What we can Learn from the Lives of Others

  Who is the real Dante?

    In 1308, a poet set out to write an ambitious work composing in a style never used before for such a project, and using a language that until then was confined to colloquial exchanges. The Comedia took twelve years to complete, taking its author, Dante Alighieri, from his middle age to nearly the end of his life.

    The poem is considered one of the greatest works of world literature and Dante's imaginative vision of the afterlife representative of the medieval world-view as influenced by the Western Church. It helped establish the Tuscan language as the standardized Italian language.

    On the surface, the poem describes Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. At a deeper level, we can interpret it as the soul's journey towards God. Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.

    At 14,233 lines, the work reads like a grand story and has traveled through the ups and downs on humanity, despair, and hope of history well. While interpretations split the fine details of scenes and situations, the general direction is hard to miss. The use of the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme was also a first.

    Dante's own political ideas, the context of the times, and his hopes and dreams are in it. Countless generations of Gymnasium students and scholars have pored over the text, including me, marveling at the undertaking. The Divina Commedia influenced culture, language, thought, art, the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Tennyson, and every single Italian writer that came after it.

    Luck would have it that they didn't have blogs at the time, or we might not have copies left (the jury is out on digital legacy.) Which is why books are not going away any time soon and learning from books is still one of the best ways to access knowledge.

    We can learn a lot about the time in which Dante lived from his works. I can't imagine reading the Divina Commedia in English when rhyme and language were two of its most striking innovations. If and when first hand and person accounts are not accessible to us, we may find either an autobiography or biography to learn more about the person ― how they thought, how they describe what they worked on, or what historians and journalists found worth reporting. 

    Biographies are useful testimonies of culture, influence, and history. Our personal and public culture are constantly in conversation as we navigate individual identity with socio-economic context. We witness and experience our times, and our work and lives influence many others, whether we're aware of it or not. 

   Anyone curious about what made Dante's work so foundational to spend three years on at Gymnasium may want to pick up his biography, Dante: The Story of his Life. The book was written by a scholar who didn't have much material to go on and volumes of publications and research about both Dante and his works to wade through in many languages.

   The result is quite balanced and demonstrates how closely Dante reflected the events of his life in what he was writing at the time. As an exile with no steady income, he was constantly looking for ways to support himself while also seeking opportunities to influence public affairs and fulfill his artistic and intellectual ambitions.

    He was in flux, life in Italy was volatile during those times, which added to the constant challenges in meeting these objectives. Marco Santagata did not intend to provide a conventional introduction to Dante's writings, but offers rich insights into the context that informed them. Which is what is most precious to us in understanding him and his times, and with them a little bit of our shared humanity.

    We can learn so much from the lives of others and biographies are an accessible way to pursue that knowledge.


    While my entry point to history has been literature and art in the past, more recently I've come to appreciate the value of biographies and have read several. Here's a selection of the most intriguing and why I have chosen them.

    His peers and collaborators called him the Pope for his intuition and hands on approach. The name stuck. Fermi was the most prominent Italian scientist after Galileo. Physics has been a favorite on the science side of learning because it so closely aligns with linguistics as a body of knowledge.

    Add to that the historical backdrop after WWI, which for Fermi was the reality of his work and life, constraints included, the meticulous research by Gino Segré and Bettina Hoerlin, the physicist's theoretical and experimental work to prove one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century and you have a powerful story.

    He led by example both at the chalkboard and in the lab. Fermi loved America, as he called it, and spent his last days doing all the things he so enjoyed, thinking and rolling up his sleeves. If you're looking for an entry point to the history of modern physics, this will add to your knowledge. 

   The first version included Part One and was published in French in 1791. In 1818 William Temple Franklin, his grandson, published the three first parts. He dind't include Part Four because he has previously traded away the original holograph of the Autobiography for a copy that contained only the first three parts.

    W.T. Franklin's text with stylistic revisions was the standard version of the Autobiography for half a century, until John Bigelow purchased the original manuscript in France and in 1868 published the most reliable text that had yet appeared, including the first English publication of Part Four.

    The edition of Autobiography of Ben Franklin above comes from the original manuscript of Ben Franklin's Memoirs. But there are limits to an autobiography. Franklin praises himself and at the same time he advises on the virtue of humility. He smooths over controversial topics like his illegitimate son. He doesn't mention his membership in the Freemasons, and more.

  •  Which is why it's useful to have other books to go on to learn more about his life. The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin is a good bet. Historian H.W. Brands draws from previously unpublished letters and other works to form a picture of the polymath and man and makes it accessible his wit, and his habits of bon vivant and the context he lived in and helped shape. “(Ben) Franklin was never content to let opportunity find him.” 
  • Edmund Morgan's Benjamin Franklin helps us answer several questions we may have about the man. Like why was he so reluctant to draw public attention to himself? Given the times, was he a legitimate scientist or merely a clever tinkerer? What were his unique contributions to the creation, establishment, and development of a new nation? Why was he so popular in Europe, especially in France? Which of Franklin's experiences as a child and young man had the greatest influence on his development? How to explain his insatiable curiosity? What was he like as a husband and father? As his death drew near, what was Franklin's own estimate of his achievements?
  • Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life does a good job of portraying the various sides of Franklin's personality, capturing his influence on the current American identity, while still letting us learn from Franklin as if he was teaching us lessons to apply to our lives.

    Benjamin Franklin was in every respect America’s first Renaissance man — diplomat, scientist, philosopher, businessman, and inventor who went from penniless runaway to highly successful printer, from ardently loyal subject of Britain to architect of an alliance with France that ensured America’s independence.

    Schlender and Tetzeli tell a story that is a bit different from what we're used to on Steve Jobs. They both knew Jobs and the computer industry. Based on interviews with Tim Cook, Jony Ive, Eddy Cue, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, Robert Iger and many others, the book portrays the human being who wrestled with his failings and learned to maximize his strengths over time.

    Later in life Jobs became more patient, he learned to trust his inner circle, and discovered the importance of growing the company incrementally rather than only shooting for dazzling game-changing products. His focus on customers is undisputed. On a personal level, he knew he had faults and he tried to limit them, not always successfully.

About the value of reputation he said:

a corporation “could accumulate or withdraw credits” from its reputation, which is why he worked so hard to ensure that every single interaction a customer might have with Apple from using a Mac to calling customer support to buying a single from the iTunes store and then getting billed for it was excellent.

  • Isaacson did not know Jobs prior to working on Steve Jobs, and he did not have the strong background in the computer industry. Also based on interviews with people who knew and worked with the late Apple CEO, Jobs collaborated on the project and did not insist on controlling the results. Three interesting quotes I thought about:

“Picasso had a saying — 'good artists copy, great artists steal' — and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

“The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music.”

“I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning, just like the digital one was when I was his age.”

    We touched on science, history, technology, invention, and so many other topics just by talking about the lives of interesting people. There is one more person who has done and sacrificed so much to leave future generations better off that belongs on this list (many more I haven't read, too.)

    By her daughter Eve Curie. Curie was the first woman scientist to win worldwide acclaim — she did pioneering work in the study of radioactivity and won two Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. Encouraged to pursue science by her scholar father, Curie married a fellow scientist, Pierre. They worked together and decided not to patent their work, to keep their research open source.

    The book received the 1937 World Book award for fiction. Curie published her results. She was a genius who loved everything, as some have said. Something she said I like to think about:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”

    More about Curie, if your still curious.

  • Marie Curie: a Life by Susan Quinn is also interesting. It places Curie in the context of Poland and Frances in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Her debates with Rutherford and hiking with Einstein, a personal friend and colleague. Women in France faced the same types of struggles that American women still do. European society found its own way to resolve these conflicts… for a while. Another quote worth thinking about:

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”

    As I like to say, marketplaces are no longer simple. Decisions are no longer in the hands of a few. Our mission has become our own transformation. Reading books is a valuable part of our knowledge toolkit.