Exemplary Manhood

Chapter 19

"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.

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"?

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

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
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?)

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.