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The Road to Character Hardcover – April 14, 2015
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“David Brooks’s gift—as he might put it in his swift, engaging way—is for making obscure but potent social studies research accessible and even startling. . . . [The Road to Character is] a hyper-readable, lucid, often richly detailed human story. . . . In the age of the selfie, Brooks wishes to exhort us back to a semiclassical sense of self-restraint, self-erasure, and self-suspicion.”—Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review
“David Brooks—the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator whose measured calm gives punditry a good name—offers the building blocks of a meaningful life.”—Washingtonian
“This profound and eloquent book is written with moral urgency and philosophical elegance.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon
“[Brooks] emerges as a countercultural leader. . . . The literary achievement of The Road to Character is inseparable from the virtues of its author. As the reader, you not only want to know about Frances Perkins or Saint Augustine. You also want to know what Brooks makes of Frances Perkins or Saint Augustine. The voice of the book is calm, fair and humane. The highlight of the material is the quality of the author’s moral and spiritual judgments.”—Michael Gerson, The Washington Post
“A powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
“This learned and engaging book brims with pleasures.”—Newsday
“Original and eye-opening . . . At his best, Brooks is a normative version of Malcolm Gladwell, culling from a wide array of scientists and thinkers to weave an idea bigger than the sum of its parts.”—USA Today
“David Brooks breaks the columnist’s fourth wall. . . . There is something affecting in the diligence with which Brooks seeks a cure for his self-diagnosed shallowness by plumbing the depths of others. . . . Brooks’s instinct that there is wisdom to be found in literature that cannot be found in the pages of the latest social science journals is well-advised, and the possibility that his book may bring the likes of Eliot or Samuel Johnson—another literary figure about whom he writes with engaging sympathy—to a wider general readership is a heartening thought.”—Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker
“If you want to be reassured that you are special, you will hate this book. But if you like thoughtful polemics, it is worth logging off Facebook to read it.”—The Economist
“Brooks uses the powerful stories of people such as Augustine, George Eliot and Dwight Eisenhower to inspire.”—The Times (U.K.)
“Elegant and lucid . . . a pitch-perfect clarion call, issued not with preachy hubris but from a deep place of humility, for awakening to the greatest rewards of living . . . The Road to Character is an essential read in its entirety—Anne Lamott with a harder edge of moral philosophy, Seneca with a softer edge of spiritual sensitivity, E. F. Schumacher for perplexed moderns.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
“Brooks, author of The Social Animal, offers biographies of a cross section of individuals who struggled against their own weaknesses and limitations and developed strong moral fiber. . . . [He] offers a humility code that cautions against living only for happiness and that recognizes we are ultimately saved by grace.”—Booklist
“The road to exceptional character may be unpaved and a bit rocky, yet it is still worth the struggle. This is the basic thesis of Brooks’s engrossing treatise on personal morality in today’s materialistic, proud world. . . . [His] poignant and at times quite humorous commentary on the importance of humility and virtue makes for a vital, uplifting read.”—Publishers Weekly
About the Author
David Brooks is one of the nation’s leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press. He is the bestselling author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There; and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.
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Brooks has written a gem of a book, one that raises the bar for future discussions of “character”. It takes time to absorb and savor. Brooks says publicly that he wrote this book to save his own soul.
“The Road to Character” is about the cultural shift from the “little me” to the “BIG ME,” from a culture that encourages people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encourages people to see themselves as the center of the universe. This cultural shift encourages us to think about having a great career but leaves nothing for us to develop an inner life and character. For Brooks, we have lost our way to “being good” and “doing good.”
Brooks frames the discussion by contrasting “resume virtues” - those skills that one brings to the job market that contribute to external success – with “eulogy virtues” – those that are at the core of our being like courage, honesty, loyalty, and the quality of our relationships that contribute to real joy. These are embodied in two competing parts, Adam I and Adam II, of our nature that are a constant source of contradiction and tension.
Adam I is the external Adam. He wants to build, create, produce and discover things. He is characterized by actively seeking recognition, satisfying his desires, being impervious to the moral stakes involved. He has little regard for humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character. He wants to have high status, win victories, and conquer the world.
Adam II is the internal Adam. He wants to embody certain moral qualities. He wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, and to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation in one’s own possibilities. Adam II is charity, love, and redemption.
Adam I is at work in today’s “BIG ME” culture. “Big Me” messages are everywhere; you are special; trust yourself; and be true to yourself. This ‘Gospel of Self’ begins with childhood when awards and rewards are given for just being, not doing. “We are all wonderful, follow your passion, don’t accept limits and chart your own course.”
This has led to an ethos based on a “ravenous hunger in a small space of self-concern, competition, and a hunger for distinction at any cost,” an ethos where envy has replaced admiration. This self-centeredness leads to several unfortunate directions: selfishness, the use of other people as a means to an end, seeing oneself as superior to everyone else, and living with a capacity to ignore and rationalize one’s imperfections and inflate one’s virtues.
The “BIG ME” culture distorts the purpose of our journey and the meaning of life. “Parts of themselves go unexplored and unstructured. They have a vague anxiety that their life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. They live with unconscious boredom, not really loving, and unattached to the moral purpose that gives life it’s worth. They lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. They never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. They foolishly judge others by their abilities and not by their worth. This external life will eventually fall to pieces.”
In this increasingly “BIG ME” culture, Brooks became haunted by the voices of the past and the quality of humility and character they exhibited. People in the past guarded themselves against some of their least attractive tendencies to be prideful, self-congratulatory, and hubristic. “You would not even notice these people. They were reserved. They did not need to prove anything in the world.” They embodied humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft discipline. “They radiated a sort of moral joy. They answered softly when challenged harshly. They were silent when unfairly abused, dignified when others tried to humiliate them, and restrained when others tried to provoke them…
But they got things done. They were not thinking about what impressive work they were doing. They were not thinking about themselves at all. They just seemed delighted by the flawed people around them. They made you feel funnier and smarter when you spoke with them. They moved through all social classes with ease. They did not boast. They did not lead lives of conflict-free tranquility but struggled towards maturity. These people built a strong inner character, people who achieved a certain depth. They surrendered to the struggle to deepen their soul.”
Brooks highlights the lives of prominent and influential people - Francis Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, Michel de Montaigne – to articulate the diverse roads taken by a diverse set of people, white and black, male and female, religious and secular, literary and non-literary. Not one of them was even close to perfect. They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses and they waged an internal struggle against their sins to emerge with some measure of self-respect..
“The Road to Character” is a “road less traveled.” It involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. To go up, one first has to go down (The “U Curve”); one must descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character. Only then will one have the ability to see their own nature, their everyday self-deceptions, and shatter all Illusions of self-mastery.
Humility is central to the journey. Humility leads to wisdom, a moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and finding a way to manage ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation. It offers freedom…freedom from the need to prove your superiority. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”
The paradox for Adam I is that he cannot achieve enduring external success unless he builds a solid moral core as sought by Adam II. Without inner integrity, your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will eventually happen. Adam I versus Adam II, Adam I ultimately depends on Adam II.
Brooks wrote this book to learn who has traveled this road to character, and what it looks like. He found you cannot be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign against self. I highly recommend this book as one of the most profound books published this year.
End note: Brook’s sections on love and suffering are excellent.
I enjoyed this opening discussion as well as several of the examples of individuals who had found their "vocation" (rather than "career") often through a circumstance in their life which propelled them toward it. Many times, their calling found them. I liked the emphasis on humility and the importance of being a good person not just doing good deeds. I also enjoyed reading about the Triangle Factory Fire and other incidents which pointed certain individuals toward their ultimate destinies. I truly admire the values he promotes and was pleasantly reminded of my father's generation which lived many of those values through WWII and other historic events.
But as I continued to read the book, I started to get a sense of "back in the good old days" nostalgia that implies (or blatantly states) that somehow suffering is the key to nobility and a good person. Stories are told of individuals who survived deaths of close family or children, endured hazing or torture, and it all started to sound a little preachy, no matter how eloquently it was stated. I am not someone who holds much for the "good old days"-- they weren't so good for women, minorities, the poor, etc. And Brooks acknowledges that early on, but he seems to forget that, and after awhile I grew tired of reading the book. For every person who survives a hazing/torture event and thrives, there are others who are crushed and destroyed, and I'm not sure that's because they lack character. It's inspiring to read about those who triumph in dire circumstances, but I'm left with trying to figure out what that means-- should life be harder, the rules be harsher so we will have greater character? There's a tone of "life was harder then" and forged stronger people, and I'm not sure I agree.
Bottom line-- it's an interesting and well-written book and I truly recommend the first portion of it But after that, I felt like I had gotten the point. It just wasn't as compelling to read after the first few chapters.
I was grateful for the multiple vignettes on various men and women who found themselves on their path to maturity and ultimately character. It was difficult to follow the theme at times, but that was part of the charm of this book — I found myself getting immersed in each real-life story.
The author returns often to the Protestant ethic...one that believes we are inherently flawed and cannot be made whole on our own. I share this ethic, but I was disappointed how forceful the author was at pointing it out (too often). It would have been more effective to allow the reader to arrive at these concepts on his/her own.
The last chapter effectively summarizes the author’s intent, that pride is the root of all that undermines character, and humility is the root of the development of it.
I highly recommend this book to any student of moral development. While morality is can be found on many paths, this one quote from the book is the common denominator:
“Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.”