Exemplary Manhood

I cannot refuse this honor without being churlish, and I cannot accept it without being ridiculous. Given the choice between being deliberately offensive or my own natural self, of course I choose the latter. Ridiculous? ” . . . man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep; who, with our spleens would all themselves laugh mortal.”1 If they were not well-behaved angels, they would laugh themselves sick over our antics.

The expression “exemplary manhood” has a quaint old-fashioned ring, rather pleasant turn-of-the-century. I think of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s view of himself as “The Last Leaf”: “I know it is a sin for me to sit and grin at him here. But the old three-cornered hat and the breeches, and all that are so queer.”2 Who is going to take an octogenarian for a role model? “Exemplary” has a touch of irony. If you are sincerely seeking a role model you will not find him among the living; the best men “carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect . . . shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault.”3 Already I have betrayed a particular fault which disqualifies me for “exemplary,” a weakness for quoting somebody else at the drop of a hat. To be a true role model today means having the right labels on your jackets, jeans, and sneakers. The producers of these items maintain that they are endowing the youth with a sense of self-worth and identity. To this Jesse Jackson replies: They are “exploiting the ethos of mindless materialism. . . . For my inadequate feeling about myself I must at least identify with the best. So I cover up my inadequate feelings with $200 tennis shoes.”4 Jackson is speaking of young blacks, but the Book of Mormon tells us that it is by no means the underprivileged who find fulfillment in costly apparel. Indeed, a notice in last week’s paper reports that at BYU students learn that they should try to acquire the most expensive clothing because it does truly give a sense of self-worth, amounting, we might say, to exaltation. I lack the stature of the revered exponents of high-priced sneakers by at least fifteen inches, but then a dislocated knee or shoulder can eclipse their glory in an instant.

Most of you will hardly recognize those quaint values from the early twentieth century—debating, middy-blouses, Indian clubs, the disapproval of cheating, and the reading of Plutarch. Plutarch, as you know, spent his days analyzing and comparing the qualities of greatness in particular men. Our civilization still lives on the capital his great Greeks and Romans have left us. It was the Greeks who won all the prizes, and their secret, as we learn from Plutarch, is their fascination with man’s capacity for greatness. That is the megalopsychia, that greatness of mind which Aristotle discusses in the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Perhaps the star role model of all time, as he certainly was of his own time, was Oedipus. He had a fatal flaw, for as we learn from his opening speech of Oedipus the King, everybody thought he was kleinos, glorious, number one, and he warmly approved their judgment. The fatal flaw was that he would not admit a flaw; he had committed a horrible crime, but an unintentional one, and he was repeatedly told that he would be freely forgiven if he would only admit to the sin. So we come to the famous closing chorus.

     Citizens of Thebes, look at your Oedipus here, the man who solved the world-famous riddle and was unquestionably the ablest man of his time. There wasn’t a single man anywhere who didn’t look with envy upon his fabulous success. Well, this is the total shipwreck to which he had come. In view of which let every mortal consider how he ended up, and understand that nobody is to be viewed as exemplary manhood (olbizein) until he has gone through life without having been cut down to size.5

The greatest role model in history is certainly Alexander the Great, who, as you know, conquered the world. But, for Plutarch his greatness was not measured quantitatively as greatness is measured today by Malcolm Forbes’s richest 400 or the top 500 corporations, strictly in dollars. What Alexander shows at every turn is that nobility of mind which never stoops to anything mean or base, never takes advantage of the weak or the beaten, never seeks vengeance; with him all is humanity and chivalry. It was not his blitzkrieg blows but his generosity and magnanimity to his enemies and to everybody else that enabled him to subdue the world. His first victory was over the horse Bucephalus, a magnificent beast which no one could approach; it simply ate men alive. Alexander, at the age of twelve, wanted the horse and loved it and subdued it with extreme gentleness—and caution, of course.

In the opening sentence of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch puts him side by side with Caesar, not as romantic and exciting a figure, but showing the same greatness of spirit; Caesar’s first rule was always to deal fairly with the enemy—treat him as you would be treated. He was indeed something like the Caesar of Antony’s funeral oration, and his methods worked in subduing all Gaul as all the imperial and barbarian tactics of brutality could not.

Alexander had his own hero, none other than Diogenes, the one who went around looking for an honest man and lived in a tub. He had an absolute passion for honesty that seemed to lead sometimes to rudeness, but Alexander understood it. In the famous anecdote, Alexander comes to visit Diogenes and asks him, as he often asked others, whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes replied that the only favor he asked was for Alexander to step aside and let him enjoy his sun bath. As he walked away from this memorable interview, Alexander said to those who were with him, “If I was not Alexander, the man I would want to be is Diogenes.”6 What could the two men have had in common and what did he so admire in the old man? It was absolute independence of mind, and the luxury of honesty. In Athens, as we know, everybody was busy making money, or at least being very busy—chrema chremet’ aner—the business ethic with a vengeance. So on some days one could see Diogenes busily rolling his tub up and down the street, and when people asked what on earth he was doing he would reply, “I am rolling my barrel in the Metroum,” i.e., I am being busy like everybody else. It was an object lesson to all those busy people and surprisingly it got across the point so well that to this day Diogenes is perhaps the most admired exemplar of manhood among the Greeks. Diogenes Laertes said that Diogenes’ own model in turn was Heracles, “because he prized independence above all things.” He was not impressed by the pretensions of men and would heartily applaud the teachings of King Benjamin.

You will recall that the people of King Benjamin met in a great national assembly to celebrate the completion of the long, victorious, and prosperous reign of their great king. It was a time for pride and patriotism. So what does Benjamin do? He devotes his two great addresses to pouring cold water on every display of enthusiasm: “Now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking . . . that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they viewed themselves in their own carnal state even less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:1—2), hardly a case of standing tall, to say the least! “If the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state, . . . believe that ye must repent of your sins . . . and humble yourselves before God. . . . I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures” (Mosiah 4:5, 10—11). Along with that, he kept reminding them that he was no better than the rest of them.

If Diogenes reminds us of Benjamin, Alexander reminds us of Moroni, a youthful military genius of great dash and imagination, but above all of great humanity and empathy with his fellows. He always calls the enemy “our brethren.” He is always eager to stop the battle the moment he sees a weakening on the other side and to suggest talking things over. As we are often reminded he took no pleasure in the shedding of blood and never sought vengeance or even any reprisals or reparations from the enemy—no preventive arrest, not even for Zerahemnah, who frankly told Moroni that if he let his people go they would most certainly break any oaths or promises they made to him. In one revealing situation Moroni refuses to take advantage of a disabled enemy: “But had they awakened the Lamanites, behold they were drunken and the Nephites could have slain them. But behold, this was not the desire of Moroni; he did not delight in murder or bloodshed, but he delighted in the saving of his people from destruction; and for this cause he might not bring upon him injustice, he would not fall upon the Lamanites and destroy them in their drunkenness” (Alma 55:18—19). He would not take advantage of those disgusting people who had done all manner of wicked things. How would Alexander and Moroni have responded to General Powell’s remark that the number of dead Iraqis “is not a number I’m terribly interested in,” or to Mr. Fitzwater’s insistence that we should feel not the slightest guilt or responsibility for any of the destruction in the Gulf in “a war caused by Saddam Hussein”?

Moroni has been held up to us as a prime example of exemplary manhood: “If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). You do not deliver the hearts of men from the power of the devil by high explosives, for “this was the faith of Moroni, and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity” (Alma 48:16). There was the enemy—the only place you can resist iniquity is in yourself. Alma sums up all the virtues of Moroni in the ringing pronouncement, “Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah, yea, and even the other sons of Mosiah” (Alma 48:18). This is not Ammon, the mightiest warrior in the Book of Mormon, but explicitly Ammon the missionary with his companions. Ammon humbled himself as a servant and groom to a king and put on a stunning display of martial arts in the rough games at the Waters of Sebus. But the one achievement in which he glories is the true measure of his greatness, when he subdued an indescribably cruel and uncompromising enemy. “For if we had not come up out of the land of Zarahemla, these our dearly beloved brethren . . . would still have been racked with hatred against us, yea, and they would also have been strangers to God. . . . Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself but I will boast of my God” (Alma 26:9, 12). Then he tells his story. He and the sons of Mosiah had this wild idea of going on a mission to the enemy: “They said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language” (Alma 26:24). The idea was so absurd that “they laughed us to scorn” (Alma 26:23). They had the well-known and unanswerable arguments that we hear so often: “Let us take up arms against them, that we may destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:25). It was the open-and-shut case of kill or be killed; if we don’t fight them now we will have to fight them later.

What were Ammon’s strategy and tactics? “We have . . . been forth amongst them; and we have been patient in our sufferings, and we have suffered every privation; yea, we have traveled from house to house. . . . And we have entered into their houses and taught them, and we have taught them in their streets; yea, and we have taught them upon their hills; and we have also entered into their temples and their synagogues and taught them” (Alma 26:28—29). And what was the reaction? “And we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks; and we have been stoned . . . and bound . . . and cast into prison. . . . And we have suffered all manner of afflictions” (Alma 26:29—30). How humiliating! How embarrassing! How infuriating for the mightiest man of them all to let himself be pushed around like that. Where was his pride? Why did he put up with it? What was there in it for him? He explains: “And all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul; and we supposed that our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some” (Alma 26:30). They just wanted the chance to try to bring the gospel to some honest soul who just might listen to them. Results were by no means guaranteed as they are by the John Wayne and Rambo approach in which the solution of every problem is the big man with the gun that never misses.

I find “exemplary manhood” paradoxical if not ironic because the qualities we would most like to imitate are by their very nature unique to the individual; the men and women who possess them are truly singularities. This is exceptionally clear in the arts; the greater the artist the more unique and inimitable are his works or performances. I am thinking of the two greatest men of our dispensation, the one the devoted disciple and boundless admirer of the other—Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They are practically out of reach as exemplary figures since they can no more be duplicated or cloned than Mozart and Houdini.

Why do I say that Joseph Smith is the greatest? For one thing he was the only man qualified for his task. We get a fresh portrait of him and the things he went through in his newly published letters and papers. As we know, he gave the world in the Latter-day Saint scriptures the most astonishing collection of writings ever put forth by an individual. This was not his own work of course, “Joseph could do nothing of himself,” as he and his friends often noted—so it wouldn’t do much good to imitate him. But what he did was beyond the scope of other mortals; as a transmitter no other human being could take the voltage that he did. Reading the early history of the church from New York on, I find the strongest possible testimony to the divinity of the work in the fact that it did not fold up in five years or ten. At Kirtland no one would have bet the Church could survive for a decade. Joseph made no secret of his own limitations, and the envious brethren, to say nothing of the Gentiles, spared him no rebuff, threat, or indignity. Such men as Rigdon, Cowdery, Phelps, F. G. Williams, the Laws, the Higbys, etc., in fact, “Of the Twelve Apostles chosen in Kirtland, and ordained under the hands of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and myself, there [are] but . . . two but what have lifted up their heel against me.”7 “Great big Elders,” he called them, caused him much trouble. “He said he had been trampled under foot by aspiring Elders, for all were infected by that spirit.”8 “I do not think there have been many good men on earth since the days of Adam. . . . I do not want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not.”9 And would you believe it, all but Frederick G. Williams sooner or later returned to apologize, beg Joseph’s forgiveness, and be taken back into the Church. And he always forgave them on the spot. His greatness—uniquely his own—was the overflowing love that invests whatever he does and says. No man ever stood more alone against the world. The hundreds of vicious tales that were told against him cannot be matched by a single story or report which he may have told against others in rebuttal. One of his worst enemies wrote that Joseph with all the provocation he faced, never did or said an unkind thing to anyone. I wonder if there is anyone else of whom that could be said. Whom would Joseph Smith recommend as his model? “The great and wise of ancient days have failed in all their attempts to promote eternal power, peace, and happiness. . . . They proclaim with the voice of thunder, those imperishable truths—that man’s strength is weakness, his wisdom is folly, his glory is his shame. . . . History records their puerile plans, their short-lived glory, their feeble intellect and their ignoble deeds.”10 “All are subjected to vanity while they travel through the crooked paths and difficulties which surround them. Where is the man who is free from vanity?”11 “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. . . . And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have obtained a good object? . . . I ask, Did I ever exercise any compulsion over any man? Did I not give him the liberty of disbelieving any doctrine [that] I have preached?”12 “Every man has a natural, and, in our country, a constitutional right to be a false prophet, as well as a true prophet.”13

Joseph saw that independence requires tolerance: “We deem it a just principle . . . to be duly considered by every individual, that all men are created equal, and that all have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. Consequently, then, we are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.”14 It all goes back to the ultimate role model: “Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles (as God)? The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself. . . . The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end.”15 Who is exemplary for you? “If others’ blessings are not your blessings, others’ curses are not your curses; you stand . . . agents unto yourselves to be judged according to your works.”16

In terms of his accomplishments in the face of the obstacles that man and nature threw in his way, Brigham Young is certainly the greatest leader that America has produced. Where does his greatness show through? Not in the overpowering bulldozing personality some people imagine, but in his intelligence and uncanny insight and understanding of human nature. I am thinking of the man with the bucket. Every year Brigham would invite all the Saints to a big 24th of July celebration at Brighton. One year (in 1860), a reporter from Horace Greeley’s New York Herald observed the scene. He tells how when the party was over and night was falling and the dust had settled on the road back to town, a solitary figure could be seen going around among all the campfires with a bucket, carefully putting out the last glowing embers—it was the leader, Brigham Young, practicing what he preached. At the beginning of the celebration the usual officious people had come forth with carefully planned agenda of all events—rising at 5:00 to the bugle, falling into formation, lights out at 10:00, etc. When the experts had laid down the rules Brigham Young rose and said that as far as he was concerned he intended to go on dancing until the small hours of the morning. (And this was the founder of the Brigham Young University?)

There is one story I must tell because it is strictly firsthand; I heard it from Emma Lucy during a dinner at her home when I first came to Utah. There used to be a barn behind the Lion House where Brother Brigham kept his horses. One day when Emma Lucy was nine years old she heard her father out in the barn giving the grooms a royal dressing down for having allowed a fine saddle to fall from its peg to the floor where it got trampled in the dirt. She waited until Brigham came back to the house and stormed down the hall to his office. Then she listened at the door and actually heard him say, “Down on your knees Brigham! Get down on your knees!” He was ashamed of himself for having embarrassed the grooms and so lost control over his temper. He recommended that the Brethren keep handy a piece of India rubber to chew whenever they got angry to avoid swearing.

High military officers tell me that the most coveted medal among them is the familiar red-and-white good conduct ribbon, for which any Beetle Bailey is qualified. It is prized by the high brass because it shows that the wearer has come up from the ranks. In itself there is no lower degree of glory, its secondary message is what is important. So let it be with this award, the recognition of the unspecified tribulations of another enlisted man.

This is the day of our probation. In this life no one is saved and no one is damned. The days of our probation are prolonged so that we can repent and avoid damnation as long as we are here; while only he who endures to the end will be saved, that is, saved only after this life is over. To his followers the Lord said, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). This is not a confession of weakness by the Lord, but a reprimand to those who judge prematurely, or rather who judge at all—”Man shall not judge neither shall he smite”—what do you know about it? So far as we are concerned there is but one standard of goodness and that is our Heavenly Father. Shouldn’t we seek our role model at a lower level to say the least? Not at all, says the Lord, when we consider that all good comes from him and to whatever degree we do good we are pleasing him and we are the pattern and example he sets. “A man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift” (Moroni 7:10). On the other hand, “I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that every good gift cometh of Christ” (Moroni 10:18). “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). And as we all know, he did only what he saw the Father do. But what about his own ascendancy? The supreme lesson in humility was given to the brother of Jared; though the sight of the Lord’s finger knocked him flat, when the Lord revealed himself fully, as he reports it: “Then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he hath told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things” (Ether 12:39).


*   Nibley presented this keynote address on 11 April 1991 when he was presented the Exemplary Manhood Award at the Associated Students Awards Assembly at Brigham Young University.

1.   William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act II, scene ii, lines 117—23.

2.   Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Last Leaf” (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin—Riverside, 1886), 8.

3.   William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act I, scene iv, lines 31, 35—36.

4.   Jesse Jackson, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 1—7 April 1991, 8—9.

5.   Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, ed. R. C. Jebb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), 1524—30.

6.   Plutarch, Lives: Alexander XIV, 3.

7.   TPJS, 307.

8.   TPJS, 225.

9.   TPJS, 303.

10.   TPJS, 249.

11.   TPJS, 187.

12.   TPJS, 313, 341.

13.   TPJS, 344.

14.   TPJS, 49.

15.   TPJS, 353.

16.   TPJS, 12.