Søren Kierkegaard, the lyrical Danish philosopher, was keenly observant of the ways in which people ordered their lives. Like an existentialist Socrates, Kierkegaard prodded his readers with questions that nurtured earnestness and self-reflection. Expressed in various terms and styles, one such prod provokes surprising self-assessment: how should we relate ourselves to moral exemplars?
Of course, most of us know to avoid the behaviour of the brigade of golems that march through history. But what about those beacons of goodness?
Take, for example, Angelina Grimké, the youngest child of a fabulously rich South Carolinian plantation owner who in the late 1820s stood up one evening from the dining room table, vehemently denounced slavery, and proceeded to go north to become a lifelong abolitionist. Or take Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who returned from the United States to Germany in 1939 to join in the plot against Hitler, only to be caught and executed a few months before the war’s end. Finally, what do we make of the late congressman and civil rights warrior John Lewis who, after being arrested and beaten scores of times, was nearly bludgeoned to death in March 1965 as he led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama? Are these moral exemplars cut from different cloth than the rest of us? Is it enough to shake our heads in admiration of these martyrs for the good?