An interview with Burgess Laughlin, author of The Aristotle Adventure and co-founder of Study Groups for Objectivists.
The Nearby Pen: If a biography is a selective account of someone's life according to the author's judgments about what is important, what makes for a good (or bad) biography?
Burgess Laughlin: This is a fascinating question. There are three related issues here. The first issue is: What is a biography? Etymologically, the term names the idea of a written account of someone's life as a whole. For some subjects--for example, an ancient mathematician such as Euclid--so little information is available that a biographer might present all the facts known about the events of that person's life. For some other subjects of biographies, so much information is available that the biographer must be highly selective.
Where plenty of information is available, a second issue emerges: What criteria should a biographer use in selecting facts to interpret and report? The one element that most sets the context here, as often in life, is purpose. What is the biographer's purpose? For example, is a particular biographer of Thomas Aquinas writing mainly to examine the career of Thomas as a teacher; to explore Thomas's own philosophical development throughout his short life; or to consider Thomas's role in the social history of his time, that is, his relations with men of power in Church and State? The answer affects which aspects of Thomas's life the biographer will choose for most careful consideration in his research, which facts he will report, and in what level of detail.
Like all writers, a biographer considers other criteria as well, such as the nature of his intended audience.
That leads us to the third issue. In deciding whether a biography is "good," one should ask: Good for whom? An objective biographer defines his audience even before beginning his research. A scholarly, 800-page, two-volume biography, like Jean-Pierre Torrell's Saint Thomas Aquinas--written for historians of medieval philosophy or religion--would not be "good" for a beginner who merely wants an overview of Thomas's life; instead, a 30-page "Thomas Aquinas" article in the 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy or in the 13-volume Dictionary of the Middle Ages would be appropriate.
What makes a biography "good" for any reader are the following qualities, with the most important first: objectivity (all conclusions should be drawn logically from facts of reality); clarity (the author's style should reflect his quality of thinking, for a specified audience); conciseness (following the principle of form and function, the author should say no more than he needs to say to fulfill his purpose); and an entertaining manner.
In particular, in biography "objectivity" means not only that footnotes include accurate and complete citations, but also that the biographer has logically essentialized the information he has discovered. Essentialization here means that the biographer has studied the facts and identified which characteristics are causes of most of the other characteristics.
For example, an essentializing biographer of Thomas Aquinas would ask what philosophical and personal values--which are the essential (causal) characteristics of a man's life and character--explain all, most, or many of his particular actions. A non-essentializing biographer would merely present a hash of facts, some broad and some narrow, perhaps in chronological order, but without indicating a cause-and-effect relationship among the facts. A biography should not be merely a presentation of facts, but an accounting of those facts, that is, an explanation of their relationship.
In conclusion, if an objective biographer, writing with a particular purpose and for a particular audience, has conveyed the essence of the subject's life and the consequences that follow from that essence, the biography is a "good" one.