The Road to Character - David Brooks

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The joy of reading a David Brooks' book cannot be overstated. As prosaic as it is poetic, his sentences are almost all quote-worthy. Previously, I read The Social Animal — notes on which I'm still working on as I read it for the third time, this time tracking down all the footnotes and references — which I can safely say changed my life. More on that another time though.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks convincingly lays out why we face a moral crisis today. Each of us carry two opposing natures: Adam I, extrinsically-motivated and career-minded, and Adam II, intrinsically-motivated, morally-minded. That is to say that Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others, while Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself. However, we live in a culture that nurtures I and starves II. The short, incorrect story is that the Baby Boomers came along in the 60s, and brought narcissism and a lack of self-restraint along with them.

However, Brooks informs us in his concluding chapter of a slightly more nuanced narrative. Around the eighteenth century moral realism (which emphasized the limitations of our human nature, focused on sin and temptation, thinkers such as Montaigne and Augustine) began to compete with moral romanticism (which emphasized inner goodness, thinkers such as Rousseau). But it was the WW2 generation that completely forsook moral realism for romanticism, taking the opportunity to escape their shackles of self-restraint, ready to put the war and all its rationing and sacrifices in the distant past. Literature of this period was overwhelmingly about the self, and is epitomized by the humanistic psychology movement which maintained that the core problem is that people don't love themselves enough. As Brooks explains the new viewpoint:

"The self is a vessel of human capital. It is a series of talents to be cultivated efficiently and prudently. The self is defined by its tasks and accomplishments. The self is about talent, not character."

This idea that the self knows what's best was then reproduced in the next generation via a paradigmatic shift in parenting principles. Children in modern times are praised (think grade inflation, in 1966, 19% of high school students graduated with an A/A- average, in 2013 this was 53%) and honed (parents spend $5700 more per year per child on ex-school enrichment today than in 1978), which has resulted in a phenomenon of love conditioned on achievement. This in turn has nurtured Adam I at the expense of II.

The statistics speak for themselves and tell of a societal de-moralization:

  • In the 2011 book Lost in Transition, American college students were asked to describe a moral dilemma they had recently faced, 2/3 of them described problems that weren't moral: e.g. one considered the recent incident when he pulled into a parking lot and didn't have enough quarter for the meter to be a moral dilemma

  • Between 1948-54, 10000 adolescents were asked whether they considered themselves to be a very important person, 12% said yes; in 1989, 80% of boys and 77% of girls said yes

  • Google ngrams measuring word usage in books and publications have shown that over the past few decades, there's been a sharp rise in the usage of words and phrases like "self" and "I come first," and a sharp decline in words like "community" and "common good." Meanwhile, usage of "bravery" declined 66% over the course of the twentieth century, "kindness" by 56% and "humbleness" by 52% — Ksebir "The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America"

  • Individualism has led to a decline in intimacy: decades ago people on average said they had 4-5 close friends, today they say 2-3, while the number with 0 close friends has doubled. Further, 35% of older adults report being chronically alone (up 20% in 10 years).

As a result of this de-moralization, we've been rendered morally inarticulate. Fortunately, Brooks aims to re-arm us with the moral vocabulary that humanity lost — though he warns that "you can't build Adam II out of a recipe book" — by narrating the lives of the exemplary, historical few who managed to silence Adam I and nurture Adam II; who put others before self; who faced moral crises, flinched, but did not falter, and in the process discovered their inner nature. Through the various trials and tribulations they faced in their lives, the characters in Brooks' book each reshaped their moral core, giving it greater coherence and weight. In the process, they gained self-respect, which Brooks tells us:

 "is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, 'Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.'"

Brooks' hope is that by immersing ourselves in the lives of outstanding people, we might be able to try to understand the wisdom of the way they lived. Understanding and applying are not the same, however, as the most important step to obtaining character is one's willingness to engage in moral struggle against oneself. It is the hope of Brooks that the historic figures he tells us of can offer the reader at least sufficient courage to at least try.


Frances Perkins

  • Secretary of Labor, and one of only 2 cabinet members to stay with FDR throughout his terms

  • 'the woman behind the New Deal,' and a woman definitively in a man's world (labor-related issues including an earlier position in the Industrial Commission, i.e. dealing with strikes)

  • Quietly dignified, almost to a fault, even through her impeachment proceedings (which failed)

  • Believed that people should be driven by deep, passionate vocation and not immediate emotional reward, and therefore not depend on constant positive reinforcement; she wrote that people who serve the community often end up falsifying their work, while those driven by passion experience the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship

Ida and Dwight Eisenhower

  • Ida emphasized the importance of practicing small acts of self-control daily, but also raised her children with bottomless love; love as a tool to build character

  • Dwight by the end of WW2 was a 4-pack-a-day smoker, but one day quit cold turkey. In his 1957 SOTU he noted "Freedom has been defined as the opportunity for self-discipline"

  • Dwight was a passionate man, often he would experience surges of anger and hatred but he refused to let it rule him. Some times he would write an offender's name on a piece of paper and then throw it away as a symbolic purging of emotion

  • Passed credit for victories to his subordinates and was willing to blame himself for the failure of the D-Day landings with this famous unsent memo "Our landings … have failed … and I have withdrawn the troops … If any blame of fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

  • Carried around this anonymous little poem:

"Take a bucket, fill  it with water, // Put your hand in — clear  up to the wrist. // Now pull  it out; the  hole that remains // Is a measure of how much you'll be missed…"

Dorothy Day

"She was not a trapped animal compelled to suffer by circumstance; she ardently chose suffering….  Most  people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering."

  • Famous for her conversion from a bohemian lifestyle to strict Catholicism

  • Her life was about the surrender of self

George Marshall

Alfred Whitehead: "Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness."

Richard Livingstone: "One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal. We detect in others, and occasionally in ourselves, the want of courage, of industry, of persistence, which leads to defeat. But we do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good."

  • When any other general would have snapped at the opportunity to command D-Day (and thereby establish their name in history), Marshall left the decision firmly up to FDR, refusing to allow his personal feelings to affect the outcome

  • Conformed his life to the needs of his organization (the army)… "Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and ten transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation."

  • His biographer wrote that he was "one of those controlled and disciplined people who find both incentive and reward deep within themselves, who require neither urging nor applause from many men. Such people are terribly alone, without the release most find in the easy sharing of mind and heart with many people. For all their self-sufficiency, they are incomplete; and if they are fortunate they find completion in one or two others. There are not more than two, usually—the heart opened to a lover, the mind to a friend."

George Elliot

Isaiah Berlin's and Anna Akhmatova's falling in love, in one night as a means to understand George Eliot' and George Lewes' encounter:

  • Met in the evening, by midnight Akhmatova recited Don Juan with such passion that Berlin turned his face away to hide his emotions; at 4am they were discussing the greats: they agreed about Pushkin/Chekhov; at 11am Berlin finally returns to his hotel and flung himself onto his bed proclaiming "I am in love, I am in love."

  • Most importantly, the two were only able to have "that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They believed you have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and how to make subtle moral and emotional judgements. They were spiritually ambitious. They have the common language of literature writers by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves."

Ultimately love (1) humbles us, (2) decenters the self, (3) and  infuses people with a poetic temperament … because of this love opens up the facility for spiritual awareness, and  thereby impels people to service

St. Augustine

"Only love impels action. We don't become better because we acquire new information. We become better because acquire better loves. We don't become what  we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love."

also: Phillip Randolph Rustin and Sam Johnson