The Scientist is now running a series of personal profiles of scientists that resonates with the classical Greek tradition for biography writing. The old Greeks didn’t primarily think about life writing as a kind of history, but as an ethical genre. By reading about someone else’s life you were supposed to learn how to shape and live your own life, including how to behave virtuously, i.e., how to become great and good (kalos k’agathos, see e.g., Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, book 8, section 1249a).

Plutarch (late 1st and early 2nd century CE) was the master of this kind of biographical writing. This doesn’t mean that he, or other Greek biographers, were holding only elite examples up for emulation. Lesser people could also do, even failures. On other words, young men and women could learn from both positive and negative (or mixed) examples.

Later, the culture of Christianity sort of perverted this tradition by reducing ethical life writing to the lives of saints (hagiography), i.e., the lives of those who were good, but usually not very succesful in their earthly lives. The Christian backlash meant that the original ethical aim of biography — i.e., presenting lives as mirrors for one’s own self-development — took centuries to get back to its pagan normality [note added: se Kjetil’s comment below]. Only in the last decades have more and more biography writers begun to focus on the moral status of their subjects, and without falling into the trap of only presenting the bright sides of life.

Scientists too are becoming the subjects of ethical biographies (I will not abstain from mentioning my own biography of Niels Jerne in this context). The portrait of Stefan Kappe at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute in the last issue of The Scientist sets the tone of this new wave of emulatory life-writing by science journalists for scientists:

To get his start in malaria research, Stefan Kappe had to trick his university into letting him study biology. Although he’d majored in biology in high school, his grades weren’t good enough to enter the competitive biology research track at the University of Bonn in Germany. “In high school, sometimes you have other interests than studying,” Kappe says with a grin.

And then he goes from success to success: kalos k’agathos. Se further here.

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