The Power of Biography


Learning from Wise Men and Fools

Salvador Dali reading his own biography, 6 May, 1959.
Taken by Terry Fincher for the Daily Herald newspaper.

by Mark Olivero 

The complaint that “the biography genre” has become “voyeuristic” is a fair criticism – so opined physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an era of 24/7 media, the proliferation of “tell-all stories” is a literary equivalent of rubbernecking, as though such persons live in houses of all glass with microscopic lenses. Our modern cult of personality yields biographies more sensational than insightful. 

So should authors of biography leave out the ugly? But if they do, another imbalance occurs. A pristine life story lapses into hagiography. Fans of the one valorized may not mind, but other readers will suspect that some important details were left on the cutting room floor.

There are mountains of books published in either of these biographic styles – hatchet-job or hagiography. So has the biography genre surpassed its instructional value?

Not quite. Most lives embody varying portions of both folly and wisdom- this is a basic observation repeated in Plutarch’s Lives, an ancient anthology of Roman and Greek biographies. 

A contemporary example of such a collection is Humans of New York. When photographer Brandon Stanton began his photoblog, its explosion in reception was surprising to him as it was to others. His multi-platform endeavor has expanded to books, a blog series called Stories, and other media with the same “one person at a time” focus. The popularity of HONY has not been driven by voyeurism. Rather (according to Brandon Stanton), what propels the interest is “Finding what’s behind the shield” (Humans, 25). The shield is the protective layer, concealing something tender but pricless in every human being. 

Stanton confesses that his project was “never going to be an anthropological study” (Humans, 24). Yet his snapshots into ordinary lives of otherwise ignored people plays out in miniature our interest in longer biographies of extraordinary lives. What stands “behind the shield” is not merely a tale untold, but the light of virtue transcending the humdrum of daily life. Almost all of us admire the light of virtue when we see it in others, whomever they be. And therein lies the power of biography. 

An Eye for Virtue

Our desire for virtue is a trait or lively power which sets us apart from animals. Our human organ of appreciation has an eye for virtue.

How can we deepen our appreciation of virtue in others? The monotheistic traditions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all have their own iterations of a belief in a “spark of divinity” in mankind. The notion is also strongly represented in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and Sufism as well as Eastern varieties of mysticism.

Is this notion correct? Partly – there is more to it. The divine spark which is a tenet in the mystical philosophies is balanced in orthodox Christianity by the doctrine of sin. Whether it be called “Original Sin”, or “total depravity”, or as in St. Paul’s words, falling “short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23 ESV), the constant of vice mingled with virtue cannot be denied. Vices come to us easily. The light of virtue is what we lack. What, then, is the secret to how some achieve greatness? 

In his fascinating history of genius, Darren McMahon references to Cicero on this question of how greatness is achieved: Nemo unquam vir magnus fuit, sine aliquo affiatus divino. In English: “No man has ever been great, but by the aid of divine breath”  (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods). Whether it be Sir Edmund Hillary atop Everest, Madame Curie clutching a radioactive sample, Alexander the Great drunk with grief, Winston Churchill’s chin resilient against evil, Rosa Parks doing the same but from the front of a bus, Albert Einstein peering into the soul of the Universe or Jesus of Nazareth, like Samson, pushing down the pillars of evil, there is something, a virtus, “a power,” in them that surpasses their flesh and bones. We want to hear more on this matter, more about this power. So we read their lives.

“The interest in the lives of those individuals who achieved greatness was rather one of pyrotechnics: the masses looked upon the lives of the great ones in order to see how they burned”

In the modern view, the man or woman rises to greatness by a recipe of innate talent, unique opportunities, and resources (or the lack thereof) which propel them to do great things. The ancients called this power the furor divinas: “divine fury.” Before the secularization of metaphysics and other related disciplines the belief that the gods intervened in human affairs was pervasive. Thus, the complaint opening this essay – that of biographies written to feed inordinate curiosity on the one hand or written as hagiography on the other – was not, for many millennia, at the fore of society’s interest. The interest in the lives of those individuals who achieved greatness was rather one of pyrotechnics: the masses looked upon the lives of the great ones in order to see how they burned. The divine fury in this person or that person was not entirely a recipe of random fortune working out in them, but the gods resting upon them and shining through them. The divine fury was even used to describe the life of a villain. Plutarch said of Brutus, who murdered Caesar, that there was “a dim light burning in him.” The real presence of the gods in certain “chosen ones” is also evident in the etymological connection between the words genius and genii, meaning a superintending god or daimon.  

When we fast forward to the Christian era, this pagan belief was not lost but reified in the Church’s credos. Common grace was regarded as an abundant gift to all men, and to men in a greater degree. The entrance of common grace into the parlance of Christian anthropology is present in the words of St. Augustine when he said that “Genius is the rational soul (anima rationalis) of each man” (Divine Fury, 24). This brings into doubt the “Great  Man Theory “of history much talked about in the nineteenth century. I refer to the theory in my essay, “Tolkien’s Tower by the Sea: The Timeless Wisdom of Reading Literature In Light of the Summum Bonum.”

Will Durant and Thomas Carlyle are two who said much on this matter. Carlyle wrote succinctly in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, that “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” It is true that history is moved along by charismatic players at the front of movements, events, and discoveries which shape the moment we inhabit. Yet it is just as true, experience shows, that there are many other persons, lesser lights of a smaller magnitude, whose lives were a vital influence on those near them. The words of Rudyard Kipling offer a ballast: “the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

An Eye for the Imago Dei

Common grace is one reason greatness is achieved, but there is another.

In reading a memorable life, we see both a person themselves and the good they leave behind. We need a kind of double vision: seeing both the person and their contributions as unique and essential. I have enjoyed seeing this “great person/great ideas” pattern unfold in the work of Rowan Williams. He rarely looks into the work or great ideas of anyone without looking at the man or woman shining through the work (or is it the opposite, the work shining through the person?) Williams delights in presenting such luminaries as “people who let the light through, even in lives that are sometimes flawed and compromised” (Luminaries: Twenty Lives That Illuminate the Christian Way. SPCK, 2019. p11). Williams wants us to see along with him that:

these are figures I have been invited to think about and celebrate over the years, and figures who are for me, in various ways, beacons of illumination: people who lived lives that open up perspectives and horizons for the rest of us that are unpredictable and enriching” (p11).

Why is it so? The power of human greatness (and, by extension, reading about it) comes from the fruitfulness of the imago Dei, and Christian understandings of biography repeat the theme of the imago Dei shining forth the abundant goodness of its Maker. Aquinas and other great thinkers were convinced that divine goodness is ontologically dispersive; it’s as though there is a wide, long optical fiber running through all human existence, branching of into numerous channels – lives, communities, movements – some more interesting than others, some more illustrative of the Good than others. 

Whether good, bad, or ugly, God has something to say about himself in and through the confluence of these channels. The imago Dei is not so much about copies of a copy of an original, as if humanity were billions of scattered gods. No, the imago Dei is better understood as the sight and sound of divine labors translated into flesh and bone. In this way the idea of furor divinas is transformed from a mad whirl of demi-gods into the one God mediating his divine creative wisdom through the ones he makes to bear that skill. 

We who read the chronicled lives of others are drawn into this same activity. The Maker’s transcendent ray of wisdom shines through them onto us. These lives are windows opening a view to sights of otherworldly wisdom, made immanent and ultimately showing us Wisdom itself. “And since likeness is the cause of love, the pursuit of wisdom especially joins man to God in friendship” – so believed St. Thomas Aquinas. Likewise, we too can be sure that individual histories are God’s bright wisdom dispersed to his creatures, despite their various machinations to distance themselves from him. Basking in the light of this wisdom is sure to increase many other goods in us. 

From that insight follows another: read biographies in order to “know thyself.” The Socratic motto bears very little fruit in those who look mostly to themselves in an effort to “know thyself.” Biographies, especially the good ones, have a way of disturbing the placid waters of the narcissistic gaze. Of all literary genres, biography helps clear the path toward living out the imago Dei. Famous educator Charlotte Mason said that books are one way that we grow, not for ourselves, but beyond ourselves. Thus, to “know thyself” is to know that self which the Almighty intends to know in thee. We will discover that these steps, if we follow them, are most natural. Our imago Dei is not static; it needs maturation. Growth is a divine intention. 

How to Choose Biographies

So what is the main thing which helps us choose which biographies to read? Is it to search for more ways to clarify the imago Dei in us? Perhaps most readers choose biographies mainly for their entertainment value – publishers certainly market their books in this way. Furthermore, “The human race is inquisitive about other people’s lives, but negligent to correct their own” (Augustine, Confessions, 10.3). Whether stated in the positive or the negative, this saint’s advice is old gold. Old in this case does not mean useless – old advice in the sense of tested and true from long ago. 

Can we improve how we choose which lives to read? Hear how this question was addressed long before the coming of the Christ:

Nothing is more successful in bringing honourable influences to bear upon the mind, or in straightening out the wavering spirit that is prone to evil, than association with good men. For the frequent seeing, the frequent hearing of them little by little sinks into the heart and acquires the force of precepts. We are indeed uplifted merely by meeting wise men; and one can be helped by a great man even when he is silent

(Seneca, Letter 94, “On the Value of Advice” 40)

Biographies are silent mentors. “Iron sharpens iron” even if separated by decades or centuries or oceans. The long echo in the motto Ad Fontes can be applied to great lives as much as great literature. This works because the power of biography is quite simply propelled by the human inclination to imitate.

I’ve heard Michael Hughes, Director of Davenant House, explain this quite well, especially as Christian imitation relates to the insights he and his wife Lynette give through their residential programs. Michael points students to how the Holy Spirit can use imitation of Christ’s virtues seen in others who are more experienced to help young adults less experienced in the Faith. If there is a Great Man Theory, then it is best contained in Christ. As Martin Luther affirmed: “Whoever does not have or want to have this Man properly and truly called Jesus Christ, God’s Son, whom we Christians proclaim, must keep his hands off the Bible—that I advise” (Luther, On the Last Words of David). His person and greatness rule the history of mankind. To that end we desire to have his character molded in us. But there’s more. In his absence Christ intends for his disciples to mature by seeing how others mature. Humans of Wherever, being restored or put into noble service by the controlled fury of divine grace, are theatre comparable to little else. Some are recorded for us to read about. Tolle lege.

Carolinas Regional Convivium 2021

At the upcoming 2021 Carolinas Regional Convivium (March 26-27), we aim to do more of this seeking wisdom by imitation.

This regional conference of The Davenant Institute focuses each year on some aspect of literature and Christian wisdom. The theme for the 2021 event is The Power of Biography: Learning From Wise Men and Fools, and will be hosted at lovely Davenant House in Landrum, South Carolina. 

Our keynote speaker is Matt Miller of the C. S. Lewis Institute, who will deliver a talked entitled “You Become Whom You Admire: How To Choose Your Heroes.” 

There will be other talks presented on the value of biography for Christian wisdom as well as plenty of time for discussion and as noted earlier, time for iron to sharpen iron. Also presenting will be Dr. Nathan Finn with a paper titled, “Biography as Theology Reconsidered: The Role of Biography in Cultivating Theological Wisdom.” Dr. Finn serves as the Provost and Dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. 

Pastor Brian Lund will present a paper titled, “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: The Reformed Funeral Sermon as Biography.” Brian is Pastor of Zion Evangelical & Reformed Church in Garner, Iowa. 

Lynette Hughes will present a paper titled “Mirror of Mankind in Plutarch’s Lives” exploring Plutarch’s use of biography as a mirror of what it means to be human. 

Brad Littlejohn, President of The Davenant Institute, will also be with us presenting a paper about the event theme. 

On the Friday evening (3/26), Matt Miller will lead an informal discussion about biographies participants have read and enjoyed. 

If you are interested in being a part of these lectures and discussion groups you will find more information here or to register go here


The Power of Biography: Learning From Wisemen and Fools – 2021 Carolinas Regional Convivium is on March 26 (Friday 4pm) through March 27 (Saturday 3pm); hosted at Davenant House in Landrum, SC with Michael Hughes and family who is the Director of Residential Programs.

To contact Michael with questions go to www.davenanthouse.org. For a preview discussion with our keynote speaker, Matt Miller, on the power of biography check out this episode on our Pilgrim Faith podcast – available on YouTube, Apple podcasts and SoundCloud. 


Mark Olivero holds an M.Div from BJU Seminary and serves as an elder at Trinity Bible Church in Greer, SC, where he also runs a successful business, Olivero Design. He has been an enthusiastic lay theologian for many years and blogs at theologydelish.com.