The Road to Character – David Brooks, (Random House, 2015), 320 pp.
Review by Bowen ‘Buzz’ McCoy, CRE
In The Road to Character, David Brooks attempts to separate “Résumé Virtues” from “Eulogy Virtues” and to define character as being explicitly focused on one or the other. Résumé Virtues are those valued by current society, based upon the individual ego and superficial fame and success. They may be best described by the recent preoccupation with “Trumpisim.” Eulogy Virtues are interior drivers of character, such as humility, kindness and bravery. They are who you are when you think no one is looking and one can “just be myself.” The focus is on empathy and the other, and less on the self. Brooks asserts that current society emphasizes Résumé Virtues and is not supportive of one’s efforts to construct a civil life based upon humility and service to others. The book does not strongly support a possible third way, which is to conduct the moral struggle within a character-based community.
In his view, societies, until recently, developed a moral culture, a general sense of agreement as to what was right and wrong, reinforced by those institutions, which the society developed. The examination of what constitutes a moral life helped shape values. Organized religion played a major role in shaping and reinforcing the “good” (eulogy) values. Since the Second World War, there has been a shift away from institutional values, along with a growing distrust of large, depersonalized organizations, including the church. The self has become the ultimate moral arbiter. The issue in the development of individual character today is whether one is willing to engage in a moral struggle with oneself, or default to cultural relativism, where the struggle is no longer required. The ego-driven inner self requires the moderating influence of character-based community to avoid unduly emphasizing the ego. One can imagine an obituary that lists among accomplishments the living of a successful “hidden” life.
The book is organized roughly into thirds: an opening mea culpa in which Brooks identifies himself as a perhaps (?) recovering member of the Résumé Virtues category, followed by nine brief biographies of individuals Brooks depicts as masters of the inner life, warts and all, and concluding with a list of fifteen general propositions, a “Humility Code” which Brooks asserts provides a coherent image of what to live for and how to live.
The focus of Brooks’ message is that we must, in order to develop character, become masters of our inner life, listening to that small voice inside us, practicing “doing the right thing,” living a life of humility while sharing our inner life with others. There is much to admire in Brooks’ focus on sharing our inner lives with others. The deepest relationships I have come from just such sharing over a long period of time. Promiscuously sharing an inner life seems to me to be dangerous and filled with the possibility of boredom and repetition, finally ending in another celebration of selfhood. “My inner life is much more interesting, erudite, sensual, relevant than yours!”
Thornton Wilder was trying to express this thought in his novel Theophilus North, in which he suggests that, to be attuned to life, one must have deeper relationships with a couple of handfuls of people of both genders and evenly divided among those of one’s age, a half generation older and a half generation younger.
In her wonderful book, On Lying, Sisella Bok suggests we must have deep trust relationships with a handful of others in order to be certain of leading a moral life. To be effective, the results of our moral struggle must be reflected in the way we live. But, Ms. Bok warns, going beyond a handful of such confidants exposes us to the risk of loss of candor. We begin trading off and hedging our bets. Such intimacy, as Ms. Bok describes, is rare in our present culture. We fool ourselves when we feel that a hundred Facebook “friends” are equally meaningful. It often seems easier to be intimate with a character in a novel than a real person. Indeed, we tend to depersonalize “real” persons into Playboy Bunnies or Donald Trumps.
The biographies in the book: Francis Perkins, Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Phillip Randolph, George Eliot, Augustine and Samuel Johnson, were each chosen to exemplify a particular characteristic that Brooks finds admirable. None of them are completely admirable persons, any more than we are. Brooks harshly judges Eisenhower’s treatment of Kay Summers, Ike’s companion in England, stating his behavior toward her was “reprehensible.” Brooks admits that some of the virtues are self-cancelling. It is impossible to maintain pure trust in all situations. We must seek a balanced life, trading off where necessary in order to survive the human condition. We need not despise the individual who lists all his good works on his résumé and tombstone. It is probably us!
For Brooks, George Eliot sums it up best of all when he describes the character of Dorothea in the final paragraph of her beloved novel, Middlemarch: “Her full nature…spent itself in channels which had no great name upon the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half-owing to the number who lived faithfully in a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
For me, T. S. Eliot says it even better, in Dry Savages:
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of man may be intent
At the time of death” – that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which will fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
David Brooks’ musings in the New York Times, together with this book, have caused him to fructify in the lives of others. His message while at times contradictory, gives us hope for the future.