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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  People had quite literally been replaced by machinery in their ability to transform nature and therefore, they had lost their ability to find meaning as they once had.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. 

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