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This week I read Crispin Sartwell’s book Extreme Virtue: Truth and Leadership in Five Great American Lives.

Sartwell wanted to explore “public virtue and moral character” by examining five of his heroes in “a kind of bootstrap operation in which the cardinal virtues of public figures emerge from the biographies, while the biographies themseves are in part constructed to display these same qualities.”

The five heroes he chose, an idiosyncratic collection, were Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Barry Goldwater, John Fire Lame Deer, and Malcolm X. In looking at the lives of these five American leaders he admires, Sartwell attempts to discover what sets them apart. He believes that “ethics is an empirical inquiry” that is best studied by observing ethical people; and certainly people learn ethics more from exemplars than from systems.

In studying his five American heroes, he reduces their primary virtues to four: commitment to something greater than their own ambitions (and the courage that goes along with being committed to something difficult or unpopular), self-reflection, integrity, and connectedness. In addition to this is leadership, but this is partially derived from the four primary virtues and partially an artifact of how he picked his heroes.

It’s an interesting read, and an interesting project. Sartwell spends a lot of time noting the less-admirable behavior of his heroes and making the case that their most notorious vices were often just their best virtues being played out in a context where they led to unfortunate results. Alas, the biographies are so brief, and the attention Sartwell gives to this less-pretty side of things is so unsparing, that his heroes wind up looking less heroic than they perhaps ought. I would have been happier to read some more thoroughly fleshed-out examples of particularly heroic episodes in these lives.

This book may make you more interested in examining and systematizing who and how you admire.

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