You may ask yourself why we study the lives and experiences of great exemplars. When I say “exemplar” I mean a person of substance and distinction, a person of notoriety in some field of endeavor. There are many reasons for this; I will attempt to give a few of them here.
The first reason is that to me there is nothing more instructive and edifying than the life of a man (or woman) of distinction. We human beings are not so differently composed that one of us cannot learn something valuable from a study of the other. When I examine the life of an exemplar, I like to ask myself questions like: What would I have done in this situation? How would I have solved this problem? Was his action reasonable or not? It is like a constant testing, a continuous dialogue, if you will, with the dead. If I am to emulate someone, I first want to know his motivations. And by exploring those motivations, I can reveal, in some small way, part of my own personality.
A second reason (which I suppose is related to the first) is that I enjoy keeping company with the very best of men. Who would not want to do this? We are surrounded in our ordinary lives with much of what is base, venal, and petty; and generally I have no desire to wallow in such personalities when I open the covers of a book. The book-cover is for me a time-machine: I can escape from the present moment, range across the centuries, and arrive at the precise point I wish. I can then sit down beside my exemplar and hear, from his mouth in his native tongue, what he has to say. If I want to be surrounded by the hum-drum banality of existence, I can easily do this by visiting any grocery store, or any of the numberless megastores that festoon the landscape of modern America. But I prefer to exercise my spiritual strength by escaping from these people every now and then, and keeping company with others.
Of course I recognize and acknowledge that history is made not just by individuals, but by forces, processes, and the tidal waves of fortune. Only a fool would deny this. Yet there are counterpoints to be kept in mind. Individuals both make history and are made by it; man and his environment are part of the same continuous feedback loop, and it is often not easy to tell who is influencing whom. Is the great man a product of his environment, or the other way around? Sometimes the examplar makes his environment, and at other times he is made by it. Like much else in life, it depends on the circumstances. I would also add another point to this: has anyone ever been inspired to great things by processes? By learning about impersonal forces? The study of great exemplars has the unique power of motivating and inspiring others; no one, on the other hand, has ever been moved to great deeds by learning about abstract, impersonal forces. This does not mean that they are invalid, of course; it only means that human nature, in its search for moral instruction, cries out for tangible, concrete examples as models of behavior.
A third reason why we study exemplars is that our world is in dire need of moral instruction. I have long been of the opinion–and have repeatedly stated as much in my books–that our modern educational system places too much emphasis on knowledge, and not enough emphasis on character. Moral development is learned through the diligent study of biography, history, and philosophy; for many centuries it was so. Religion provided a further underpinning of support for right conduct and right actions. School systems encouraged the study of such subjects, and students were encouraged to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the lives and careers of great exemplars. But these pillars of character have been steadily eroded under the influence of a pernicious mass media culture, a vulgarization of the mind, and an unrelenting glorification (in the West at least) of materialism. The mind becomes degraded, and the expected type of conduct soon follows.
I have seen first-hand how many people undertaken the study of virtue by pondering the lives of great exemplars. I know what change they can bring about. As Petrarch says (with which I completely concur) with a smile in a letter to Giovanni Colonna:
Those who don’t like to read about exemplars should not read about them. I am forcing no one to do so. And if you ask me, I would prefer to be read by only a few people.
Great deeds are infectious, just as are evil deeds. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a man of character, a man of substance, giving expression to his inner virtus. It does not matter to me what his profession is: he may be a commander, a politician, an artist, a writer, a musician, an artisan, a tradesman, or a businessman. It does not matter. I also care nothing at all what his background, race, or religion may be. I could jab a finger at random on any map of the world, and see where my finger lands. Whether it be Cameroon, Italy, Burma, Indonesia, Paraguay, Sweden, Latvia, or the Congo, I could find men of substance and virtue there. It is our duty to sing their praises.
The great exemplars are a tonic for the sickness of the age. They are our cure for the general malaise that has gripped some of the more timid souls of our era. There is a current of defeatism, a feeling of helplessness, that can threaten to overwhelm the soaring eagles of our spirits. We must fight constantly against this negativity that shows its face in various forms. But no matter its mask, it is always the same Defeatism and Negativity standing before us. Fight this feeling; do not be rendered supine by it, and do not be cowed by what you see around you. Know that every man has within him the potential for greatness, and that this comes about as the manifestation of his own greatness of soul (Cicero’s magnitudo animi, about which I have spoken before) which he himself can nurture, polish, and develop through effort.
And if you are at times overwhelmed by feelings of futility, my response is the same as that so eloquently–and inspiringly–spoken by my cherished Francesco Petrarca in a letter written around 1350 to his friend Tommaso Caloiro. He tells us to throw off our anxiety, and cast our eyes on greater things that will always be pure and eternal:
Let the past ten thousands years come back to us, let era be piled on top of era: never will masculine virtue be praised enough. General rules will never be sufficient to describe the love of God or the hatred of corrupt pleasures. The road will never be barred for men of sharp intellects to explore new things. Let us have cheerful spirits: we are not toiling away for no reason. Nor will those people who are born in the far future–just before the end of our own aging world–labor away in vain. We should be more afraid that men will no longer exist before the devotion to the study of human affairs has broken through to the essence of the Truth.
So go forth and be great, unhindered by timidity and fear. And master yourself.
 Quibus exempla non placent, non legant; neminem cogo; et si me rogas, a paucis legi malim.
Read Thirty-Seven to learn more about the need to emulate the great men and great deeds of history: