For the student of politics and public affairs, there are few fields so richly rewarding as study of historical figures. We find that the same circumstances, the same problems, and the same challenges present themselves again and again; and the solutions crafted in one era, even if not fully applicable to another, at least provide us some rudimentary guidance.
J.M. Carpenter’s recently published Lives of the Luminaries takes this principle as its starting point. In his Foreword, he tells us:
Our present predicament comes because people who should know better are letting it happen, and aside from greed, they are letting it happen because they are deficient in character. It’s clearer now more than ever that we need to be the solution. We must rain our own characters and help others, particularly the very young, to develop good characters of their own. One of the best ways to do this is by studying the great figures of history and teaching others about them. By doing so, you will see not only their deeds, but their thought and decision-making processes, or in other words, the characteristics that made them who they were. By studying them, you will be associating with them, and by associating with them, you’ll be more like them.
This is not Mr. Carpenter’s first book, but it clearly is his most carefully crafted one. He has assembled an impressive collection of case studies on fifty-one different historical figures, and highlighted the features of their careers that he sees as most crucial. He begins in the remote mists of time with ancient Egypt (Narmer and Imhotep, among others) and marches right up to the present day with an astute analysis of the personality of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Throughout the book, Mr. Carpenter retains his focus on the need for masculine virtue. In Chapter 16, which describes the Battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years’ War, he says:
It is only by subjecting ourselves to trial that we grow. Edward wanted to subject his son and England’s then-future king (he would in fact predecease his father decades later) to a trial where he would have to earn his manhood and grow as a person. Masculine energy fundamentally comes from testing yourself, conquering your limits, and smashing through obstacles. Edward III made sure that his son would get a chance to do it, without babying or coddling him, and stifling his growth. [p. 115]
In my view, the best sections are Chapter 10 (“How Scipio Prevents Mass Desertion After Cannae”), Chapter 20 (“Charles I Retains His Dignity In A Show Trial”), and Chapter 31 (“Heinrich Schliemann: Discoverer Of Troy”). What emerges in Carpenter’s prose is an abiding enthusiasm for the subject matter, a consistent optimism, and a clear mastery of the material. The reader is drawn in, and engaged. I especially enjoyed Chapter 51, the last of the book, in which Carpenter describes how Carl Sagan influenced his thought. This touched a nerve with me, who as a boy in the early 1980s was transfixed by Sagan’s ethereal Cosmos television series. To resist the destructive influences of modernity, Carpenter argues for the following: (1) We must become resilient characters ourselves; (2) We must cultivate virtue as an indestructible, permanent store of wealth; and (3) We must focus on preserving the physical manifestations of our historical legacy, such as museums, libraries, and historic monuments.
Carpenter closes his book with an unsettlingly accurate prediction Sagan made just before his death, where he imagined a future “when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of the very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas and knowledgeably question those in authority…[and when] our critical faculties decline, unable to distinguish what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
Carpenter understands that we have a remedy for this malady, if we have the conviction to implement it. Virtue and character must be taught; they do not fall from the heavens on to the shoulders of men. And having been taught, their lessons must be continually refreshed and renewed with external challenges, struggles, and practice, so that such lessons are not forgotten. At different points in a reader’s life, a famous figure will mean different things to him; he will not see the world in his twenties in the same way he sees the world in his forties. It is this message that makes Lives of the Luminaries worth reading. A reader may not agree with every assessment of every historical figure that Carpenter discusses, but that is hardly the point. What matters is that the reader be exposed to the names and careers of these historical figures, and learns a bit about their struggles. Even a passing acquaintance is better than none at all; for once the seed of interest is planted, the reader will later be able to conduct his own investigations, and form his own conclusions. The great figures of history will produce fruit for our edification until the end of time.