The Road to Character
By David Brooks
300 pages, $28
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“I wrote it (this book), to be honest, to save my own soul.” – David Brooks
When David Brooks began writing his column for the New York Times a dozen years ago, I didn’t think he measured up to other giants on the Op-Ed page: James Reston, Russell Baker and William Safire (not all writing at the same time).
To me, Brooks’ early columns defined him as a searcher, but he appeared not certain of what he was writing, questing with intelligence for his voice. He was hired to replace Safire, a conservative columnist.
I don’t write these words to be unkind. It’s just the way that Brooks seemed to me early on. In fact Brooks writes in this best-selling book, “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness … I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard … to appear smarter than I really am.”
In the intervening years Brooks has found his métier, appearing on PBS News Hour and writing a conservative column in the New York Times. When I watch him or read his views, I still have the feeling that he’s occasionally discovering them as he speaks or writes. In this he’s not unlike the rest of us, as we sometimes surprise ourselves as we say or write something.
About him, Michael Kinsley remarked that Brooks was guilty of “fearless generalizing,” continuing, “Brooks does not let the sociology get in the way of the shtick, and he wields a mean shoehorn when he needs the theory to fit the joke.” This remark seems both untrue and unkind.
Brooks is an inveterate social scientist figuring out how to make life better. He earlier wrote “The Social Animal,” a best-seller “exploring the neuroscience of human connection and how we can flourish together.”
So what is helpful to readers in his latest, “The Road to Character”?
To begin, Brooks asks us to cast our recollections back to the Bible. He refers to a 1965 book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, called “Lonely Man of Faith.” That volume reminded people that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. Brooks remarks that the two versions of Genesis represent two opposing sides of our nature, which he calls Adam I and Adam II.
“Modernizing Soloveitchik’s categories a bit, we could say that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I hungers after the external, résumé virtues.” He wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He desires high status. This is the quality of mind that exists in the culture of the Big Me, a shorthand phrase for moral sleepwalkers.
“Adam II is the internal Adam. This Adam wants to embody certain ethical qualities. Adam II desires a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good, but to be good.” This Adam is one who espouses “eulogy virtues,” those existing at the core of our being: “bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed.”
Brooks explains Soloveitchik’s argument: saying that we live in the contradiction between these two Adams. Brooks notes, “The outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not fully reconcilable. We are forever caught in self-confrontation. We are called to fulfill both personae, and must master the art of forever living within the tension between these two natures.”
I don’t agree with Brooks’ contention that “we are called to fulfill both personae.” This perception sets up a false division between Adam I and Adam II. These representations of our inner state are not two people, they are one. Undeniably, our inner state is in conflict over these contrary pulls of our fallen nature and our aspiration to achieve grace.
Brooks hits home though when he describes our living in a culture that nurtures Adam I, the external Adam, and neglects Adam II. It’s not a new insight but he captures its contours admirably.
Thus, “The Road to Character” is Brooks’ attempts to right that balance. He tells us that it is the story of Adam II, exploring the mindset of people through the ages who have “put iron in their core” and cultivated a wise heart.
He chooses exemplars of those who chose to be good, even as they warded off evil inclinations. I’m not sure I’d call the examples that Brooks has chosen “the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders,” as his publisher does. Some surely are, but all were tough cookies who, under pressure, did the right thing.
Who are they? In this book, they include stories about the English novelist George Eliot; Frances Perkins, a former secretary of labor; President Dwight Eisenhower; Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert who championed the poor; A. Philip Randolph, an African-American labor leader; and Bayard Rustin, a black civil rights leader, among others.
These people followed what Brooks calls an older moral ecology, “a ‘crooked timber’ tradition that emphasized our brokenness … that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations … (that meant to) confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and … build character.” In turn, he says, “this tradition gives us the chance to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world.”
He notes that example is the best teacher. Those not leading scattershot lives seem kind and cheerful, calm, settled and rooted, he tells us, “radiating a sort of moral joy.”
Brooks concludes by giving the reader a series of specific points – beyond the religious upsurge in his own heart. It’s called a “Humility Code.”
They include these tenets, which have their exposition in classic humble, searching Brooks-ian language.
• “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
• Proposition One defines the goal of life: understanding our flawed nature and resolving to know what is deep and the opposite of selfishness.
• Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.
• Pride is the central vice.
• Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.
• Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.
• The things that lead us astray are short term-lust, fear, vanity, gluttony.
• No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.
• We are all ultimately saved by grace, from friends, a stranger, or God.
• Defeating weakness often means quieting the self.
• Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty.
• No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.
• The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.
• The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may not become rich or famous, but that person will become mature.”
Recently, Brooks confessed, “I’m a believer. I don’t talk about my religious life in public because it’s so shifting and green and vulnerable. And so … if you care about morality and inner life and character, you spend your time reading a lot of theology ... It’s amazing to read (“The Confessions of St. Augustine,” about a guy who got successful as a rhetorician but felt hollow inside; a guy who had a mom, Monica, who was the helicopter mom to beat all helicopter moms, and how he dealt with the conflict with such a demanding mother.”
Brooks says that reading “C.S. Lewis or Joseph Soloveitchik – it’s produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart.”
It’s evident in this book.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer for The Buffalo News.