Lives Well Lived

8. Socrates (469–399 BC)

Socrates was, by his own account, “a gadfly”. He spent his days in the ancient Athenian marketplace asking awkward questions, disconcerting the people he met by showing them how little they genuinely understood. His typical approach was to innocently question an established idea; he started with simple questions that a politician or businessman or military general invariably found easy to answer. Then, moving logically from one question to the next, Socrates would soon have the powerful man flummoxed and red-faced, fumbling for a valid response. Within minutes, the foundations of the “established idea” were shown to be weak, and the interlocutor was storming away. To be clear, Socrates’ goal wasn’t to annoy people; he was simply trying to get at the truth. He endeavored, through dialogue, to strip the falsehoods away. His was a position of ultimate intellectual humility: “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

Socrates essentially invented Western philosophy, and he did it not by preaching his ideas, but by asking questions. His was the spirit of the young child who asks “why?” to everything. We’re supposed to stop asking “why” when we grow up—this is construed somehow as a sign of maturity—but Socrates saw the crucial importance of inquiry, and he wielded it around the marketplace like a weapon. The elites of his day fully appreciated the danger of this man. They understood that their power—as is true of all elites—relied heavily on a non-thinking populace, and they sentenced him to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens”.

This is a standard response to anyone who seriously threatens the status quo. If one considers the response to those who do so today—Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Tim DeChristoper, Thomas Drake, the Occupy movement—one suspects that the elites would dearly love to feed them hemlock, if only they thought they could get away with it. Socrates was no respecter of power; his allegiance was solely to the truth. He wrote nothing down—we can thank Plato for our knowledge of his life. And his life was lived literally as an example to others—the embodiment of the intellectual tradition we call philosophy, and the standard bearer for free thinkers everywhere.

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7. Alimamy Rassin (1825-1890)

Alimamy Rassin was a Fula chief from Sierra Leone, who devoted his life to making peace. Raised in a warrior culture during the 1800s, he was a pacifist from an early age; he harbored an innate hatred of war and all forms of violence. He showed the strength of his conviction by refusing to train as a soldier when he was a young man. This was an unthinkable choice for a future leader—most chiefs in the area saw themselves as warlords who were only in a minor way responsible for the well-being of their people.

When Rassin inherited the chiefdom of his tribe from his adopted father, he allowed a small army to exist in Mafonda solely for self-defense. He set up a fund for the promotion of peace, to be replenished from fines levied in his court. This was another unprecedented idea; prior chiefs had kept this income for themselves. Rassin regularly traveled beyond his kingdom on peace-keeping missions, intent on teaching neighboring villages that non-violence was the best option. This wisdom seemed abundantly clear to him: most villages suffered from food shortages because their men were constantly at war. When local tribes ran out of food entirely, and came to Rassin for help, he made them promise to avoid war for five years in exchange for his assistance. After much negotiation, when the chiefs reluctantly agreed, an entire region of people who had never even considered life without war were obliged to experience it. The climate of Sierra Leone became fundamentally more peaceful, and that change was due to Alimamy Rassin.

Rassin’s commitment to peace was indicative of his great independence of thought. He was unafraid to go against the current way of thinking, or challenge the status quo. When the prior king, whom Alimamy had loved, passed away, the citizens wanted him to take the crown immediately. But he felt that more time was needed to honor the prior king, so he deferred. He led his people for twelve years before officially taking the crown; in the meantime, he simply did the work without the pomp and circumstance. He endeavored to live up to his own ideals, and no one else’s. He required neither praise nor recompense. He believed that the only way for his people to flourish was for them to put aside weapons and focus on education and trade, so he devoted his efforts to making that happen. When the Mandinka army of Samori Toure reached Mafonda in 1885, after systematically occupying many areas of northern Sierra Leone, the invaders were so impressed by Rassin’s wise rule that they chose to withdraw and leave Mafonda alone. The British in Freetown also admired Rassin’s leadership; they offered the chief an annual stipend to keep peace between the surrounding tribes—a job he was already performing—and were shocked when he turned down the salary. He argued that it was unethical to accept payment for the promotion of peace. This choice, which few would have had the strength to make, helped keep his people independent of the British rule that was fast swallowing the surrounding villages.

Despite the increasing prosperity and peace within his tribe, Rassin was rarely satisfied with his efforts. He labored from dawn to dusk to do more, and to do it better. His diligence and excellence as a young scholar was admired across Sierra Leone. And when he took on the role of leader, he made a point of continuing to work in every part of his kingdom. He took part in the farm work and hunting himself, and conducted all of the trade negotiations. He regularly visited the schools and encouraged the young children to apply themselves to their studies. When there was unrest in a neighboring community, he went himself or sent his sons. The older inhabitants of Mafonda joked that their chief seemed to be everywhere at all times.

Rassin increased his own workload in response to the needs of the people around him. As the prosperity of Mafonda grew, payments were frequently made to Rassin in slaves. The ordinary practice would have been for Rassin to sell those slaves for a profit. He hated the idea of selling men and women to brutal slave-dealers, though, so Rassin chose to keep the slaves, and employ them on his own farms. Soon, he had taken on so many slaves that he had to build a village for their accommodation. And as their numbers further swelled, he had to considerably expand his farming operations; he understood that if he had been unable to give the men and women work, it would be considered unacceptable to allow them to stay in his chiefdom. In return, the slaves were deeply loyal and committed to the chief; most of the slave songs that were passed down from that era celebrate Rassin as their savior. The breadth and depth of affection for Rassin ran deep across social classes and across Sierra Leone itself; when the legendary chief died, men and women who had never laid eyes on him grieved.

Mafonda was a very small chiefdom in a part of the world that has received very little attention in our history books. There is, in fact, only one biography of Alimamy Rassin, and it is difficult to find. But his lack of fame does not quell his significance. In a tiny corner of the world, Alimamy Rassin surveyed the society around him, noted the unhappiness and strife, and said, I can make this better. And he did.

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6. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The word “genius” is doubtlessly overused. Leonardo da Vinci, however, was the real deal. He showed what the human brain—albeit just one—is capable of. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, musician, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. His curiosity was voracious, and he rarely entered a field without mastering it. He is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in existence, and his Last Supper has been reproduced more often than any other work of art. He was also a technological virtuoso; he designed a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, concentrated solar power, and outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Da Vinci was a living embodiment of the plasticity of the human mind. Like the rest of us, he was endowed with the same three pounds of lumpy grey matter, encased in a calcium shell; unlike the rest of us, he really knew how to use his 100 billion neurons.

Da Vinci was a free thinker. He addressed every subject as if it had never been touched before. He had no prejudices, and no loyalty to the status quo. For example, in the 1400s, he had the idea for a helicopter. The first operational helicopter did not exist for another five hundred years. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible in his lifetime. He made plans for machines containing metals and plastics that wouldn’t be created for centuries. He scoured the world around him and saw only opportunities. He never said: that can’t be done. The fact that nothing close to a helicopter, or a calculator, or the harnessing of solar power had ever been realized was of no interest to him. Most of us look at the world around us and say, where can I go from here? Da Vinci’s starting place was within his own imagination. His open-mindedness was not limited to science. He chose to be a vegetarian for moral reasons, an extremely rare position during his time. He believed that since it wasn’t necessary to consume animals in order to be healthy, that it was wrong to do so: “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” When the philosopher Peter Singer made similar claims in the 1970s, he was ahead of his time, so what does that say of Leonardo Da Vinci? He regularly bought caged birds, for sale at the local market, in order to set them free. Da Vinci’s mind was remarkably un-tethered by the mores of the society he lived in; this freedom of thought allowed him to make great leaps of discovery. He wrote in his notebooks: “There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” Perhaps no one, before or since, has been able to see as well as Leonardo da Vinci.

His life was formed through overcoming obstacles. Da Vinci was born the illegitimate son of a Florence notary and a peasant woman. Since he was born out of wedlock, he wasn’t allowed a proper surname—da Vinci simply means “of Vinci”, the hill-town where he was born. His low social status meant that no good school would take him, and that most professions were blocked to him. His father, seeing his son’s intelligence, offered him as an apprentice to a Florentine artist, because an apprenticeship was one of the few ways for Leonardo to break into proper society. This movement forward became emblematic of da Vinci’s life; he would continue to find ways through every closed door. He supplemented his poor education by reading voraciously. He became a devoted student of the Florentine artist, Verrochio, and was named a master in a Guild—thus securing himself legitimacy—before the age of twenty. He spent his career moving from one wealthy, powerful patron to another. His main aim was to continue with his work, and he attached himself to whoever would best facilitate his progress. Da Vinci started as a non-person in society and became one of the most celebrated artists, scientists and inventors of all time; this path was forged by his own strength and determination. He wrote: “Obstacles cannot crush me; every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”

Da Vinci achieved great fame in his own lifetime, but he never saw that as an index of success. His measure of success was always internal, not external. He got in trouble a few times, as a young artist, for not finishing commissioned paintings. He abandoned several important works—including the Adoration of the Magi—right before completion, because he lost interest and moved on to a new project. Having envisioned what the painting would look like in his own mind, he saw no reason to actually finish it. He had no need or desire for the acclaim he would receive upon sharing the finished painting with the public. In this realm of his life, as in others, the independence of Da Vinci’s mind reigned supreme. He attached himself to various patrons, but barely seemed to notice, much less want, their admiration. He valued no approval other than his own. He wrote in his notebook: “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.”

His wonderful notebooks also reveal that this man—whom many consider to be the most brilliant to have ever lived—was often disappointed by his achievements. We blink in disbelief at this statement: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” He worked seven days a week, during all of his waking hours. He devoted his entire life, and all of his self, to his projects, and yet he was relentlessly self-critical. One heartbreaking line in a notebook reads: “I have wasted my hours.” If he had been satisfied by the standards of the world around him, he might have stopped working, and stopped creating, much earlier. Having reached the threshold necessary for fame and adulation, he might have shone less brightly as an example of the extraordinary heights human beings are able to reach.  Instead, Leonardo da Vinci looked deep inside himself, saw his vast potential, and spent his life pursuing it.

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5. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

In 1849, Harriet Tubman trekked ninety miles from Maryland to Philadelphia under constant threat of being caught and either killed or returned to the white family that owned her. When she arrived in the city of brotherly love, she found that she was unable to enjoy her freedom. She was plagued with thoughts of her family members, who were still enslaved. “I was free, and they should be free,” she said. When she received word that her niece Kessiah was being sold to a new owner, she took action. With the help of Kessiah’s husband—a free black man—Tubman returned to the south and rescued her niece and her niece’s two children. Then she headed back to Maryland to rescue two of her brothers. When that trip was completed, she started another. For the next eleven years, Tubman returned again and again to the Eastern Shore of Maryland; all told, she rescued seventy slaves, both family and strangers, in thirteen expeditions. She also provided specific instructions for fifty or sixty other slaves who were planning escapes. Tubman was relentless in her missions, and famous for her success. Despite the best efforts of slave-owners, she was never captured, and neither were the fugitives she guided. Years later, she told an audience: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison gave Harriet Tubman the nickname “Moses”, an allusion to the prophet in the Book of Exodus who led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt.

Tubman’s efforts are even more impressive when you take into account that she was a five-foot tall, disabled woman with no education. As a child in Dorchester, Maryland, she was regularly lent to other masters by her owner, so she rarely saw her family. She was, in the course of her work, regularly beaten, and shown almost no kindness. When Tubman was a teenager (and still enslaved) she was sent to the dry-goods store on an errand, where she encountered a slave from another family who had left the fields without permission. His furious overseer ordered Tubman to help restrain the runaway, and Tubman refused. When the slave started to run, the overseer threw a two-pound weight at him, missed, and the weight struck Tubman. In her words, it “broke my skull”. Bleeding and unconscious, Tubman was returned to her owner’s house where she was left without medical care for two days. When she finally revived, she was sent back into the fields “with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn’t see”. She began to have seizures, crippling headaches and narcoleptic attacks. This condition (later assumed to be temporal lobe epilepsy, resulting from the injury) stayed with Tubman for the rest of her life.

When asked why she risked running away from her slave owner, Tubman said, “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” She willingly, and bravely, put her life on the line countless times. She left her safe, hard-won home in Philadelphia to sleep in the woods with a revolver at her side, praying the slave-catchers would not hear her or the runaways she was transporting. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she saw it as an opportunity to assist fugitive slaves, and spent the next several years in army camps, often playing nursemaid to ill soldiers, braving gunfire with each attempt to move yet another slave towards freedom. In 1863, she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. Tubman was asked to guide three steamboats around Confederate mines in the Combahee River, a stretch of water she knew well. Plantations were attacked and set fire to by soldiers, and when the steamboats finally sounded their whistles, slaves throughout the area understood that they had been liberated. More than seven hundred slaves were rescued in the Combahee River Raid. The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in praise to Tubman, “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night… The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.” Harriet Tubman met every obstacle with courage, until the very end of her life. When a New York surgeon offered to, at long last, repair her head wound, she refused to accept any anesthesia for the procedure, and reportedly chose instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.

Harriet Tubman never stopped working for her cause; she never stopped to rest. She saw the Civil War as an opportunity to continue and expand her work, instead of an interruption. She received government rations for her army work initially, but when newly freed blacks thought she was getting special treatment, she gave up her right to the supplies. Instead, she earned money selling pies and root beer, which she made in the evenings. She spent her life in near-constant poverty, working small jobs to make ends meet while devoting the bulk of her time to her cause. The common image of her is a dogged woman trudging through dark woods, intent on saving just one more slave, and this representation is a fair one. Tubman was deeply industrious, without any promise or delivery of monetary reward. She worked hard because her work was important; she was saving lives.

It is a common misunderstanding to think that Harriet Tubman devoted her life to freeing slaves. What she actually devoted her life to was helping people. During the Civil War, she nursed the sick and wounded. After the Confederacy surrendered and there were no more slaves for her to liberate, she became an activist for women’s suffrage. When a white woman asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, she replied: “I suffered enough to believe it.” When the National Federation of Afro-American Women was founded in 1896, Tubman was the keynote speaker at its first meeting. She started a rest home for elderly African Americans, because she saw that there was no place for them to go. After buying a parcel of land from the abolitionist senator William Seward in Auburn, New York, she used the property to shelter people who had no money or home. It is impossible to imagine someone who started with less than Tubman, and yet she chose to look at the world around her and say, How can I help?  To this day, her example is an inspiration to every individual seeking equality, and a shot at a better life.

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4. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote two of the best novels of all time. War and Peace was published in 1869. The novel details the events leading up to the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five aristocratic families. There are five hundred and eighty characters in this novel, some historical, the rest fictional. The novel is separated into four volumes, and the reader has the singular experience of flying through the romantic and domestic dramas of the “Peace” sections, and then thudding into the graphically detailed battle strategies of “War”. Tolstoy had been a soldier himself, and he conducted extensive research on military history. As a result, the “War” sections read almost like non-fiction, and thereby achieve a level of literary realism that was unprecedented for its time. Isaac Babel said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write just like Tolstoy.” The author himself claimed that War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” As far as he was concerned, Anna Karenina, published in 1878, was his first true novel. It is impossible to reduce this epic masterwork to a few sentences, but Anna Karenina contains romance, tragedy, betrayal, an exploration of the merits of life in the city over life in the country and one of the most memorable heroines in all of literature. William Faulkner claimed the novel was, quite simply, “the best ever written.”

However, Leo Tolstoy was no mere novelist. Yes, indeed, he also wrote short stories and plays, but Tolstoy was a deep moral thinker and a social reformer, a Christian anarchist, an ardent pacifist, a Count of Russian nobility and a principled ascetic, a philanthropist, a provocative essayist, and a vegetarian. His spiritual and moral awakening was inspired by his experiences in the army, as well as a trip to France in 1857 during which he witnessed a public execution. This had a huge effect on him, and cemented his distaste for both violence and governments. He wrote in a letter to a friend later that year: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens… Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”

Tolstoy had been raised as an Orthodox Russian Catholic, but he now saw religion as inextricably bound to the state. He chose instead to follow what he considered the direct teachings of Jesus as contained in the Gospels, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. In The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894, Tolstoy outlined a new organization for society based on a literal Christian interpretation of the gospels. This book advocated living according to Jesus’s actual words, by turning away from violence and towards love. He argued that when Christ said to turn the other cheek, he actually meant it: “How can you kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’?” Tolstoy believed that all governments that wage war are an affront to Christian principles. He said that every institution or man that argued against non-violence did so only because he stood to gain from bloodshed: “That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organization were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organization, while those who suffer from it—and they are ten times as numerous—think and say quite the contrary.”

This brazen, radical treatise has influenced nearly every peaceful activist from Tolstoy’s time until now. Gandhi listed The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the three most important influences on his life. He read it as a young lawyer living in South Africa, and the book strengthened Gandhi’s burgeoning dedication to non-violence. In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu, detailing how only by using non-violent resistance could the Indians overthrow the powerful British Empire; unfortunately, Tolstoy would not live to see Gandhi put these very ideas into action. Gandhi sent the older author a letter of admiration, and the two men maintained a correspondence until Tolstoy’s death.

Leo Tolstoy had the bravery to think freely and to change his life according to his ideas, even when he suffered for it personally. Tolstoy and his wife, Sonya Adreevna Bers, were married in 1862 and together had 13 children. They enjoyed a passionate, honest relationship—before their marriage, Tolstoy insisted she read his personal journals that detailed his prior sexual affairs so that when she married him, she would know him completely. Sonya was the only one he trusted to transcribe his fiction—she hand-copied War and Peace seven times before Tolstoy was happy with it. Sonya was his secretary, proofreader and financial manager. When Tolstoy began to turn away from fiction towards the matter of how to best live life, a rift opened between them. The more radical Tolstoy’s ideas became, the more rejected Sonya felt. She wanted him to be the man she had married: a wealthy society writer. Tolstoy, as much as he might have wanted to please her, could not remain unchanged. He said, “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is impossible.”

Tolstoy never rested on his laurels. For decades, he devoted himself to creating masterworks of fiction, spending hundreds of hours reading, thinking, researching and writing in order to produce art of the highest level. When Anna Karenina was published, Tolstoy was fifty and famous around the world. Many men would have retired at this stage, or at least settled comfortably into their position of wealth and prestige. Tolstoy did neither. He chose, instead, to question everything his life was built on. He wrote over a dozen philosophical works after the publication of Anna Karenina. He confronted uncomfortable truths, started a school for serfs, and publicly advocated positions that were unpopular both inside and outside his home. In 1885, his free thinking led him to vegetarianism: “A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.” He was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his book The Kingdom of God is Within You was banned throughout Russia. Still, Tolstoy was intent on learning and growing as a human being. “Everyone thinks of changing the world,” he said, “but no one thinks of changing himself.” Tolstoy was engaged, throughout his life, with the hard work of changing himself.

He struggled with giving up his wealth for many years. He felt it was the right thing to do; his wife disagreed. He came to believe that he was undeserving of his inheritance, and he was renowned among the local peasantry for his generosity. Much to Sonya’s chagrin, he would frequently return to his country estate with vagrants whom he felt needed a helping hand, and dispense large sums of money to street beggars while on trips to the city. In his later years, he signed away the royalties from his fiction, to benefit to the public of Russia, and this drove a final wedge between him and his wife. His death came only days after finally gathering the nerve to abandon his family and wealth and take up the path of a wandering ascetic. Tolstoy died in a train station, after falling too ill to travel any further. His very death embodied the search he had conducted his entire life: to be a better human being, to live a better life. In his words, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

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3. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

Very few people on this list of well-lived lives spent as much time thinking about how to live a ‘well-lived life’ as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  He examined every aspect of life—large and small—from hygiene to religion to the food he ate to sexual conduct to how he should treat his fellow man to how he should clothe himself to how a government should lead its citizens. Gandhi plumbed the depths; his attention was never cursory or thoughtless. He dove deep, and the intensity of his gaze is admirable—too few of us turn a critical lens on the decisions that make up our days, and therefore our lives.

Gandhi lived according to his teachings, without hypocrisy. He told one journalist, “My life is my message”, and it was. He was a deep believer in “ahimsa”, the principle that we should do no harm to any living thing. (Indeed, Gandhi said, “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”) He was a committed vegetarian, since if you eat meat you necessarily cause animals harm. He was a pacifist, and when he led activists in both South Africa and India he insisted that they follow his path of non-violence. Gandhi considered himself no better than the poor and underprivileged he struggled for, so he chose to live like them, often in tiny villages in spare homes. He cleaned his own toilet and performed other basic household chores because he believed all work was meaningful and of equal value. When he wanted to boycott British goods, he invented a simple, portable spinning wheel to make his own clothing. His dress was always identifiable for its homespun simplicity—he intentionally dressed like this even while travelling in Europe (much to Winston Churchill’s disgust)—because materialism held no value for him. Gandhi examined every aspect of life, decided on the most meaningful, compassionate path, and then walked in that direction. The connection between what we believe and how we live was vital to him. He said, “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

It required tremendous bravery for Gandhi to be the change he wanted to see. He woke up each morning prepared to suffer, starve and even die for his beliefs. He was beaten and arrested multiple times in both India and South Africa. He was regularly mocked and shunned for the unpopular stances he took. He abstained from eating for long periods, using hunger strikes as a form of political protest; he refused to eat until either his death or his demands were met. In 1924, he refused to eat for three weeks to bring together Hindu and Muslim factions within the Indian National Congress. He conducted fasts in 1932 and 1933 to fight for equal rights for the “untouchables” of Indian society. He was assassinated in 1948, but there were numerous attempts before that; his life was constantly at risk. Gandhi must have been scared every day, but he refused to let his fear stop him. As Nelson Mandela, one of the many leaders inspired by Gandhi, later said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Once Gandhi decided his path was correct, he refused to change his mind. He was deeply stubborn, a trait that made him difficult to live with at times. He held himself to an exacting standard and he expected his wife, children and close advisors to do the same. His commitment to a cause was absolute. When, during one of his later fasts, it appeared that he might die before peace was reached between the Muslims and Hindus, Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife begged him to eat—just a tiny amount that no one need know about, just enough to save him—but he refused. He knew that if he died, his influence would grow even stronger. Either peace would be reached soon, and he would end his fast, or he would die, and peace would likely be reached because of his death. His vision was cloudless; he refused to step off his path no matter what the personal cost.

Mohandas Gandhi provides the perfect example of how to slay a Goliath. He took on the unprecedented might of the British Empire—which at its height was the largest empire in history and held sway over a quarter of the world’s population—and won. Perhaps most amazingly, he won without raising a fist in anger; he achieved his goal with words and leadership and non-violent protest. He dismantled the empire, and its influence, piece by piece. In 1930, Gandhi took on the nationally despised British Salt Tax by announcing that he was going to make his own salt, and invited all Indians to join him. The British made fun of Gandhi’s plan, at first. They watched as he marched from Ahmedabad to the seaside in Dandi, Gujarat. His march lasted a total of two hundred and forty-one miles, and thousands of Indians joined Gandhi along the way. Every newspaper in India was riveted by the story. When Gandhi reached the beach, he set about making salt with his countrymen, and the British went wild with anger. They imprisoned Gandhi immediately, but Gandhi’s followers, inspired, vowed to continue the fight without their leader.

According to Gandhi’s plan, they conducted a non-violent raid of the Dharasana Salt Works. A seventy-six-year-old retired judge led the march beside Gandhi’s wife. When the judge and Kasturbai were arrested en route, new leaders took their places. When the protesters reached the factory gate, the first man was beaten by the British guard until he dropped. The next man stepped forward, and he was beaten too. When the injured protesters were able to stand, they rejoined the line. Gandhi’s followers continued to receive blows with their hands at their sides. An American journalist cabled the story to his newspaper—describing the protesters as going “down like ten-pins”—and news of the scene spread around the globe. This was the key turning point in the Indian struggle for independence, as the British lost all moral credibility in the eyes of the world—you can’t enact one-sided violence against peaceful protesters without your support draining away like the blood you spill. This was Gandhi’s gamble, and he was right. As he famously explained: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

By upending the mighty empire, Gandhi achieved a goal that appeared, from any perspective, to be impossible. He achieved the impossible. Nelson Mandela, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Ky and countless other peaceful activists have claimed Gandhi as their inspiration. Reverend King said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.” Gandhi’s disciples have continued his work of shining light into the dark corners of humanity. They have fought for human rights and dispelled apartheid, poverty, racism and facism. The truth is that Gandhi’s example should both inspire and chide us all. It should land us on our feet, our own individual lights pointed toward the darkness. After all, if a skinny man in a homespun toga was able to bring down the British Empire, then what excuse do we have?

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2. Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

In the course of his life, Thomas Paine invented a smokeless candle, received a patent for a single-span iron bridge, worked on developing steam engines, made corsets by day and wrote political pamphlets by night that would—among other things—depose a king, skewer the sacred cows of monarchy and religion, lay out the intellectual justification for two revolutions, and play a decisive role in founding a New World.

His political life began in earnest when he emigrated from England to the United States in 1774.  Paine had met Benjamin Franklin in London, and the latter had convinced him that America was an exciting, worthwhile experiment.  Paine barely survived the journey though; the ship’s water supplies were bad, and several passengers died of typhoid.  When the ship docked in Philadelphia, Franklin’s personal physician had to carry him off the boat.  Paine arrived in the country that he would change, and which would change him, as weak as a kitten.

At first, his life was quiet in America.  He became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine and worked on his inventions.  He grew increasingly passionate about the anti-British sentiment growing around him, and in the evenings he struggled over an essay that would become Common Sense. He realized that the revolt against Britain was being lead by social elites like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (his friends).  It was clear to Paine that the fight would not succeed unless the masses were on board.

Common Sense was written in plain language, and it described a future without a despotic monarchy.  Paine explained why America should throw off the king, and how they would benefit by doing so.  He provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense was oriented to the future in a way that compelled the reader to make an immediate choice: freedom and a new world, or continued oppression?

The pamphlet became an immediate, massive success.  In relation to the population of the colonies at that time, it had the largest sales and circulation of any book in American history.  (Paine was the J.K. Rowling of his time.)  Farmers stopped in their fields to read it; George Washington recited portions to inspire his troops before battle.  The pages were passed around, and read aloud in taverns.  More than any other single entity, Common Sense was responsible for spreading the idea of republicanism and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army.  Paine’s pamphlet was, quite simply, the match that ignited the American Revolution.

America’s success thrilled Paine, as it did much of the world.  Countries that had long been stifled by cruel monarchies began to struggle for independence.  Paine wrote another pamphlet—Rights of Man—in defense of France’s brand-new revolution.  He argued that political revolution is permissible, and even desirable, whenever a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights, and their national interests. This was a shocking proposition at the time; these kinds of words had been whispered, but not printed.  The publication of Rights of Man caused a furor in England; Paine was tried in absentia, and convicted for seditious libel against the Crown. He was conveniently unavailable for hanging because he was already in France.

He almost died in that country, too. Paine argued that the French Revolution should not betray its principles by killing the king, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all. The French didn’t heed his prescient warning; they threw him in jail and sentenced him to the guillotine.  His life was saved by accident—the guard simply missed the white X on his cell door that indicated he was a condemned man.  Paine was in France, and in trouble, when he wrote his most controversial pamphlet, The Age of Reason.  In it, he argued against organized religion and in favor of deism (the belief in a god of nature—a noninterventionist creator—who permits the universe to run itself according to natural laws).  Paine criticized specific sections of the Bible; he claimed—a dangerous suggestion then and now—that religion demanded the same critical, objective inquiry as any other subject.  To be fair, Paine was not completely out of step with his times—America was a less religious country in the 1700s than it is today.  Leaders like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington were either deists or thoughtful agnostics, but still the public turned against him.  It was for this reason that George Washington refused to help Paine when he reached out from his French prison.  Paine then penned a public letter condemning the famous general, and that letter dealt a final, fatal blow to his popularity.

Paine was never wealthy and never comfortable; in fact, he rarely had a home.  He spent his life studying the world around him, looking for ways to ameliorate the human condition. His aim was no less grand than that—he wanted to change the world. What makes him extraordinary is that he succeeded. His weapon was his pen, and his writings by turn inspired, enlightened, threatened, scared and angered people.  He punched holes in commonly held beliefs; he forced people to think and ask questions. He fought for liberty and justice in America and France.  He saw a growing confusion over the role and benefit of religion, and—after giving it thought—decided that like tyranny, religion should be jettisoned entirely.

Paine was shunned at the end of his life; only six people attended his funeral.  His vision was too searing, and too demanding, for his contemporaries to acknowledge. Indeed, as Bertrand Russell (an admirer of Paine) would later write: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death… Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

To this day, Paine remains a huge influence on revolutionaries and rabble-rousers, truth-tellers and prophets. His legacy is long, and it is at our peril that we forget it. After all, Paine wrote the crucial words: “we have it in our power to begin the world again.”  This was true in Paine’s day, and they did begin again. We can only hope that these words hold true in ours.

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1. Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

Flannery O' ConnorAt the age of twenty-six, Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with disseminated lupus, and given five years to live.

She was staying with friends in Connecticut when she fell ill.  Flannery had left the South after college with no intention of returning for more than an occasional visit.  She had attended the famous writers’ program in Iowa, and done a stint at Yaddo.  She’d worked on early drafts of the novel Wise Blood while living in New York City.  When she felt her shoulders begin to tighten during a harsh northern winter, she attributed the discomfort to arthritis.  She was a gifted writer who was building a reputation; she had her whole life ahead of her.  She brushed off her friends’ concern, but planned a trip to visit her mother.  When her uncle picked her up from the train station in Georgia, he barely recognized the pale, crumpled girl on the platform.  Flannery was, although she didn’t know it at the time, home for good.

Flannery endured steroid shots, surgeries, blood transfusions, a strict diet and a litany of medications.  Her hair fell out temporarily, her face swelled, and she had to use metal crutches to walk.  She kept her sense of humor though, and almost never complained about her situation.  Her letters from this period are bright, sarcastic, and concerned about the world beyond the borders of her family farm, Andalusia.  She developed a quiet routine that allowed her to devote her limited strength to her work.  In the morning she sat at her desk and wrote stories.  In the afternoons she rocked on her front porch and composed letters to faraway friends.  She wrote to the poet Robert Lowell, “I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”

Flannery traveled occasionally and reluctantly, to give talks at various colleges.  She found the trips taxing, but accepted the invitations for the financial remuneration.  Otherwise, her social life was limited to Andalusia, and therefore to her mother, Regina.  The two women had a close, complicated relationship that is hilariously depicted in Flannery’s letters, collected as a volume in The Habit of Being.  Regina didn’t understand her daughter’s fiction, but she loved and respected Flannery, so she created a life on the farm that supported both her daughter’s work and her health.  Regina also permitted Flannery to populate the farm with her beloved peacocks, despite despising the noisy birds.

Flannery completed two novels and more than two-dozen stories while battling lupus.  She wrote stories that the reader experiences as a series of blows to the chest.  The stories are often upsetting, the characters ugly, and the endings dark.  The sentences are bold and sharp; her use of language is uncompromising.  A paragraph written by Flannery could be penned by no other.  Her voice is unmistakable, and inimitable.  Her stories also hold up a mirror that is important to face.  The truths she wove through her work are intended to make us uncomfortable—you will think, I am nothing like these awful characters.  But you are, and I am too.

It’s difficult for me to write about Flannery O’Connor because she’s lived in my head for the last seven years as a character in my novel, A Good Hard Look.  She exists for me as a semi-fictional character, as well as the writer of some of the best short stories ever written.  I know the facts about her, and I know the internal life I created for her.  Neither is the whole truth, and so I hesitate as I try to depict her here.  This struggle feels appropriate and familiar, however; Flannery has always demanded a lot of me.  I wrote endless drafts of my novel and in particular, hundreds of drafts of her scenes, because I wanted the book to be worthy of her.

In the end, Flannery defied the doctor’s prognosis.  She was given five years to live; she took thirteen.  She died when she was thirty-nine years old.  She is now an acknowledged master of the short story, and an icon of American literature.  Her place on this list of “well-lived lives” is hard earned.  Flannery was dealt a horrible blow with her diagnosis; many of us would have taken to our beds in her position, lost to a black hole of self-pity.  Flannery refused to do that.  She had the bravery to squeeze value out of every minute she had left.  She poured herself into her work.  She was robbed of time, energy and a future, and still she chose to reach for the moon.

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