What does it mean to follow an exemplar?

The very interesting philosopher, Max Scheler, died on this date in 1928. He was a prominent influence in ethics, phenomenology, and personalism. He had an eclectic trajectory involving his German Jewish background, his youthful interest in Nietzsche and Marx, his gradual embrace of Catholicism, and his eventual distancing from the Church.

Scheler was quite interesting and imaginative and the impression he made on twentieth century thought is detectable, particularly in many Jewish and Catholic thinkers who address such topics as shame, resentment, and values.

Today I was returning to his book Person and Self-Value and, in particular, to the third section on “Exemplars of Persons and Leaders” in which he reflects on the question of what is actually meant by following an exemplar:

I ask the question: what is it that the saints who, “followed Christ” wanted, experienced or did: They certainly did not want to be [physically] contaminated by him as members of a mass infect each other when they show their fists, accuse, are irate, arson, murder, or are hypnotized by a leader. Neither wanted Christ’s followers to just “imitate” Christ (as the ill-chosen expression of “imitatio Christi” would suggest), nor wanted they to copy him, say, to live in Galilee, or be in despair in Gethsemane or die on the cross: nor did they want to have sympathy with him, not share the joy “with” his glorification. They wanted something else: They wanted to co-live and re-live in one act the Spirit of his historically fortuitous, small and poor life. And this they did, of course, along quite different contents of their lives, in terms of quite different experiences, deeds, actions, and works. Yet, they leavened and saturated all their fortuitous qualities, talents, milieus, historical situations, occupations and duties, with the individual essence of Christ’s person. This amounts to a unique jump into the center of a person; it amounts to an intuitively seizing hold of its well, and a “life” from out of this center, i.e., everyone of them living his own, fortuitous, historical “life.” This is precisely what the act of “following” implies. It is not an approach from the outside as historians must make such approaches. This type of knowledge of Christ is quite different from historical knowledge transmitted to us in theology. It is basic knowledge.

Yet, they leavened and saturated all their fortuitous qualities, talents, milieus, historical situations, occupations and duties, with the individual essence of Christ’s person.

What is it to live and die as followers of ethical exemplars?

What difference does it make for us to “jump into the center of a person” and to live our own unique, historical, and particular life in such a way that is intuitively informed by the exemplary person?

Scheler’s thoughts on how we respond to values continue to provide worthwhile points for reflection.


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