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How to Write a Biography (Examples & Templates)

A biography is a written account of a person’s life that details their life in chronological order. Another person usually writes this detailed account, and it contains reports of their childhood, career, major life events, relationships, and social impact. It also details their relationships with their family, children, and life accomplishments.

The best way to find out more about a popular figure is through reading their biographies, so you need to make sure you get the correct information. Before writing a biography, you need to do a lot of research and interviews to represent a person’s life accurately.

Types of Biography

A biography is the story of someone’s life as written by another writer. Most biographies of popular figures are written years, or even decades, after their deaths. Authors write biographies of popular figures due to either a lack of information on the subject or personal interest.

A biography aims to share a person’s story or highlight a part of their life.

There are different types of biographies, depending on the story. Some biographies are written true to the story, while some are written as fictional works. Biographies can give you true understanding of a person on an internal as well as external level along with a lot of life lessons.


An autobiography is different from a biography because it is written by the subject of the story, themselves. The author writes in the first-person narrative, and it flows step-by-step like a story of their life. Autobiographies contain personal accounts of the subject’s life, along with their perspectives and opinions on events in their life.

How To Write a Biography

Pick a subject.

Picking a subject is the first step in writing a biography. You can pick an already famous person or a relatively unknown person with a great life story. If you already have a few in mind, you can start by asking yourself some questions such as;

  • What has the subject accomplished that makes them a good subject?
  • Have they had an impact on society?
  • Is the subject a celebrity or a well-known personality?
  • Will the biography appeal to a wide audience?

Get Permission

When you pick a subject, the next thing to do is to get permission from them or their family or rights owners. Although, with some historical figures, there may not be any need for permission. Getting permission from your subject makes it easier for you to get stories to put into your book. You can get the chance to obtain additional personal stories and anecdotes that will make your book more interesting by doing so as well.

Do The Research

Research is the most important part of a biography’s process as the entire content of the book is dependent on it. Irrespective of what you know about the subject, you need to carry out as much research as possible to get the story’s facts precisely.

Biography research comes from various sources, depending on the book’s subject. Firsthand reports from family, friends, or personal accounts from the subjects are primary sources. They are usually the most accurate and reliable, and they are crucial for a biography. Secondary sources come from other sources like magazines or documentaries.

Pick a Format

Biographies come in various formats, with each of them having their pros and cons. A typical biography will start at the beginning, usually with the birth and childhood of the subject. Yet, if the biography’s theme involves a different event in their life, the author may want to explore the flashback option or one with concurrent events from different times.

Usually, biographies have a theme or a general life lesson at the center. The author’s role is to tell the subject’s story leading up to the major event.

Which-ever format you choose should place the theme at the center, with the other events detailing the journey.

Create a Timeline Of The Story

Since a biography takes place in chronological order, there needs to be a timeline of the events in the right order. The timeline should contain the key events in the subject’s life, in the order the author plans on revealing them. A great way to declutter the story and keep it interesting is to use flashbacks . This way, the author can introduce past events and explain later events excluding the element of monotony.

Add In Your Thoughts

The good thing about biographies is that you don’t have to stick to the hard facts only. As the author, you can share your opinions and emotions in writing. The author has the freedom to do this by commenting on a significant action by the subject in a manner that describes why they feel the subject may have done what they did.

The author can also include commentary on events depicted in the biography – how it was influenced society or its impact on the lives around them. Recounting these events through a different perspective can make the biography more relatable and interesting to read.


Why is a biography template important.

A biography template has an outline that makes the writing easier for the author. Biography templates usually contain a sample timeline, format, and questions that provide more information about the subject. With a great biography template, you can cut your writing time in half and spend less time coming up with an outline.

How are biographies better in comparison to autobiographies

Since a different person writes biographies, they tend to be more objective and somewhat accurate than autobiographies. An autobiography tells things from the author’s perspective, so their views and perspective cloud it. Thus, a biography will likely tell a more factual story.

These are the important steps you need to take to help you write a great biography. Now, to make things easier for you, we have a free customizable autobiography and biography template that you can use to start your first book. Get the template and start writing today

What are some of the most important elements to keep in consideration while writing a biography?

Any author looking to write a biography must consider the factors below. They aren’t the only important factors, but a biography isn’t complete without them. • Date and place of their birth • Academic background • Professional expertise • Death, if deceased • Facts and anecdotes about the person • Main accomplishments • Detailed accounts of their child and adult life

Biographies tell the untold stories of some incredibly relevant people in the world. But biographies are not always strictly accurate. So, every biographer needs to follow the necessary steps to provide a biography with all the requirements.

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Literacy Ideas

How to Write a Biography

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Biographies are big business. Whether in book form or Hollywood biopics, the lives of the famous and sometimes not-so-famous fascinate us.

While it’s true that most biographies are about people who are in the public eye, sometimes the subject is less well-known. Primarily, though, famous or not, the person who is written about has led an incredible life.

In this article, we will explain biography writing in detail for teachers and students so they can create their own.

While your students will most likely have a basic understanding of a biography, it’s worth taking a little time before they put pen to paper to tease out a crystal-clear definition of one.

Visual Writing

What Is a Biography?

how to write a biography | how to start an autobiography | How to Write a Biography |

A biography is an account of someone’s life written by someone else . While there is a genre known as a fictional biography, for the most part, biographies are, by definition, nonfiction.

Generally speaking, biographies provide an account of the subject’s life from the earliest days of childhood to the present day or, if the subject is deceased, their death.

The job of a biography is more than just to outline the bare facts of a person’s life.

Rather than just listing the basic details of their upbringing, hobbies, education, work, relationships, and death, a well-written biography should also paint a picture of the subject’s personality and experience of life.

how to write a biography | Biography Autobiography 2022 | How to Write a Biography |

Full Biographies

Teaching unit.

Teach your students everything they need to know about writing an AUTOBIOGRAPHY and a BIOGRAPHY.

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Features of a Biography

Before students begin writing a biography, they’ll need to have a firm grasp of the main features of a Biography. An excellent way to determine how well they understand these essential elements is to ask them to compile a checklist like the one-blow

Their checklists should contain the items below at a minimum. Be sure to help them fill in any gaps before moving on to the writing process.

The purpose of a biography is to provide an account of someone’s life.

Biography structure.

ORIENTATION (BEGINNING) Open your biography with a strong hook to grab the reader’s attention

SEQUENCING: In most cases, biographies are written in chronological order unless you are a very competent writer consciously trying to break from this trend.

COVER: childhood, upbringing, education, influences, accomplishments, relationships, etc. – everything that helps the reader to understand the person.

CONCLUSION: Wrap your biography up with some details about what the subject is doing now if they are still alive. If they have passed away, make mention of what impact they have made and what their legacy is or will be.


LANGUAGE Use descriptive and figurative language that will paint images inside your audience’s minds as they read. Use time connectives to link events.

PERSPECTIVE Biographies are written from the third person’s perspective.

DETAILS: Give specific details about people, places, events, times, dates, etc. Reflect on how events shaped the subject. You might want to include some relevant photographs with captions. A timeline may also be of use depending upon your subject and what you are trying to convey to your audience.

TENSE Written in the past tense (though ending may shift to the present/future tense)


Like any form of writing, you will find it simple if you have a plan and follow it through. These steps will ensure you cover the essential bases of writing a biography essay.

Firstly, select a subject that inspires you. Someone whose life story resonates with you and whose contribution to society intrigues you. The next step is to conduct thorough research. Engage in extensive reading, explore various sources, watch documentaries, and glean all available information to provide a comprehensive account of the person’s life.

Creating an outline is essential to organize your thoughts and information. The outline should include the person’s early life, education, career, achievements, and any other significant events or contributions. It serves as a map for the writing process, ensuring that all vital information is included.

Your biography should have an engaging introduction that captivates the reader’s attention and provides background information on the person you’re writing about. It should include a thesis statement summarising the biography’s main points.

Writing a biography in chronological order is crucial . You should begin with the person’s early life and move through their career and achievements. This approach clarifies how the person’s life unfolded and how they accomplished their goals.

A biography should be written in a narrative style , capturing the essence of the person’s life through vivid descriptions, anecdotes, and quotes. Avoid dry, factual writing and focus on creating a compelling narrative that engages the reader.

Adding personal insights and opinions can enhance the biography’s overall impact, providing a unique perspective on the person’s achievements, legacy, and impact on society.

Editing and proofreading are vital elements of the writing process. Thoroughly reviewing your biography ensures that the writing is clear, concise, and error-free. You can even request feedback from someone else to ensure that it is engaging and well-written.

Finally, including a bibliography at the end of your biography is essential. It gives credit to the sources that were used during research, such as books, articles, interviews, and websites.

Tips for Writing a Brilliant Biography

Biography writing tip #1: choose your subject wisely.

There are several points for students to reflect on when deciding on a subject for their biography. Let’s take a look at the most essential points to consider when deciding on the subject for a biography:

Interest: To produce a biography will require sustained writing from the student. That’s why students must choose their subject well. After all, a biography is an account of someone’s entire life to date. Students must ensure they choose a subject that will sustain their interest throughout the research, writing, and editing processes.

Merit: Closely related to the previous point, students must consider whether the subject merits the reader’s interest. Aside from pure labors of love, writing should be undertaken with the reader in mind. While producing a biography demands sustained writing from the author, it also demands sustained reading from the reader.

Therefore, students should ask themselves if their chosen subject has had a life worthy of the reader’s interest and the time they’d need to invest in reading their biography.

Information: Is there enough information available on the subject to fuel the writing of an entire biography? While it might be a tempting idea to write about a great-great-grandfather’s experience in the war. There would be enough interest there to sustain the author’s and the reader’s interest, but do you have enough access to information about their early childhood to do the subject justice in the form of a biography?

Biography Writing Tip #2: R esearch ! Research! Research!

While the chances are good that the student already knows quite a bit about the subject they’ve chosen. Chances are 100% that they’ll still need to undertake considerable research to write their biography.

As with many types of writing , research is an essential part of the planning process that shouldn’t be overlooked. If students wish to give as complete an account of their subject’s life as possible, they’ll need to put in the time at the research stage.

An effective way to approach the research process is to:

1. Compile a chronological timeline of the central facts, dates, and events of the subject’s life

2. Compile detailed descriptions of the following personal traits:

  •      Physical looks
  •      Character traits
  •      Values and beliefs

3. Compile some research questions based on different topics to provide a focus for the research:

  • Childhood : Where and when were they born? Who were their parents? Who were the other family members? What education did they receive?
  • Obstacles: What challenges did they have to overcome? How did these challenges shape them as individuals?
  • Legacy: What impact did this person have on the world and/or the people around them?
  • Dialogue & Quotes: Dialogue and quotations by and about the subject are a great way to bring color and life to a biography. Students should keep an eagle eye out for the gems that hide amid their sources.

As the student gets deeper into their research, new questions will arise that can further fuel the research process and help to shape the direction the biography will ultimately go in.

Likewise, during the research, themes will often begin to suggest themselves. Exploring these themes is essential to bring depth to biography, but we’ll discuss this later in this article.

Research Skills:

Researching for biography writing is an excellent way for students to hone their research skills in general. Developing good research skills is essential for future academic success. Students will have opportunities to learn how to:

  • Gather relevant information
  • Evaluate different information sources
  • Select suitable information
  • Organize information into a text.

Students will have access to print and online information sources, and, in some cases, they may also have access to people who knew or know the subject (e.g. biography of a family member).

These days, much of the research will likely take place online. It’s crucial, therefore, to provide your students with guidance on how to use the internet safely and evaluate online sources for reliability. This is the era of ‘ fake news ’ and misinformation after all!


how to write a biography | research skills 1 | How to Write a Biography |


⭐How to correctly ask questions to search engines on all devices.

⭐ How to filter and refine your results to find exactly what you want every time.

⭐ Essential Research and critical thinking skills for students.

⭐ Plagiarism, Citing and acknowledging other people’s work.

⭐ How to query, synthesize and record your findings logically.

BIOGRAPHY WRITING Tip #3: Find Your Themes In Biography Writing

Though predominantly a nonfiction genre, the story still plays a significant role in good biography writing. The skills of characterization and plot structuring are transferable here. And, just like in fiction, exploring themes in a biographical work helps connect the personal to the universal. Of course, these shouldn’t be forced; this will make the work seem contrived, and the reader may lose faith in the truthfulness of the account. A biographer needs to gain and maintain the trust of the reader.

Fortunately, themes shouldn’t need to be forced. A life well-lived is full of meaning, and the themes the student writer is looking for will emerge effortlessly from the actions and events of the subject’s life. It’s just a case of learning how to spot them.

One way to identify the themes in a life is to look for recurring events or situations in a person’s life. These should be apparent from the research completed previously. The students should seek to identify these patterns that emerge in the subject’s life. For example, perhaps they’ve had to overcome various obstacles throughout different periods of their life. In that case, the theme of overcoming adversity is present and has been identified.

Usually, a biography has several themes running throughout, so be sure your students work to identify more than one theme in their subject’s life.

BIOGRAPHY WRITING Tip: #4 Put Something of Yourself into the Writing

While the defining feature of a biography is that it gives an account of a person’s life, students must understand that this is not all a biography does. Relating the facts and details of a subject’s life is not enough. The student biographer should not be afraid to share their thoughts and feelings with the reader throughout their account of their subject’s life.

The student can weave some of their personality into the fabric of the text by providing commentary and opinion as they relate the events of the person’s life and the wider social context at the time. Unlike the detached and objective approach we’d expect to find in a history textbook, in a biography, student-writers should communicate their enthusiasm for their subject in their writing.

This makes for a more intimate experience for the reader, as they get a sense of getting to know the author and the subject they are writing about.

Biography Examples For Students

  • Year 5 Example
  • Year 7 Example
  • Year 9 Example

“The Rock ‘n’ Roll King: Elvis Presley”

Elvis Aaron Presley, born on January 8, 1935, was an amazing singer and actor known as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Even though he’s been dead for nearly 50 years, I can’t help but be fascinated by his incredible life!

Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, in a tiny house with his parents and twin brother. His family didn’t have much money, but they shared a love for music. Little did they know Elvis would become a music legend!

When he was only 11 years old, Elvis got his first guitar. He taught himself to play and loved singing gospel songs. As he got older, he started combining different music styles like country, blues, and gospel to create a whole new sound – that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll!

In 1954, at the age of 19, Elvis recorded his first song, “That’s All Right.” People couldn’t believe how unique and exciting his music was. His famous hip-swinging dance moves also made him a sensation!

Elvis didn’t just rock the music scene; he also starred in movies like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.” But fame came with challenges. Despite facing ups and downs, Elvis kept spreading happiness through his music.

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Tragically, Elvis passed away in 1977, but his music and charisma live on. Even today, people worldwide still enjoy his songs like “Hound Dog” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Elvis Presley’s legacy as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll will live forever.

Long Live the King: I wish I’d seen him.

Elvis Presley, the Rock ‘n’ Roll legend born on January 8, 1935, is a captivating figure that even a modern-day teen like me can’t help but admire. As I delve into his life, I wish I could have experienced the magic of his live performances.

Growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis faced challenges but found solace in music. At 11, he got his first guitar, a symbol of his journey into the world of sound. His fusion of gospel, country, and blues into Rock ‘n’ Roll became a cultural phenomenon.

The thought of being in the audience during his early performances, especially when he recorded “That’s All Right” at 19, sends shivers down my spine. Imagining the crowd’s uproar and feeling the revolutionary energy of that moment is a dream I wish I could have lived.

Elvis wasn’t just a musical prodigy; he was a dynamic performer. His dance moves, the embodiment of rebellion, and his roles in films like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” made him a true icon.

After watching him on YouTube, I can’t help but feel a little sad that I’ll never witness the King’s live performances. The idea of swaying to “Hound Dog” or being enchanted by “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in person is a missed opportunity. Elvis may have left us in 1977, but he was the king of rock n’ roll. Long live the King!

Elvis Presley: A Teen’s Take on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Icon”

Elvis Presley, born January 8, 1935, was a revolutionary force in the music world, earning his title as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Exploring his life, even as a 16-year-old today, I’m captivated by the impact he made.

Hailing from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew up in humble beginnings, surrounded by the love of his parents and twin brother. It’s inspiring to think that, despite financial challenges, this young man would redefine the music scene.

At 11, Elvis got his first guitar, sparking a self-taught journey into music. His early gospel influences evolved into a unique fusion of country, blues, and gospel, creating the electrifying genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In 1954, at only 19, he recorded “That’s All Right,” marking the birth of a musical legend.

Elvis wasn’t just a musical innovator; he was a cultural phenomenon. His rebellious dance moves and magnetic stage presence challenged the norms. He transitioned seamlessly into acting, starring in iconic films like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

how to write a biography | Elvis Presley promoting Jailhouse Rock | How to Write a Biography |

However, fame came at a cost, and Elvis faced personal struggles. Despite the challenges, his music continued to resonate. Even now, classics like “Hound Dog” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” transcend generations.

Elvis Presley’s impact on music and culture is undeniable. He was known for his unique voice, charismatic persona, and electrifying performances. He sold over one billion records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling solo artists in history. He received numerous awards throughout his career, including three Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Elvis’s influence can still be seen in today’s music. Many contemporary artists, such as Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake, have cited Elvis as an inspiration. His music continues to be featured in movies, TV shows, and commercials.

Elvis left us in 1977, but his legacy lives on. I appreciate his breaking barriers and fearlessly embracing his artistic vision. Elvis Presley’s impact on music and culture is timeless, a testament to the enduring power of his artistry. His music has inspired generations and will continue to do so for many years to come.

how to write a biography | LITERACY IDEAS FRONT PAGE 1 | How to Write a Biography |

Teaching Resources

Use our resources and tools to improve your student’s writing skills through proven teaching strategies.


We have compiled a sequence of biography-related lessons or teaching ideas that you can follow as you please. They are straightforward enough for most students to follow without further instruction.


This session aims to give students a broader understanding of what makes a good biography.

Once your students have compiled a comprehensive checklist of the main features of a biography, allow them to use it to assess some biographies from your school library or on the internet using the feature checklist.

When students have assessed a selection of biographies, take some time as a class to discuss them. You can base the discussion around the following prompts:

  • Which biographies covered all the criteria from their checklist?
  • Which biographies didn’t?
  • Which biography was the most readable in terms of structure?
  • Which biography do you think was the least well-structured? How would you improve this?

Looking at how other writers have interpreted the form will help students internalize the necessary criteria before attempting to produce a biography. Once students have a clear understanding of the main features of the biography, they’re ready to begin work on writing a biography.

When the time does come to put pen to paper, be sure they’re armed with the following top tips to help ensure they’re as well prepared as possible.


This session aims to guide students through the process of selecting the perfect biography subject.

Instruct students to draw up a shortlist of three potential subjects for the biography they’ll write.

Using the three criteria mentioned in the writing guide (Interest, Merit, and Information), students award each potential subject a mark out of 5 for each of the criteria. In this manner, students can select the most suitable subject for their biography.


This session aims to get students into the researching phase, then prioritise and organise events chronologically.

Students begin by making a timeline of their subject’s life, starting with their birth and ending with their death or the present day. If the student has yet to make a final decision on the subject of their biography, a family member will often serve well for this exercise as a practice exercise.

Students should research and gather the key events of the person’s life, covering each period of their life from when they were a baby, through childhood and adolescence, right up to adulthood and old age. They should then organize these onto a timeline. Students can include photographs with captions if they have them.

They can present these to the class when they have finished their timelines.


Instruct students to look over their timeline, notes, and other research. Challenge them to identify three patterns that repeat throughout the subject’s life and sort all the related events and incidents into specific categories.

Students should then label each category with a single word. This is the thematic concept or the broad general underlying idea. After that, students should write a sentence or two expressing what the subject’s life ‘says’ about that concept.

This is known as the thematic statement . With the thematic concepts and thematic statements identified, the student now has some substantial ideas to explore that will help bring more profound meaning and wider resonance to their biography.


Instruct students to write a short objective account of an event in their own life. They can write about anyone from their past. It needn’t be more than a couple of paragraphs, but the writing should be strictly factual, focusing only on the objective details of what happened.

Once they have completed this, it’s time to rewrite the paragraph, but they should include some opinion and personal commentary this time.

The student here aims to inject some color and personality into their writing, to transform a detached, factual account into a warm, engaging story.


how to write a biography | biography and autobiography writing unit 1 | How to Write a Biography |


  • Understand the purpose of both forms of biography.
  • Explore the language and perspective of both.
  • Prompts and Challenges to engage students in writing a biography.
  • Dedicated lessons for both forms of biography.
  • Biographical Projects can expand students’ understanding of reading and writing a biography.

Biography Graphic Organizer

FREE Biography Writing Graphic Organizer

Use this valuable tool in the research and writing phases to keep your students on track and engaged.


writing checklists

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To Conclude

By this stage, your students should have an excellent technical overview of a biography’s essential elements.

They should be able to choose their subject in light of how interesting and worthy they are, as well as give consideration to the availability of information out there. They should be able to research effectively and identify emerging themes in their research notes. And finally, they should be able to bring some of their personality and uniqueness into their retelling of the life of another.

Remember that writing a biography is not only a great way to develop a student’s writing skills; it can be used in almost all curriculum areas. For example, to find out more about a historical figure in History, to investigate scientific contributions to Science, or to celebrate a hero from everyday life.

Biography is an excellent genre for students to develop their writing skills and to find inspiration in the lives of others in the world around them.


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The Palgrave Handbook of Auto/Biography

  • © 2020
  • Julie M. Parsons 0 ,
  • Anne Chappell 1

University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK

You can also search for this editor in PubMed   Google Scholar

Brunel University London, London, UK

  • Includes section introductions by Julie Parsons, Anne Chappell, Gayle Letherby, David Morgan, Maria Tamboukou, John Barker, Emma Wainwright, Kay Inckle, Dennis Smith, Jenny Byrne, Geraldine Brown and Chrissie Rogers, all available for free on SpringerLink.
  • Focuses on the practice of auto/biographical research, as opposed to narrative inquiry
  • Assesses how auto/biography can be a particularly useful method of analysis in a neo-liberal, post-truth era
  • Looks at the auto/biography method in a range of contexts, including spatial, educational, social justice, familial and professional

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Table of contents (28 chapters)

Front matter, a case for auto/biography.

  • Julie M. Parsons, Anne Chappell

Creativity and Collaboration

The times are a changing: culture(s) of medicine.

  • Theresa Compton

Seventeen Minutes and Thirty-One Seconds: An Auto/Biographical Account of Collaboratively Witnessing and Representing an Untold Life Story

  • Kitrina Douglas, David Carless

Reflections on a Collaborative, Creative ‘Working’ Relationship

  • Deborah Davidson, Gayle Letherby

Families and Relationships: Auto/Biography and Family—A Natural Affinity?

Life story and narrative approaches in the study of family lives.

  • Julia Brannen

The Research Methods for Discovering Housing Inequalities in Socio-Biographical Studies

  • Elizaveta Polukhina

Auto/Biographical Research and the Family

  • Aidan Seery, Karin Bacon

Epistolary Lives: Fragments, Sensibility, Assemblages in Auto/Biographical Research

Letter-writing and the actual course of things: doing the business, helping the world go round.

  • Liz Stanley

The Unforeseeable Narrative: Epistolary Lives in Nineteenth-Century Iceland

  • Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir

Auto/Pathographies in situ: ‘Dying of Melancholy’ in Nineteenth-Century Greece

  • Dimitra Vassiliadou

Geography Matters: Spatiality and Auto/Biography

‘trying to keep up’: intersections of identity, space, time and rhythm in women student carer auto/biographical accounts.

  • Fin Cullen, John Barker, Pam Alldred

Spatiality and Auto/Biographical Narratives of Encounter in Social Housing

  • Emma Wainwright, Elodie Marandet, Ellen McHugh

‘I Thought… I Saw… I Heard…’: The Ethical and Moral Tensions of Auto/Biographically Opportunistic Research in Public Spaces

  • Tracy Ann Hayes

Madness, Dys-order and Autist/Biography: Auto/Biographical Challenges to Psychiatric Dominance


  • Alyssa Hillary
  • Historical writing
  • Narrative research
  • autoethnography
  • life history
  • collaboration
  • families and relationships
  • epistolary lives
  • prison lives
  • professional lives
  • social justice
  • narrative analysis
  • sociology of the everyday
  • personal life

About this book

In a neo-liberal era concerned with discourses of responsible individualism and the ‘selfie’, there is an increased interest in personal lives and experiences. In contemporary life, the personal is understood to be political and these ideas cut across both the social sciences and humanities.

The handbook provides the reader with cutting-edge research from authors at different stages in their careers, and will appeal to those with an interest in auto/biography, auto-ethnography, epistolary traditions, lived experiences, narrative analysis, the arts, education, politics, philosophy, history, personal life, reflexivity, research in practice and the sociology of the everyday.

Chapter 1: A Case for Auto/Biography; Julie Parsons and Anne Chappell.

Section One: Creativity and Collaboration; edited by Gayle Letherby. 

Chapter 2: The Times are a Changing: Culture(s) of Medicine; Theresa Compton. 

Chapter 3: Seventeen Minutes and Thirty-One Seconds: An Auto/Biographical Account of Collaboratively Witnessing and Representing an  Untold Life Story; Kitrina Douglas andDavid Carless. 

Chapter 4: Reflections on a Collaborative, Creative 'Working' Relationship; Deborah Davidson and Gayle Letherby. 

Section Two: Families and Relationships: Auto/Biography and Family, A Natural Affinity?; edited by David Morgan. 

Chapter 5: Life Story and Narrative Approaches in the Study of Family Lives; Julia Brannen. 

Chapter 6: The Research Methods for Discovering Housing Inequalities in Socio-Biographical Studies; Elizaveta Polukhina.

Chapter 7:  Auto/Biographical Research and The Family; Aidan Seery and Karin Bacon. 

Section Three: Epistolary Lives: Fragments, Sensibility, Assemblages in Auto/Biographical Research; edited by Maria Tamboukou. 

Chapter 8: Letter-Writing and the Actual Course of Things: Doing the Business, Helping the World Go Round; Liz Stanley. 

Chapter 9: The Unforeseeable Narrative: Epistolary Lives in Nineteenth Century Iceland; Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir. 

Chapter 10: Auto/Pathographies In Situ: 'Dying of Melancholy' in Nineteenth Century Greece; Dimitra Vassiliadou. 

Section Four: Geography Matters: Spatiality and Auto/Biography; edited by John Barker and Emma Wainwright. 

Chapter 11: "Trying to Keep Up": Intersections of Identity, Space, Time and Rhythm in Women Student Carer Auto/Biographical Accounts; Fin Cullen, John Barker and Pam Alldred. 

Chapter 12: Spatiality and Auto/Biographical Narratives of Encounter in Social Housing; Emma Wainwright, Elodie Marandet and Ellen McHugh.

Chapter 13: “I Thought… I Saw… I Heard…”: The Ethical and Moral Tensions of Auto/Biographically Opportunistic Research in Public Spaces; Tracy Ann Hayes. 

Section Five: Madness, Dys-order and Autist/Biography: Auto/Biographical Challenges to Psychiatric Dominance; edited by Kay Inckle. 

Chapter 14: Autist/Biography; Alyssa Hillary. 

Chapter 15: Reaching Beyond Auto? A Polyvocal Representation of Recovery From “Eating Dys-order”; Bríd O’Farrell. 

Chapter 16: [R]evolving Towards Mad: Spinning Away from the Psy/Spy-Complex Through Auto/Biography; Phil Smith. 

Section Six: Prison Lives; edited by Dennis Smith. 

Chapter 17: Nelson Mandela: Courage and Conviction – The Making of a Leader; Dennis Smith. 

Chapter 18: The “Other” Prison of Antonio Gramsci and Giulia Schucht; Jeni Nicholson. 

Chapter 19: Bobby Sands: Prison and the Formation of a Leader; Denis O’Hearn. - Section Seven: Professional Lives; edited by Jenny Byrne. 

Chapter 20: Academic Lives in a Period of Transition in Higher Education: Bildung in Educational Auto/Biography; Irene Selway, Jenny Byrne and Anne Chappell. 

Chapter 21: Narratives of Early Career Teachers in a Changing Professional Landscape; Glenn Stone. 

Chapter 22: What Does it Mean to be a Young Professional Graduate Working in the Private Sector?; Jenny Byrne. 

Section Eight: 'Race' and Cultural Difference; edited by Geraldine Brown. 

Chapter 23: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t! Making Sense of the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Experience of UK Higher Education: One Person’s Story; Gurnam Singh. 

Chapter 24: Raging Against the Dying of the Light; Paul Grant.

Chapter 25: Black Young Men: Problematisation, Humanisation and Effective Engagement; Carver Anderson. 

Section Nine: Social Justice and Disability: Voices From the Inside; by Chrissie Rogers. 

Chapter 26: Missing Data and Socio-Political Death: The Sociological Imagination Beyond the Crime; Chrissie Roger. 

Chapter 27: Co-Constructed Auto/Biographies in Dwarfism Mothering Research: Imagining Opportunities for Social Justice; Kelly-Mae Saville. 

Chapter 28: An Auto/Biographical Account of Managing Autism and a Hybrid Identity: 'Covering' for Eight Days Straight; Amy Simmons. 

Editors and Affiliations

Julie M. Parsons

Anne Chappell

About the editors

Julie M. Parsons is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth, UK.

Anne Chappell is Senior Lecturer and Divisional Lead in the Department of Education at Brunel University London, UK.

Bibliographic Information

Book Title : The Palgrave Handbook of Auto/Biography

Editors : Julie M. Parsons, Anne Chappell


Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan Cham

eBook Packages : Social Sciences , Social Sciences (R0)

Copyright Information : The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2020

Hardcover ISBN : 978-3-030-31973-1 Published: 29 April 2020

Softcover ISBN : 978-3-030-31976-2 Published: 26 August 2021

eBook ISBN : 978-3-030-31974-8 Published: 28 April 2020

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : XLIII, 692

Number of Illustrations : 10 b/w illustrations, 8 illustrations in colour

Topics : Research Methodology , Human Geography , Sociology of Family, Youth and Aging , Language and Literature , Sociology of Education

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8 Autobiography and Biography

Stephen Mulhall is fellow and tutor in philosophy at New College, Oxford. His current research concerns Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. His most recent publications are On Film and The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
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This article looks at the relevance of biography and autobiography to philosophy. It suggests that the key to understanding the philosophical nature of biography and autobiography is to acknowledge the distinctive way in which the human subject's presence takes the form of a certain kind of absence. It explains that in order to understand the reality of selfhood it is important to recognize that it is beyond the grasp of any narrative account that might be given of it. It also argues that if autobiographical and biographical exercises can be genuinely authoritative or authentic in the way they make present the self's absence, then biography and autobiography must be considered forms of spiritual exercise, and engaging in such exercises must be inherent to becoming a person.

It seems clear that, of the two literary genres of the life story, autobiography has been more central to the interests and the development of philosophy than biography. It might even be argued that one could write an instructive (even if not exactly exhaustive) history of Western philosophy by concentrating solely on examples of philosophical autobiography; at the very least, such texts as Augustine's Confessions , Descartes's Meditations , Rousseau's Confessions , and Nietzsche's Ecce Homo would be pivotal to any attempt to narrate the story of the life of the mind in the West. So the question arises: why should this be the case? Why should such a highly specific mode of writing play such a deeply influential role in philosophy's unfolding and contested conception of itself? And if philosophy can find clarity about itself through a philosopher's attempts to attain clarity about himself, is that in part because any individual's pursuit of self-understanding will find itself drifting or drawn toward philosophical modes of reflection? If philosophical autobiographies are as central to the history and development of their genre as the illustriousness of my examples suggests, perhaps that is because the impulse to take up certain specifically philosophical problems lies at the heart of autobiographical (and hence, biographical) writing as such.

That some degree of philosophical concern for the autobiographical impulse might be appropriate is not in itself controversial. After all, it is one of philosophy's defining characteristics that it seems capable of taking an interest in, even presuming to adjudicate upon, pretty much any and every aspect of human life. We have the philosophy of art and morality, of science and of history, of politics and economics; we philosophize about the mind, the body, language, and logic, about what there is and how we might come to know about it. So it is no surprise that philosophers should take the human business of autobiography to be just as much capable of generating philosophical questions as any other piece of human business, and hence as capable of supporting what one might call “the philosophy of autobiography”—within which one might expect to find a critical investigation of the assumptions and concepts presupposed by any particular autobiographical exercise. But why should these assumptions and concepts—as opposed to those deployed by historian and scientists, or those informing our concerns with aesthetic and moral values—be of any particular, even of an obsessional, interest to philosophers? And why should philosophy repeatedly feel the need to express and to revolutionize itself through essentially autobiographical modes of writing?

An answer to this question might emerge if we reflect upon the peculiar kind of authority that philosophy assigns to its pronouncements. Historians, philologists, and molecular biologists are looked to as authorities concerning their respective subject matters because they have acquired a certain kind of expertise; they know a lot of things about the Second World War, or the vicissitudes of the Romance languages, or the behavior of DNA that most of us do not know, and they have mastered a range of investigative techniques or methods that can, in principle, generate an endless further supply of such knowledge.

Philosophy isn't like that—it has no distinctive subject matter; its peculiar kinds of questions are essentially parasitic upon the existence of other disciplines and domains of human life: they can arise with respect to any of those phenomena, and there is no body of distinctively philosophical knowledge or technique or method that must be mastered by anyone who wishes to try to answer those questions (or at least nothing that is not itself essentially subject to philosophical contestation and questioning). And yet, philosophers continue to claim sweeping authority for their pronouncements; they variously think of the results of their thinking as giving us access to the a priori, as speaking with necessity and universality, as deliverances of pure reason. How is this to be understood?

If we imagine the philosopher, at once gripped by her sense that her insights truly penetrate to a realm of impersonal necessity and yet unable to deny that those insights are unsupported by any impersonally authoritative expertise, I think that we will naturally conjure up a picture of an exposed self, one whose claims to the agreement of others necessarily place her individual existence on the line. In other words, we can picture philosophy as a kind of exemplary self-reliance, a mode of the self's relation to itself in which the individual self is deemed representative of selfhood as such. This does not give up on the philosophical claim to universality; it merely follows Aristotle in thinking that the universal can only be attained through and made manifest in the particular. Without some such picture of oneself as both particular and representative (even if representative only by virtue of one's particularity, which then at least exemplifies the human capacity for individuality—for differentiating oneself from every other human being), why would anyone write an autobiography? And one might then ask whether having such a picture of oneself is inherent to selfhood as such—a condition of being oriented as a subject in (and of) human life.

A picture of philosophical authority as essentially but impersonally autobiographical is detectable throughout the history of the subject, from Socrates onward. Even if we restrict ourselves to the modern period, we encounter Descartes's presentation of himself as subjecting himself to the threat of madness in a search for epistemological purity whose results he invites us to prove by enacting their production ourselves; we find Locke, Berkeley, and Hume acting on the conviction that one individual's discovery of something about his own mind (the absence or presence of an idea) is authoritative for all; and in more recent times, we find Austin and Wittgenstein speaking of what we say when, and thereby establishing how things are in the world, on the basis of their own individual sense of the fitness of words to their contexts of application. Each such inflection of the autobiographical impulse in philosophy obviously invites the charge of arrogance. Its inherent humility may be less obvious, but it is no less real, for, given that the representativeness claimed for the philosopher's individuality is such that any individual can also claim it, it can always be contested or denied. Hence, such self-reliance actually constitutes an important counterexample to the often rather less humble and self-aware modes in which philosophers have claimed authority over others.

If philosophy's peculiar combination of arrogance and humility can in this way be grounded in the self's relation to itself, then philosophy has a particular reason to preoccupy itself with the assumptions and resources of autobiographical writing—that of attempting to achieve not only a clearer understanding of the self, but also thereby a clearer self-understanding. It then becomes a matter of doubled or reflexive significance for philosophy to ask what it betokens about the self that it is capable of an autobiographical relation to itself. And since the idea of a biography is one factor in the meaning of the idea of the autobiographical, we might quickly conclude that this question is not one that we can properly address without also addressing the question of what it betokens about the self that other selves are capable of establishing a biographical relation to it.

Some philosophical accounts of this matter might be read as viewing any idea of the autobiographical as dependent on the biographical as arrived at rather too quickly. Does not Descartes's stance in the Meditations discover that, while the real existence of other minds is dubitable, the doubting self cannot doubt the reality of its own existence? And does this not suggest that an autobiographical relation to the self is possible in the absence of the possibility of any biographical relation to that self? But what such an account overlooks is not just the fact that Descartes himself appears to overlook certain constitutive dependencies of the self upon others (in, for example, the meditating self's need to inherit its capacity to articulate its train of thought in words of a common language), but also the fact that Descartes's textual enactment of his capacity to account for himself is addressed to others. And if others can grasp his own account of the life of his mind, what is to prevent them from offering an account of that life themselves (even one that contests his own)?

Could one imagine a situation in which others are in a position to offer an account of the life of an individual when that individual herself lacks any possibility of so doing? The issue here is not best exemplified in cases where someone who once had the capacity to offer an account of her own life comes to lose it (through accident or injury, say); the issue is rather whether, with respect to a creature who is essentially incapable of relating to itself as the possible object of an autobiography, others could regard that creature as the possible object of a biography. In other words, is it internal to our conception of what it is for someone to have or to live a life of which there might be a biography that she be capable of taking an autobiographical stance toward herself? Is our concept of the self such that its distinctive mode of existence must be writable, articulable in thought or speech, from both the first-person and the third-person perspectives?

A familiar line of thought, commonly based nowadays on more or less egregious misreadings of structuralist and poststructuralist philosophers, but also given expression by certain modernist writers, would reject this idea from the outset. To tell a story about oneself is, according to this suggestion, necessarily to falsify oneself; it is to impose a form and structure upon that which, like any aspect of the real, essentially transcends such constraints. Any application of language to reality—being an attempt to confine the particularity of the particular within necessarily general terms, and hence within the identity system of the concept—is a misapplication; hence, any application of words to the human self necessarily misses its target, even when it is the self itself that applies them to itself, even when it simply tries to name itself. As Samuel Beckett's narrator in The Unnamable puts it: “I, say I. Unbelieving … I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me” (1979: 267).

A. S. Byatt's novel The Biographer's Tale (2000) pivots around these kinds of anxiety. Its protagonist, Phineas Nanson, is driven to take a biographical interest in the biographical work of one Scholes Destry-Scholes as a reaction to the ways in which literary theory (in his view) reduces individual texts to mere instances of general structures: “I must have things ,” he wails. “Facts” his supervisor proclaims: “The richness, the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts. Every established fact—taking its place in a constellation of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy—every established fact illuminates the world” (4). But even Destry-Scholes is discovered to have recoiled from or, rather, to have reoriented his biographical work in the direction of fictive accounts of the lives of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen—a taxonomist, a statistician, and a playwright who famously invokes the image of the self as a centerless onion: three debunkers of the inspiring conception of genuinely individual elements of reality, and hence of human individuality. And even here, in these fragmentary, hybrid literary exercises, Destry-Scholes's own self remains absent, withdrawing from the biographer's grasp.

Peter Conradi, invoking a passage from one of Iris Murdoch's novels that expresses an analogous suspicion, draws a moral from it for his own biographical work on Murdoch: “In Under the Net , Hugo teaches Jake that ‘all stories are lies’ because truth is local and particular . This was the truth I sought. The biographer must construct a story. I decided to tell a succession of short stories that might be mutually contradictory, but were each internally coherent, and (I felt) individually truthful” (2002: 6).

But of course, if all stories are lies, then even a succession of internally coherent but mutually contradictory short stories could not (even in principle) be individually truthful. If Hugo is right, then the biographer and the autobiographer alike simply cannot achieve truth, and so cannot coherently seek it; but then we might ask whether Hugo's sense of the inherent particularity of truth really justifies the conclusion that its articulation in language, and particularly in the language of story, must fail. Perhaps truth is not lost the moment a story is constructed for its inhabitation; perhaps its fate rather depends (as Conradi's avowed moral and his biographical practice both suggest) on how one constructs the story—with what degree of particularity. The question of how a constructed story of an actual life may be truthful, even true, could not then simply be shirked.

Pursuing such an alternative line of thought, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued in After Virtue (1981: 191–6) that the possibility of giving a narrative account of the self is internal to what it is for the self to be a self. He claims that selves are agents and that human actions are necessarily such that they are comprehensible in narrative terms. Actions are not just pieces of behavior, exhaustively describable in terms of physical movements; they are intentional, and hence can be comprehended only by relating them to the intentions, beliefs, and goals of the person performing them, and those intentions can be understood only in terms of the settings or contexts in which they are embedded. I am currently writing an essay; I might also be said to be supporting a university press, furthering my career, following a line of thought from earlier writing and teaching, repaying a debt to one of my colleagues, avoiding domestic commitments, and so on. It is therefore pertinent to ask what I am doing—in other words, to expect me to be able to specify under which of these various descriptions I primarily take myself to be doing what I am doing; and the answer I give will locate my action in a specific setting, which will in turn form part of a larger setting or context. If I am primarily supporting a university press, I am relating my action to the history of a particular publishing institution, and thereby to the particular history of academic philosophical discourse; if I am avoiding domestic commitment, the relevant larger setting is the history not only of the institution of marriage but also of my marriage and its entwinement in my own life as well as that of others. And, of course, I might think of myself as doing both. But however I answer this question, I must do so by implicitly or explicitly embedding my action in a narrative history. I thereby render it comprehensible—that is, recountable as an episode in a set of nested stories—not only to myself but also to others, and in the absence of such embedding, there is nothing that might count as an action to be understood either by myself or others, and so nothing of agency in what I do, only matter in motion. As MacIntyre summarizes the matter:

I am presenting … human actions in general as enacted narratives. Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting upon events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguise nor decoration …. It is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told—except in the case of fiction. (1981: 197)

On this understanding of agency, the identity or unity of a self is the unity of a narrative, a unity of exactly the kind to which autobiographical and biographical stories typically give expression, and since the form such stories give to human lives corresponds to the form that such lives actually have, it must in principle be possible for such stories to capture the truth of a human life (even if practical difficulties of all kinds might prevent its attainment in any given case).

Such an understanding can allow for the possibility that calling a given event or action a beginning or an end confers significance of a kind upon it, and hence can be a matter of debate, since it claims only that the nature of the debate takes for granted the constraints of a narrative tale. It can also acknowledge that individuals are not entirely free to live out whatever story they please—that they are only coauthors of the narrative in which they are their own heroes, insofar as we enter upon a stage that is not of our own design, into ongoing, interlocking narratives that are not of our own making, playing subordinate parts in the dramas of others as well as the central part in our own. It can even allow for the possibility of the most thoroughgoing rejection of the terms in which one's inherited settings inform the narrative options one confronts in living out one's life, for such rejection is simply one extreme way in which one lives out the drama of one's own existence in relation to the other dramatic narratives within which it is embedded. Most centrally, however, it rebuts the charge that to give a narrative account of a human life is necessarily to falsify it—to impose on it an order or form (a structure of beginnings, unfoldings, reversals, achievements, triumphs, disasters, and endings) appropriate to fiction but essentially lacking in reality.

Something like the contrary is in fact the case. Autobiography and biography are motivated by the requirements of truthfulness toward a conception of human life as possessed of narrative form and structure, and this is not because such forms happen to coincide with the way human existence is objectively structured, but rather because the distinctively human form of individual existence is constituted by the exercise of our capacity to tell our own stories. The specific modes of that narrativity may be historically and culturally specific, just as certain forms of self-interpretation (say, those of the Homeric king or warrior) may recede beyond our social grasp only to be replaced by others (say, those of president or spy), but that there are modes or genres of narrative self-interpretation is constitutive of distinctively human life.

MacIntyre's basically Aristotelian approach thus rightly brings the techniques of certain kinds of fiction and those of biography and autobiography into close proximity. It is not clear, however, how well he handles his consequent obligation to show how the two genres might be distinguished (given that they are not to be distinguished by reference to the narrative forms they assume or impose). As we have just seen, he claims that, whereas with respect to real people, stories are lived before they are told, with respect to fictional people it is otherwise; presumably, he does not mean by this that fictional lives are told before they are lived, but rather that they are not lived before they are told—even, perhaps, that the living of them and the telling of them are in some sense one and the same thing. And later, he remarks, “The difference between imaginary characters and real ones is not in the narrative form of what they do; it is in the degree of their authorship of that form and of their own deeds” (1981: 200). Both remarks, however, overlook the distinction between author and character in fictional narratives.

David Copperfield and Sherlock Holmes have exactly the same degree of authorial control over their own actions, exactly the same need to accept the constraints of the settings of their actions and exactly the same responsibility for what they do within those constraints, as did Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or, indeed, any real human beings; if they did not, their authors would not have produced a satisfying fictional depiction of human individuals. In particular, David Copperfield certainly lived those events of his life that he is recounting before the event in his life that is his recounting of them: he is remembering his childhood and youth. To be sure, Dickens and Doyle invented Copperfield and Holmes, and hence might be said to be in this sense entirely in control of their creations (although fiction writers are prone to articulate their experience of their characters in precisely opposite terms—as beings who reveal their nature and destiny to their authors, and as alive only insofar as their authors suffer this revelation of their autonomy), but Dickens and Doyle are not characters or forces of any kind in the world in which Copperfield and Holmes live out their lives, the world of the novels in which they are characters.

What this reveals is, I think, an essential confusion in the attempt to illuminate the nature of the real human self's relation to itself by this kind of reference to an author's relation to the characters in a story he has written. For if we say that a human being's relation to itself is that of (part) author of a tale in which she is the hero, then she must be regarded both as a character in the story told by the author and as the author of that story, but these two kinds of relation to the fictional character are not only radically different, but also not obviously combinable. An author of a fictional narrative is (at least according to the model we are considering) at liberty to choose whom to write about, the nature of the world she inhabits, and the events that will make up her life, but as MacIntyre acknowledges, human individuals have no such absolute freedom in relation to the narratives of their own lives. A character in a fictional narrative of the realistic kind (that is, a fictional narrative of the real world) relates to the settings and circumstances in which she finds herself, and to herself, in exactly the way a real human being does; hence her position reiterates that of the real person, rather than contrasting illuminatingly with it.

None of this definitively undermines MacIntyre's core claim that real human lives necessarily have a narrative structure; indeed, insofar as this line of thought depends upon seeing a correspondence between the narrative unity of fictional and real characters as essential to the former's ability to elicit our suspensions of disbelief, it actually reinforces it. What he needs to get more accurately into focus is not any spurious set of differences between a fictional character's relations to her existence and that of a real person, but rather a real and important set of differences between a real person's relationship to another person, and her relationship to a fictional character, for the techniques of realistic fiction can give its readers modes of access to the inmost thoughts and feelings, the most subtle and fine-grained details, of a fictional character's consciousness that are simply unavailable when one is trying to grasp the significance of a real person's thoughts, sayings, and doings. My point here is not that another's most complex thoughts and feelings are beyond expression by that other; if an author can articulate them in a fictional case, there is no reason in principle why a real person cannot convey such things. The point is rather that, with respect to another real person, the sincerity of her self-expressions may be open to question at any given point, whereas when certain fictional techniques are used to convey to us a fictional character's stream of consciousness, we cannot coherently question whether what is thereby conveyed is true.

This point needs careful handling, of course. My claim is not that everything we learn in a work of fiction about a character's inner life—even when it is the character that informs us of it—is trustworthy. The murderer who narrates Agatha Christie's The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd does not tell us everything he could, and he certainly does not tell us everything he is thinking, but he never lies, and if he did, his narrative would be unreadable; a completely unreliable narrator—as opposed to one who gives himself away—would not be a narrator at all. Furthermore, the shadow of unreliability in a fictional character's autobiographical narrations is not exactly equivalent to that which hangs over real journals and memoirs. Any biographer must certainly be sensitive to the possible inaccuracies, deceptions, and self-deceptions embedded in her subject's autobiographical writings, but these are controlled or constrained for the reader of a fictional autobiography in ways that the real biographer simply cannot take for granted. It would be essentially pointless, even incoherent, for an author to write a work of fiction taking the form of an autobiography that was largely fabricated by its fictional author, but whose status as a fabrication was undetectable to its readers, whereas a real person's autobiography might well be written with the perfectly intelligible intention of meeting both conditions, and could even succeed in doing so. And the deployment of other fictional techniques similarly excludes certain possibilities of fabrication or deception; for example, when Jane Austen reports Elizabeth Bennet's interior responses to Darcy's letter, there is simply no room for her readers intelligibly to raise the question of whether those responses are what they are reported to be (although they might exhibit certain species of self-deception).

These are the kinds of painstaking comparison and contrast that will truly clarify the differences between our relations to real people and our relations to fictional characters, and the different ways in which these differences emerge in biographical and autobiographical genres. MacIntyre simply does not attend with sufficient patience to these complexities, and as a result, his portrait of the essentially narrative unity of the self can appear to be not only inaccurate but also symptomatic—as if designed to repress something central to the issues with which he is concerned—for his doomed attempt to cross or graft a picture of absolute authorial freedom onto the more familiar, constrained kind encountered both in reality and in realistic fiction strongly suggests that he is tempted to overlook or repress some limit or condition inherent in the way in which human individuals relate to their own existence (and to occlude thereby some limit or condition inherent in attempts by others to narrate that existence from without—to write a biography of the kind of existence that necessarily possesses that kind of relation to itself).

Some suggestions as to what this limit might be can be gleaned from Heidegger's conception of the nature of distinctively human being—what in Being and Time (1927) he calls Dasein. On the one hand, Heidegger presents a portrait of human existence that appears to confirm many aspects of MacIntyre's account. For him, Dasein treats its own being as an issue—that is, every moment of its existence confronts it with the question of how to go on with its life, of which among a given range of possibilities it should realize; it thereby projects itself into the future, and does so from a present position that is the result of past such projections, and thereby partly constituted by individual and social factors that either never were or, at the very least, are no longer within its control—a position into which it has been thrown.

This vision of human existence as thrown projection suggests not only that Dasein's mode of being is temporal (more specifically historical), but also that its every element is comprehensible only as a situated transition—a movement within a nest of interlinked narratable structures, an episode in the story of a life. Heidegger reinforces this image by recounting Dasein's temporality in terms of fate and destiny; an individual relates authentically to its life—relates to it as its own, as expressive of its individuality, rather than disowning it—when it recovers from its past a heritage of certain possibilities that it can project into the future as fateful for it, thereby helping to realize (by coauthoring with other Dasein) the destiny of a people.

On the other hand, there are ways in which Heidegger's conception of human historicality can be read as subverting rather than simply reinforcing MacIntyre's emphasis on the necessarily narrative unity of the self. The troublesome term here is “unity,” for while Heidegger's talk of Dasein as thrown projection can be understood as emphasizing that Dasein's existence has a necessarily temporal or historical dimension, and hence that its unity is a matter of being a whole articulated in time (as opposed, say, to a Cartesian conception of the self as having the essentially punctual unity of an immaterial substance existing outside time), one can also understand Dasein's temporality as constitutively resisting any idea of human existence as unified or whole.

Take, for example, the projective aspect of Dasein's being—what Heidegger calls its being-ahead-of-itself. This means that, for as long as Dasein exists, it necessarily relates itself to existential possibilities; whenever one is actualized, it is actualized as a situation within which (better, as which) Dasein relates to some other, unactualized range of possibilities. This means that Dasein always already relates itself to what is not yet; it stands out into the future, and so there is always something outstanding, something essentially incomplete, in its mode of being. And yet, of course, Dasein does have an end: there is necessarily a point at which every individual life comes to an end—the point of one's death. But, of course, when that point of completion is reached, Dasein is not thereby made complete, for it is no longer there. Dasein's death is not an event in its life, even the last; the point at which it can no longer be said to relate itself to what is not yet actual, and thus to be essentially incomplete, is also the point at which it no longer exists.

MacIntyre seems to think that human mortality straightforwardly confirms his conception of the narrative structure of the self, for when confronted with a critic who claims that life has no endings, and that final partings occur only in stories, he says: “[O]ne is tempted to reply “But have you never heard of death?” (1981: 197). But Heidegger's analysis makes it clear that the human subjection to death in fact introduces an obstacle to narrative understandings of human life, for if my death is necessarily not an event in my life, I cannot grasp it as an episode—even as the final episode—in the story of my life; I may be the hero, as well as the part author, of the story of my dying, but I am necessarily not the chief, or even the sole, protagonist in my death. Hence, Heidegger concludes, I cannot relate to my own death as simply one more possibility of my being, one more possible way of existing that is bound to be actualized sooner or later, for its actualization is my absence, and hence not a possibility of mine, although the life that is mine is marked at every moment by my relation to that impossible possibility. My mortality is not a matter of my life's necessarily having one and only one ending; it is a matter of every moment of my existence possibly being the last such moment, and of my being unable to grasp what that might mean—at least, in the sense in which I can grasp (can understand or imaginatively inhabit) the realization of any other existential possibility or narrative event in my life (such as getting married, or winning the Booker Prize, or mowing the lawn). I cannot grasp it from the inside, as it were (as something that will happen to me), and yet it (what?) looms over and constitutively defines the character of every moment of the life that I do inhabit from the inside, the life that is mine to own or to disown.

How is the self to capture this impossible but necessary knowledge of itself, to articulate autobiographically the way in which its relation to itself in every moment of its existence is marked by its relationship to its own mortality? On Heidegger's view, it is only through an acknowledgment of this relationship that any human being can establish and maintain what he calls an authentic relationship to her life. Grasping the fact that death threatens my existence as a whole, that it cannot be outrun and that no one else can die my death for me, is what will allow me to grasp that my life forms a whole (each choice forming and formed by the overall narrative arc of my existence), that I am ultimately responsible for it, and that I can either take on that responsibility or live in flight from it. Without understanding whether, and if so how, a given person has succeeded or failed in living a genuinely individual life, how can we claim to have understood that person's life, and so that person? But on Heidegger's account, the person herself cannot properly be said to have access to a perspective upon herself from which her own mortality can make narrative sense to her, so in struggling for authenticity, she confronts a constitutive resistance to self-knowledge, a limit to the story of her life—better, to the idea of her life as a story—beyond which her own understanding of herself cannot reach, but it is only in relation to this disruption or dislocation of its narrative structure that her life can attain (and be seen to attain) its individual narrative shape.

And if the self's mortality threatens to subvert the possibility of autobiographical understanding, then how might another self articulate a biographical understanding of that individual? The biographer has the apparent advantage of being able to grasp her subject's death as an event in life—one greeted by mourning, funeral rites, the reading of the will and the unfolding of its legacies (financial, emotional, and cultural). But this is to grasp her subject's death as an event or episode in the lives of others, in the world that the subject no longer inhabits; it is not to grasp her death as hers—in its mineness, as Heidegger would say. Further narrative contexts and consequences come into view from this third-person perspective and provide ways of understanding unavailable to the subject that might expand or subvert certain aspects of her self-conception, but the pervasive opacity—the internal relation to nothingness—that the first person encounters as constitutive of its own mortal identity remains untouched, and to that degree so does the person. 1

Similar damage is done to the idea of the self as a narrative unity—or rather, the same damaging difficulty appears from another angle—if one shifts emphasis from Heidegger's sense of the self as projective, as being-ahead-of-itself, to his sense of the self as thrown, or being-already (being-always-already). This aspect of his analysis of Dasein's being is in fact made rather more prominent in Sartre's rereading of Being and Time in conjunction with his rereading of Descartes, as presented in Being and Nothingness . Sartre's starting point is to contest the Cartesian declaration of Alain (Émile Chartrier) that to know is to know that one knows. This is one aspect of Descartes's conception of the self as essentially transparent to itself; the Cartesian mind cannot be in a particular state—for example, that of doubting—without simultaneously knowing that it is in such a state, and hence knowing that it is (i.e., that it exists as doubting). To be thinking and to be aware of oneself as thinking are two aspects of one and the same state of the self; hence, each such state provides the basis for a cogito argument—for the self's certainty of itself, in every punctual moment of its existence, as existing and as existing in a particular state, and ultimately for the self's knowledge of itself as a self-identical immaterial thinking substance.

But Sartre argues that Descartes conflates the self's necessary potential for self-awareness with its actualization, and does so because he occludes the temporality of the self. Sartre stresses that all mental states are intentional—they are directed at something other than themselves: to desire is to desire something in particular, to perceive is to perceive something, and so on. Typically, the self is absorbed in the object of its given state of consciousness; for example, when someone in wartime (subjected to strict rationing) counts the number of cigarettes in his case, he is entirely absorbed in the question of the case and its contents, and entirely unaware of being so absorbed. He can, however, become aware of his absorption; if someone sits down at his café table and asks what he is doing, he can activate the capacity inherent in any genuine self to take any of its own conscious states as the object of its conscious awareness. But in so doing, he actualizes a new state of himself—one whose intentional object is no longer the cigarettes but rather his state of absorption in the cigarettes—and in actualizing that self-conscious state, he is necessarily no longer occupying that state of unself-conscious absorption. To take oneself as one's intentional object is to take up another state of oneself and to relegate the state that is now one's intentional object to one's past. And if one now takes one's self-consciousness of that prior absorbed state as one's new intentional object, one will necessarily no longer exist in that self-conscious state, but in a new state (whose intentional object is one's previous awareness of oneself as having been absorbed in the cigarettes).

In short, one can be conscious of oneself only as one was, not as one is; the self's necessary capacity to direct its attention to itself as well as to that which lies beyond it is realized, and is only realizable, in time, and hence is essentially incapable of bringing the whole of itself (including its present state) into self-consciousness. In effect, then, the phenomenon of self-consciousness does not (as Descartes believed) show that the self is essentially transparent to itself and identical with itself; it rather condemns the self to non-self-identity, to a necessary inability to coincide with itself, to gather itself up as a whole in its own awareness. Heidegger talks of this as an aspect of the self's being-guilty—its inability to have power over its own being from the ground up. Sartre sees it as exemplifying the for-itself's nature as being what it is not, and not being what it is.

Once again, to a certain extent, this conception of the self is congenial to a MacIntyrean analysis of selfhood as a narrative unity—despite MacIntyre's explicit conviction (evident throughout After Virtue ) that the Sartrean self is the absolute antithesis of his Aristotelian conception. After all, Sartre's conception of self-consciousness precisely allows the self to take up a perspective upon not just its immediate past states, but also its past as a whole, without which the idea of it understanding itself as the hero of an unfolding narrative would not be possible. And further, on Sartre's view, if the self really did coincide with itself, if what it previously was entirely exhausted or determined what it is, then the self would lack freedom; it would lack the ability to be part author of its own narrative as it extends into the future.

Nevertheless, MacIntyre is right to detect a fundamental conflict between his position and that of Heidegger and Sartre, for part of their point is that the self necessarily transcends any narrative it might be in a position to tell about itself, since any such narrative will always fail to include the moment of its own narrating, and the inclusion of that moment will necessarily fail to include the moment in or through which it is included, and so endlessly on. The narrative of David Copperfield does not include David's act of writing that narrative as an episode within it, and if it did, what of his act of writing about that act of writing? This may be what the film director John Boorman is trying to get at when he remarks at the conclusion of his recent autobiography that “I suppose the only completely satisfactory ending to an autobiography would be a suicide note” (2003: 301). In fact, however, such a note could not be completely satisfying, since it would remain promissory; to write a suicide note and to commit suicide are two rather different things. William Golding's novel The Paper Men (1984), in which an English novelist tells the story of his resistance to an American academic's attempts to write his biography, may actually get closer to Boorman's ideal, although it too fails to attain it, for it ends not so much in midword but in midphoneme, as the scribbling novelist notices that his would-be biographer, frustrated and enraged to the point of violence, is lurking in the woods outside his home: “How the devil did Rick L. Tucker manage to get hold of a gu” (191).

Herbert McCabe makes it clear, in his book The Good Life (2005), that this is not simply a point about the complications of being immersed in time; it is another way of approaching my earlier point about the difference between authors of narratives and the characters or personas in them, this time in an explicitly autobiographical context:

These problems have to do with the fact that “I” cannot function as a proper name. “I tell you” is not part of a story in which “I” is a character; it is the telling of a story. It is a sign of authority, of authorship as such (it is, as Aquinas would say, formal not material to the story). My life-story is not the story of “I” but the story of Herbert McCabe, who has become a persona, a persona distinct from I, the author. As Herbert McCabe in the story I have been made flesh and dwell among the other characters. How, then, do we get beyond any story to meet the ultimate author, the ultimate authority? (75)

Certainly not by telling any further story about the author, since that merely presents us with another author-as-character, beyond which again lies the author-as-author, the formal condition for there being a story at all.

Consequently, even autobiography does not and cannot take us to the author it is ostensibly about in the way that an ordinary story takes us to the character in the story; even if the autobiographer's last chapter concerns his writing of this very autobiography, it cannot bridge the unbridgeable gap between author-as-author and author-as-character. But this does not mean that we cannot meet the author; it means that we meet him not in reading about him qua character, but just in the form and the fact of the story itself, in the tale and the telling of it—in short, in its authority (the authority it claims, and the authority we cede it).

McCabe illustrates this point by reference to the Bible, understood as the autobiography of God. On the one hand, no one has ever seen or grasped God, and no one ever could; put otherwise, there can be no life story of the eternal God as such, since “eternal life” means “nonnarrative life,” which is a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, we are told that the Word has become flesh: God has become incarnate in a narrative, in the character of the Son, over against those of the Father and the Spirit. The Bible (the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to Apocalypse) is the story of the Son; the historical life of Jesus is the Trinitarian life of God played out as history. Hence, encountering God and participating in divine life are possible, but not by directly encountering the author of this narrative as author; it rather involves understanding the narrative as God's story—that is, regarding the historical narrative of the Son as authorized and so authored by God, reading it as in form and fact the authoritative image of the unseen and unseeable Author of all things. It means, in other words, belonging to the community of readers (the Christian community) who acknowledge the Bible as God's Word.

Heidegger and Sartre might baulk at the theological inflection of this example, but they would not reject the fundamental point it registers about the ineliminable difference between formal and material conditions of autobiographical authorship. In their less Thomist terms, it might be thought of as the way in which one's understanding of one's life from the inside involves a sense that one always necessarily comes to understand it belatedly; the self's life is lived before it is understood, and hence, even if it is then understood in narrative terms, the self must also acknowledge that the reach of its story about itself encounters a constitutive limit—a point from which its story as a whole, and each episode within it, must simply be accepted as having begun, beyond any complete recounting (even one that invokes the ongoing, conditioning narratives of other selves or institutional contexts).

In one sense, MacIntyre actually makes this Sartrean point when he explicitly claims that human lives are lived before they are told. But he does not seem to see that this very point determines an internal limit to the cogency of his claim that lives are enacted narratives, or at least to the thought that this fact about them confers a certain kind of unity on those lives. For Sartre and for Heidegger, to exist in time is not only a condition for the possibility of there being a narratable self, an individual possessed of a life of which she can render an intelligible account; it is also an ineliminable obstacle to the completeness or totality of that account.

If the self's autobiography will necessarily fail to include the whole story about that self in this sense, could any biographer of the self do a better job? To be sure, they would not be caught up in their subject's structural inability to catch up with herself; indeed, after the death of the subject, every episode in her life will be available for investigation, as will the nest of other narratives (of other selves, of institutions and cultures) that interlocked with the subject's life, and thereby—so one might think—a far more encompassing conception of her life as a narrative whole. But that way of telling the story of the subject's life avails itself of a perspective essentially unavailable to the subject, and entirely occludes the perspective on that life which the subject of it necessarily occupies, so such a biography would to that extent be false to her subject's relation to her life, and hence false to an essential aspect of her subject's life. One might say that presenting her life as such a narrative whole does not, and could not, tell the whole story of that life.

Suppose one accepts that offering more and more information of the kind available to the biographer (and typically, even necessarily, unavailable to the biographical subject)—contextualizing the life ever more intensively and extensively, in the manner of so many contemporary biographies—can never fill a gap engendered by the constitutive difference between the first- and third-person perspectives on a life. It would not improve matters to imagine that one should instead attempt ever more systematically and penetratingly to adopt the first-person perspective upon that life—to dedicate one's account to the task of imaginatively inhabiting the subject's relation to her own life, for this would be to assume that the subject possesses an understanding of these aspects of her relation to her own life that others lack, whereas the true point of Heidegger's and Sartre's exertions is to show that the first-person perspective encounters a constitutive opacity here just as much as does that of the third person. Neither, however, would it be appropriate to conclude from all this that the very idea of giving a narrative account of the self, or even the idea that the self has a narrative unity, must be given up. The true moral of these analyses is rather that we must reject a certain idea of what it is to conceive of the self as having a narrative unity, and hence of what it might be to articulate that unity in discourse, whether in autobiographical or biographical form. In McCabe's terms, we need to reconceive the way in which we think such narratives acquire and manifest authority; for Heidegger and Sartre, it is a matter of how they, and so we, achieve authenticity.

This is not essentially a matter of authenticating the deliverances of one's memory or the provenance of a document, or of claiming the authority that might flow either from being the central character in a certain sequence of events or from synthesizing the accounts of all involved in it—the familiar (and hardly unimportant) ways of acknowledging any individual's privileged and yet contestable capacity to determine the narrative of her life, and so the most obvious means of securing autobiographical and biographical trustworthiness. What these philosophers are rather trying to argue is that any truly authentic or authoritative exercise in these genres will reflect a conception of the self as simultaneously demanding and resisting subsumption in a unified narrative.

Heidegger's conception of Dasein's relation to its own end and its own beginning as embodying an enigmatic resistance to comprehension precisely assumes (rather than denying) that Dasein's existence must be understood in terms of its relation to beginnings and endings, and hence as having narratable (i. e., that distinctively human mode of temporal and historical) structure. What he wants to avoid is any conception of that narrative structure as inappropriately transparent, self-sufficient, and total—as if the kind of identity across time possessed by human selves could be modeled on that possessed by physical objects or substances, with a capacity for self-understanding in narrative terms simply added on. To exist as self-conscious beings in time is indeed to be committed to understanding ourselves in narrative terms, but it is also to be committed to understanding that our existence simultaneously resists being understood in such terms. The very terms that allow us to make sense of ourselves—terms like beginnings and endings—also disclose dimensions of ourselves as beyond or before such ways of making sense, and it is in this disclosure of their own limits that they disclose a fundamental aspect of our own existence as limited or conditioned, as natal and mortal—in other words, as finite.

A conception of the interrelated genres of biography and of autobiography that acknowledged human finitude in such a way would therefore be one that acknowledged that the individual human life that it was concerned to elucidate was necessarily not such as to be wholly elucidatable, or elucidatable as a whole. It would find ways of bringing its readers up against the enigma residing in any human life, taken in all its individuality. Wittgenstein once remarked: “We say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another …. We cannot find our feet with them” (1997: II, xi, 223e). Heidegger aims to convince us that no human being can be completely transparent, either to others or to itself; his analysis of Dasein begins from the perception that there lies a priori an enigma in the human mode of being, and hence he insists that we can never—whether in philosophy, biography, or autobiography—entirely find our feet with one another, or with ourselves.

Suppose we think of Heidegger and Sartre as concerned to register the enigma of human individuality. Then their concern addresses itself to the heart of what many would regard as the primary motivation for our interest in both autobiography and biography—what Dinah Birch ( 2003 ) has described as a “simultaneous hunger for the singularity of a life that has separated itself from the crowd, and an eagerness to identify the values that make that life recognizably human.” After all, if individuation is our name for the process whereby one human being distinguishes herself from others, then the capacity for individuation is what connects her to all other human beings. It is to this capacity, and the obligations and opportunities it imposes, that Carlyle may be referring when he claims, “Every mortal has a Problem of Existence set before him … to a certain extent original, unlike every other; and yet, at the same time, so like every other; like our own, therefore; instructive, moreover, since we also are indentured to live ” (cited in Birch 2003 ).

The Sartrean perspective is also particularly helpful in bringing to prominence another aspect of the interwoven genres of autobiography and biography with which philosophy can and should be interested, and with which I propose to conclude—the degree to which the writer's relation to her subject is not only epistemological (concerning how one might come to know, or fail to know, the other) and metaphysical (concerning the nature of the kind of being to be known), but ethical. Sartre is notorious for arguing in Being and Nothingness that being-for-others—relating oneself, understood as a for-itself, to other creatures in one's world possessed of the same kind of being—enacts a power struggle: a struggle for power over another, against another's power over oneself, and against one's desire to have power over others and oneself. Imagining himself seated in a public park, he further imagines seeing another human being pass by. What is it to see him as another man?

The Other is first the permanent flight of things towards a goal which I apprehend as an object at a certain distance from me but which escapes me inasmuch as it unfolds about itself its own distances …. [T]here is a regrouping in which I take part but which escapes me, a regrouping of all the objects which people my universe …. This green grass turns towards the Other a face which escapes me. I apprehend the relation of the green to the Other as an objective relation, but I can not apprehend the green as it appears to the Other. Thus suddenly an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me …. The appearance of the other in the world corresponds therefore to a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting …. [T]he world has a kind of drainhole in the middle of its being and it is perpetually flowing off through this hole. (1958: 256)

For Sartre, then, part of the problem of existence set for all individuals is to find a way of acknowledging the otherness of other individuals. He sees us as prone to adopt a variety of strategies to ensure that we deny that otherness, since its acknowledgment entails denying that we are at the center of the universe, which we equate with a denial of our own individual reality in the world. And, of course, our otherness sets the same ethical problem for others. But since biographical writing is one form of the way in which we encounter others in their individuality, it must confront versions of exactly the same ethical problem, and display versions of the same ways of failing to solve or resolve or dissolve it—as two ideas of self-denial cross. Feeling able to ventriloquize one's subject's thoughts at vital moments of her life, feeling compelled to accumulate heaping piles of factual information about the subject's life and circumstance without discrimination, feeling entirely unable to make, or entirely unable to stop making, judgments about the other's actions and thoughts—these would all appear through Sartrean eyes to be not so much technical or generic errors as signs of metaphysical and ethical difficulties—forms of the general failure to find a way of accommodating the individuality of others without seeming to sacrifice one's own.

It is a matter of some controversy whether Sartre allows for the possibility of ever overcoming these spiritual challenges, or whether he defines the human condition as one of suffering the inevitable failure of such acknowledgment. As Ray Monk ( 2001 ) has emphasized, Sartre's own biographical practice—understood as driven by, even perhaps driven by the need to validate, his theory of the self—plainly counts as a failure in these terms; in contrast, Raimond Gaita's (1988) biography of his father (a biography that is also, necessarily, an autobiography) exemplifies one way in which these spiritual challenges can be met, with real philosophical profit.

The same difficulties emerge in the course of a fictional attempt to address these problems, and thereby to contribute to what one might call the ethics of biography (which once again appears impossible to separate from an ethics of autobiography). It comes from Byatt's The Biographer's Tale , when Phineas Nanson is reflecting on his biographical pursuit of the biographer's biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes:

I think I was so taken by Destry-Scholes’ biography of Elmer Bole precisely because the over-determinism of Literary Theory, the meta-language of it, threw into brilliant relief Destry-Scholes’ real achievement in describing a whole individual, a multi-faceted single man, one life from birth to death. I appeared to have failed to find Destry-Scholes himself. I have to respect him for his scrupulous absence from my tale, my work. It will be clear that I too have wished to be absent . I have resisted and evaded the idea that because of Destry-Scholes’ absence my narrative must become an account of my own presence, id est , an autobiography, that most evasive and self-indulgent of forms. I have tried both to use my own history, unselfconsciously, as a temporal thread to string my story (my writing) on, and to avoid unnecessary dwelling on my own feelings, or my own needs, or my own—oh dear— character . It will be clear to almost any attentive reader, I think, that as I have gone along in this writing …. I have become more and more involved in the act of writing itself, more and more inclined to shift my attention from Destry-Scholes’ absence to my own style, and thus, my own presence . I now wonder whether all writing has a tendency to flow like a river towards the writer's body and the writer's own experience? (214)

Can the flow of that river be reversed, without flowing into the abyss of the other's existence beyond the writer's grasp? Our exploration suggests that the key to these difficulties lies in acknowledging the distinctive way in which the human subject's presence takes the form of a certain kind of absence: to grasp the reality of selfhood, one must grasp that it is beyond the grasp of any narrative account that might be given of it, whether by itself or by another. But if autobiographical and biographical exercises can be genuinely authoritative or authentic only insofar as they make present the self's absence, and so enact a kind of self-abnegation (with the narrating self absenting itself from its account of the narrated self's beyondness to itself), then biography, autobiography, and fiction must be forms of spiritual exercise, and engaging in such exercises must be inherent to becoming, that is being, a person.

Lee 2005 is sensitive to the exemplary particularity of the difficulties and temptations encountered by biographers when writing of the death of their subjects.

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Conradi, P. ( 2002 ). “Writing Iris Murdoch: A Life —Freud versus Multiplicity.” Iris Murdoch Newsletter 16: 1–8.

Gaita, R. ( 1988 ). Romulus, My Father . Melbourne: Text Publishing.

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Lee, H. ( 2005 ). “How to End It All.” In Lee, Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing . Chatto and Windus: London.

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Mccabe, H. ( 2005 ). The Good Life . London: Continuum.

Monk, R. ( 2001 ). “Philosophical Biography: The Very Idea.” In   J. Klagge (ed.), Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Wittgenstein, L. ( 1997 ). Philosophical Investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, trans). Oxford: Blackwell.

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Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli


Who Was Niccoló Machiavelli?

Niccolò Machiavelli was a diplomat for 14 years in Italy's Florentine Republic during the Medici family's exile. When the Medici family returned to power in 1512, Machiavelli was dismissed and briefly jailed. He then wrote The Prince , a handbook for politicians on the use of ruthless, self-serving cunning, inspiring the term "Machiavellian" and establishing Machiavelli as the "father of modern political theory." He also wrote several poems and plays. He died on June 21, 1527, in Florence, Italy.

Early Life and Diplomatic Career

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 3, 1469 — a time when Italy was divided into four rival city-states and, thusly, was at the mercy of stronger governments throughout the rest of Europe.

The young Machiavelli became a diplomat after the temporary fall of Florence's ruling Medici family in 1494. He served in that position for 14 years in Italy's Florentine Republic during the Medici family's exile, during which time he earned a reputation for deviousness, enjoying shocking his associates by appearing more shameless than he truly was.

After his involvement in an unsuccessful attempt to organize a Florentine militia against the return of the Medici family to power in 1512 became known, Machiavelli was tortured, jailed and banished from an active role in political life.

'The Prince'

Though it was initially a dark period for his career, Machiavelli's time away from politics gave him the opportunity to read Roman history and to write political treatises, most notably The Prince . The main theme of this short work about monarchal rule and survival is man's capacity for determining his own destiny in opposition to the power of fate, which has been interpreted as the political philosophy that one may resort to any means in order to establish and preserve total authority. The work has been regarded as a handbook for politicians on the use of ruthless, self-serving cunning, and inspired the term "Machiavellian." While many believe that the book's title character, "the prince," was based upon the infamous Cesare Borgia, some scholars consider it a satire.

Pope Clement VIII condemned The Prince for its endorsement of rule by deceit and fear. One excerpt from the book reads: "Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

Books and Other Works

In addition to The Prince , Machiavelli wrote the treatise On the Art of War (1521), among others, and several poems and plays, including 1524's satirical The Mandrake .

Later Years, Death and Legacy

In his later years, Machiavelli resided in a small village just outside of Florence. He died in the city on June 21, 1527. His tomb is in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, which, ironically, he had been banned from entering during the last years of his life. Today, Machiavelli is regarded as the "father of modern political theory."


  • Name: Niccolò Machiavelli
  • Birth Year: 1469
  • Birth date: May 3, 1469
  • Birth City: Florence
  • Birth Country: Italy
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli is best known for writing The Prince, a handbook for unscrupulous politicians that inspired the term "Machiavellian" and established its author as the "father of modern political theory."
  • World Politics
  • Writing and Publishing
  • Astrological Sign: Taurus
  • Nacionalities
  • Death Year: 1527
  • Death date: June 21, 1527
  • Death City: Florence
  • Death Country: Italy


  • Article Title: Niccolò Machiavelli Biography
  • Author: Editors
  • Website Name: The website
  • Url:
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: May 27, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
  • Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.
  • Politics have no relation to morals.
  • I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.
  • It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.

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    Note: Biographies on this page are pending updates. For ANG assistance, please contact SMSgt Jacob Wheeler at [email protected] ARNG assistance, please contact SFC Michael Norwood at [email protected].. Office Address

  20. Houston, Sam

    Houston, Sam (1793-1863). Sam Houston, one of the most illustrious political figures of Texas, was born on March 2, 1793, the fifth child (and fifth son) of Samuel and Elizabeth (Paxton) Houston, on their plantation in sight of Timber Ridge Church, Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was of Scots-Irish ancestry and reared Presbyterian.

  21. Quintanilla Perez, Selena [Selena]

    Quintanilla Perez, Selena [Selena] (1971-1995). Singer Selena Quintanilla Perez, known simply as Selena, the daughter of Abraham and Marcella (Perez) Quintanilla, Jr., was born on April 16, 1971, in Lake Jackson, Texas. She married Christopher Perez, guitarist and member of the band Selena y Los Dinos (slang for "the Boys") on April 2, 1992.

  22. Travis, William Barret

    Travis, William Barret (1809-1836). William Barret Travis, Texas commander at the battle of the Alamo, was the eldest of eleven children of Mark and Jemima (Stallworth) Travis. At the time of his birth the family lived on Mine Creek near the Red Bank community, which centered around the Red Bank Baptist Church in Edgefield District, near ...

  23. Henry Hampton Halley

    23 May 1965. (1965-05-23) (aged 91) Chicago, Illinois. Occupation (s) Author of Halley's Bible Handbook and Christian pastor. Henry Hampton Halley (April 10, 1874 - May 23, 1965) was an American Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and religious writer. He was best known as author of Halley's Bible Handbook, first published in 1924.