I have a penchant for biographies. I don’t know if this is tantamount to a confession for being a people watcher, gossip monger, or consummate busybody. I do know Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote on great & small minds, and I don’t think my indulgence in biographies is standing me in her good stead.
Yet, it is with the intellectual biographies, the plane where biographies come closest to Roosevelt’s ideas and great minds, that I feel the greatest gap between “the thing that is” to “the thing that is told”, in this case in biographical sketches. Justly or not, I get the same feeling when I hear musicians being interviewed — the feeling is that I’m not getting the best of what the musicians have to offer, no matter how great the interview. What is best, what is most creative, what consumes the most of their talent lies in their music; the rest is just dressing.
In the same vein, to read about Adam Smith, even in classics such as Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, is not to read Smith’s The Wealth of Nations nor to appreciate Smith’s pure ideas. If we cleave to the ideal that we judge ideas on their intrinsic values and not on whose heads they sprang from, then why would we care that Smith was a life-long bachelor who lived with his mother? How much value-added are in the biographical details? Are the biographical tidbits presented to help us better understand the ideas, in which case wouldn’t an annotated edition or a commentary on the original work do more efficiently? Or are the life stories there to serve as sops & inducements so we don’t lose interest? If the answer is “both”, then what is the decomposition between the two? Are we inescapably to understand some of the personal details as “dumbing down” of the big, important ideas so that the small minds are not totally abandoned to their smallness?