Islam, the “living Quran”, according to Professor Ambrosio’s lecture, he is living the parallel to that of Socrates, who lived out the question of the meaning of life.  He also lived as a parallel to the heroic concept of agon, the idea that life is a struggle.  For Mohammed, this struggle is known as jihad.  As the Prophet for his followers, he struggles in order to bring back truth and revelation to his people.  His teachings have a strong root in the idea of justice, just as the Greek tradition did.  He takes a journey in his jihad, committing to a way of life that is known as Islam, the submission of the people and self to Allah.  This living out of his truth reflects directly the spirit of the Greek heroic ideal. 

            All three of these men, living out their beliefs as a whole and entire way of being as well as their conversion of self and others, provide examples, if not perfect models (as in Mohammed’s case) for the people who would eventually become their followers.  While none of them claimed to be a god or anything more than man living the way of truth as they saw it, the people they influenced in the way of this truth spread out far and wide and in many ways, it was successful though none of them would reach the dream state of totalitarian belief, one world view during their lifetimes or even in the generations that have come after. While what the future holds remains to be seen, the influence of these men on the west is undeniable and in all three of their lives some of their example either parallels or outright lives the heroic ideal of the Greek tradition.



Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 12.

 Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).             Lecture 13.

Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).              Lecture 14.

Augustine (2006).  Confessions.  Classics of Western Philosophy, 7th ed, 374.  377.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Incommensurable: A New View of Hero and Saint

As has been seen through the course of history, trying to rectify the image of the hero with the image of the saint has been not only difficult but evidently impossible for most, with only a brilliant few coming forth with nearly satisfactory but still incomplete attempts at doing so.  In no small way, the way of the saint and the way of the hero seems to have an ever widening gap in the time of what Thomas Kuhn would classify as the scientific revolution.  This gap can visibly be seen in the trenches of World War I where Wilfrid Owen wrote his poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, asserting to the hero’s journey within the context of that which is pointless even when fighting for something greater than oneself.    

            Leading up to the first half of the twentieth century, in which both World War I and II took place, there was an undeniable shift in the worldview of many.  The influential writings and inquiry of Marx, Darwin and Freud typify the beginnings of this new worldview, one in which force is recognized as being of primary importance. 

For Karl Marx, the new worldview was determined by economics.  The force of economics is what drives the individual toward a search for meaning through the derivation of their human capacity for labor and the ability to transform nature by way of said labor in productive and meaningful ways.  Marx also believed that the industrial revolution brought with it alienation for humanity in terms of the fact that people were no longer as directly connected to the labor in which they found meaning.  People had quite literally been replaced by machinery in their ability to transform nature and therefore, they had lost their ability to find meaning as they once had.  Through the production of commodities, in Marx’s view, a person finds meaning and value.  Therefore, if a person no longer produces as they once had, as an individual; it is a linear line of thinking to believe that the human being will lose their grasp of what gives their life meaning.  This view of the loss of meaning being tied so directly to the loss of human production within the force of economics gives way to a reinterpretation, according to Professor Ambrosio, to the struggle of the hero.  That is, the struggle of the individual in the face of the need for commodities and the loss of personal production of such commodities. 

Charles Darwin, though not concerned with economics but rather with the biological character of the human being and the world the human being inhabits, offered to the worldview of creationism, which is often associated with the idea of the saint, evolution in the form of natural selection.  Intelligent design and evolution appear to be two sides of an ongoing debate, dating back to Darwin and his theory of natural selection.  For many, this debate is hard pressed to find a middle ground and therefore, it widens the gap between hero and saint that much further.  Believers in intelligent design often do not see the human being as a byproduct of functional traits that have prolonged the ability to survive but, rather, as a person created precisely for meaning and in many cases, the glorification of God.  In the context of the hero, the idea of evolution is impersonal and ruled by necessity. The drive of adaptation is the force by which humanity has evolved.

Sigmund Freud also viewed the world in the light of necessity and struggle as is common in the heroic ideal.  In his case, however, the necessity was anything but impersonal.  For the individual, according to Freud, it is necessary for the human being to struggle against the drives of the id, which are repressed by the superego.  According to Professor Ambrosio, it is precisely this that lends itself to the viewpoint of the tragic hero by way of finding meaning in the struggle and therefore giving meaning to an individual’s life.

While the views of these extraordinary minds leaves little in the way of the saintly ideal, there came a writer by the name of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who returns us to the worldview of the saint.  Coming from the Russian Orthodox perspective of Christianity, Dostoevsky returns us to the roots of faith.  Dostoevsky appears to have taken on the problem of evil in a direct affront in the Brothers Karamazov.  He not only introduces us to a character, Father Zossima, who is an idealized version of the saint but also to a young man by the name of Ivan who rejects the meaning of God and is therefore a direct threat to the Russian Orthodox way of life, which in Dostoevsky’s view appears to be nothing short of the way of the saint.  Within the context of these stories, both included in the Brothers Karamazov, one can find the identity of Dostoevsky and his perspective that all are responsible for all, to all.  The force of the problem of evil, asks the individual to fight back by way of accepting their freedom and face up to their responsibilities as such.  This perspective takes on deeper meaning when contrasted to Friedrich Nietzsche, who held the view that no one is responsible to anyone for anything.

Nietzsche’s outlook on life, revealed in his story, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is heroic in nature.  He believed in the will to self mastery and that everyone obeys someone whether it is self or an outside source.  Yet, he did not find that anyone was responsible for this for any definitive reason, as one who abides by the way of the saint would.  He did, however, reason that necessity will bring about what needs to take place in order to ensure survival and that this will come internally from the individual and their participation in reality as it truly is.           

As previously mentioned, there are forces at work in humanity. These forces, such as the force of the economy, will push until another force pushes back, determining the path in which humanity takes over the long haul, if there will be a long haul at all.  In light of the progress of science and the culmination of the industrial revolution ensuing into the arms race in the first half of the twentieth century, the world saw the mass destruction of both world wars.  It could appear that the ever expanding view of the heroic ideal, even in modern terms is quietly and quickly drowning out the ideal of the saint. While this may be simply the nature of things and the necessity that the heroic ideal finds essential, it may be something to contemplate that the world appears to grow colder as the gap widens between the hero and the saint at a time when the destruction of those that the saint finds inherently valuable is undeniably possible.  According to Thomas Kuhn, incommensurability is the inability to translate two rival theories into each other’s terms.  Though he meant this to relate to scientific theories, it can easily be seen here that in the broad spectrum of human knowledge and the search for meaning, the ideals of hero and saint are very much incommensurable in more ways than originally believed to be understood.  


Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 19.

Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 20.

Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 21.

Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 22. 

Ambrosio, F.  Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series).                          Lecture 23.