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An exemplar—a person who has completed life—receives attention because other persons now engaged in their own self-formation extract from that life insight, understanding, and inspiration in shaping their own. An exemplar stands before us, not as an object lesson instructing us about some unattainable principle or ideal, but as a complex person of achieved significance, worthy of study, reflection, inward contemplation. Exemplars have importance, less for our public selves and our outward lives, but for the inner person who lives the life that each of us lives, generating our public selves as part of our vital presence in the world. The exemplar works, not through imitation by our public selves, with, but as a chosen presence with whom one inwardly communes, whose thoughts, experience, and fates one examines with curiosity, respect, and honesty in the course of framing one's own.

We, as living persons, identify others as our exemplars and project an aura of exemplarity onto them. Thus, exemplars indicates an open, inclusive set arising from the concrete judgments that we make, investing an exemplar's life and work with special significance for our shaping our own lives.

Exemplarity has a lot to do with our giving ourselves positive and negative feedback in forming and carrying out aspirations. Hence we resist the temptation to see exemplars as only the good guys, the positive models. We can and should project exemplars that help us define formative possibilities that we can and should resist as well as those we can and should pursue. Judgments of exemplarity need to be nuanced and many-sided. Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes helps greatly in grasping the subtleties of the concept.[1]

  1. The Exemplary Novels of Cervantes (William K. Kelly, trans., London: George Bell & Sons, 1881), Project Gutenberg