In the 12 lectures of Storytelling and the Human Condition, you will examine the connection between the storytelling impulse and our drive to understand who we are and what our place is in the world around us. You will go on a globe-spanning, time-jumping, media-traversing tour of the human narrative tradition. Your guide is author, journalist, and storyteller Alexandra Hudson, founder of Civic Renaissance, a community for lifelong learners, which she invites you to join at Civic-Renaissance.com. She will illuminate how stories shape our lives throughout history and across cultures in ways that—much like human nature itself—are a complicated mix of the “good,” the “bad,” and everything in between.
Storytelling and the Human Condition
Alexandra Hudson is an author, journalist, and storyteller as well as an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. A recipient of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship award, she writes for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, TIME, POLITICO, and Newsweek, and she has appeared on CBS and Fox News. She is the founder of Civic Renaissance, an intellectual community and newsletter dedicated to personal and cultural renewal. An appointment at the US Department of Education is one highlight of her service at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
01: The Power of Stories
Begin your journey by considering the universal appeal and power of storytelling. Here, you will meet your expert, Alexandra, and consider the thesis of this course: The human condition is defined by both the greatness and wretchedness of mankind, and that stories help us better understand and thrive within this duality of our nature.
02: Origins and the Meaning of Life
Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? These are questions that virtually every human society has asked—and answered—through story. Examine several of the earliest creation stories, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the creation story from the Book of Genesis, and put them in conversation with one another to see how these stories reveal how these cultures view the nature and purpose of humanity.
03: The Meaning of Suffering
As you will see here, storytelling has been a way that people across time and place have coped with the reality of human misery and have dealt with the question of why we suffer. Here, Alexandra puts into dialogue two different kinds of stories and perspectives on suffering: the poem-made-song “Strange Fruit” and the famous tale of Job.
04: Guilt and Blame
Look at famous stories told by St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche to explore the ways guilt is presented in the stories we tell. As you will see, some prefer stories that convict and help them own up to wrong doing, while others prefer stories that exonerate. Despite this difference, the human struggle with these concepts is universal.
05: Civilization and Barbarism
Stories can unite us—but they can also help create and maintain division. Engage with several works of art spanning the centuries that offer reflections on why people have weaponized the language of civilization and barbarism to oppress marginalized groups and people. And, consider how we might tell better stories in our own lives and world today that unite and affirm our shared moral status as members of the human community.
06: Building Character
We have long used stories to define and illuminate moral ideals and virtues, help form character, and give people a definition of excellence to strive for. Start this lecture with a look at the ambiguous relationship between myth and history, and then dive into several works and storytelling traditions that demonstrate how fiction can help us communicate important moral lessons.
07: Love and Sex
Explore stories of love and its many dimensions. From the letters of Abélard and Héloïse in the 12th century to later works like Madame Bovary, you will look at the ways disordered love—disproportionate or selfish love—makes for tragic stories that serve as warnings. As you will see, the human heart is built to love, but we sometimes fail to love people and things in their proper order.
08: Materialism and Earthly Attachments
It is part of the human condition to become overly attached to the things of this world, and that overattachment can cause great suffering. Here, you will consider another facet of disordered love: over-attachment to possessions and power. Begin with a look at the life story of the Buddha and then see how it connects to other stories of greed, power, and selfish desire.
09: Pride before Destruction
Unpack a foundational pitfall of the human condition: pride. Here, you will look at some of history’s most famous and memorable stories concerning hubris and the troubles it can cause, including tales of Anansi from West African mythology, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Aesop’s fables. Along the way, consider why we often delight in stories of other people’s humiliation.
10: Adversity and Humor
Tragedy is a reality of the human experience. Yet, humor is how people across time and place have grappled with the absurdity and pain of life. Consider why we laugh in the face of darkness and suffering, and how we determine whether we are laughing at or laughing with others. With a look at two very different stories told centuries apart, we see how stories can confront adversity with irony and humor.
11: Death and the Afterlife
Death is one of the few certainties of the human condition. Explore how people across history and through stories have answered questions about the process and nature of death. From Dante’s Divine Comedy to a contemporary sitcom about the afterlife, consider the many ways we view death and what may lie beyond.
12: Freedom and Self-Determination
Bringing the course to a close, look at the meaning of freedom and consider how we can transform tragedy into triumph. Through the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley and the writings of Holocaust survivors Hannah Arendt and Viktor Frankl, you will see how we can each have a role in harnessing the power of storytelling to make the world a better place.