There are few concepts we believe in more strongly than just how powerful the examples of other people are in shaping our lives — for better, and for worse. No one builds a life in a vacuum; we model our lives on the lives of others. Because of the reality of mimetic desire, we inevitably want what others want.
The examples of other people show us possibilities for living and give us license to live in the same way. That which does not seem attainable or permissible becomes so when we see it enacted and embodied by someone else. Examples show us the heights we may be able to aspire to and the lows we may be able to get away with.
It’s tempting to believe that a sermon, lecture, or heart-to-heart talk can compensate for the impact of an example, but no words can ever surmount its influence. Its power radiates most strongly within close relationships, but also works its way down from public figures. Thus, it is of utmost importance to carefully choose who we surround ourselves with and who we elevate in the popular culture and place into positions of prominence — and to be conscious of who serves as our examples, and what kind of example we offer to others.
The following 15 quotes drive home these truths.
“Nothing is so contagious as example, and we never do any great good or great evil which does not produce its like.” —François de La Rochefoucauld
“Whatever parent gives his children good instruction and sets them at the same time a bad example, may be considered as bringing them food in one hand, and poison in the other.” —John Balguy
“Every great example takes hold of us with the authority of a miracle, and says to us, ‘If ye had but faith, ye, also, could do the same things.'” —Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi
“Precept is instruction written in the sand. The tide flows over it, and the record is gone. Example is graven on the rock, and the lesson is not soon lost.” —William Ellery Channing
“I am only coming to Princeton to research, not to teach. There is too much education altogether, especially in American schools. The only rational way of educating is to be an example.” —Albert Einstein
“I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure characters is the only thing that can produce fine ideas and noble deeds. Money only appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it. Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?” ―
“To have known one good man—one man who, through the chances and mischances of a long life, has carried his heart in his hand, like a palm branch, waving all discords into peace, helps our faith in God, in ourselves, and in each other more than many sermons.” —George William Curtis
“Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” —Edmund Burke
“Example is more forcible than precept. People look at my six days in the week to see what I mean on the seventh.” —Rev. Richard Cecil
“The conscience of children is formed by the influences that surround them; their notions of good and evil are the result of the moral atmosphere they breathe.” —Johann Paul Friedrich Richter
“Be a patten to others, and then all will go well; for as a whole city is infected by the licentious passions and vices of great men, so it is likewise reformed by their moderation.” —Cicero
“There is a transcendent power in example. We reform others unconsciously, when we walk uprightly.” —Anne Sophie Swetchine
“Alexander received more bravery of mind by the pattern of Achilles, than by hearing the definition of fortitude.” —Sir Philip Sidney
“Men trust their eyes rather than their ears; the road by precept is long and tedious, by example short and effectual.” —Seneca
“There are bad examples that are worse than crimes; and more states have perished from the violation of morality, than from the violation of law.” —Montesquieu