The Road To Character by David Brooks

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In a post-modern culture of the “big me” “selfies,” David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and PBS television commentator, shoves us to get over ourselves and seek, perhaps for the first time, for character formation. Guided by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s insights in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Brooks envisions two sides of our human ontology, “Adam I” and “Adam II” of the Genesis creation narratives. In Genesis 1.28, God told Adam I to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion. . . .” In Genesis 2.15, God put Adam II “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

The Adam I in us seeks significance by subduing the earth with success, fame and power. Brooks calls it the resume virtue. Clinching our VC, we peddle what we have built, won and accomplished to impress the world. Then there is our Adam II. It seeks meaning inwardly by cultivating a garden of morality, nobility and self-conquest. Brooks calls it the eulogy virtue. It is what others say over our coffin, with attributes like kindness, generosity and humility. Public discourse, mass media, self-help best sellers and celebrity pundits want us to believe that success is all. But Ecclesiastes emphatically cautions otherwise (7.1).

Brooks agrees. “The Road to Character” focuses on cultivating the Adam II of our nature. He portraits a diverse list of his heroes who have cultivated a better portion of their character. We catch glimpses of the likes of Augustine, George Marshall, Frances Perkins, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson and A. Philip Randolph. In each study, he meditates a noble character trait. He defines character as a moral ecology – “a set of dispositions, desires and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weaknesses. . .” until you become more self-disciplined, more considerate of others and more refined in making choices (pp263-64).

“Character” is not a polemics against immorality or deviant behavior, nor is it an apology to debate narcissists or atheists. Imitating Soloveitchik’s approach, Brooks is preaching to the proverbial choir who already sings his tune that something is not right about us. That there is a certain moral laziness and spiritual shallowness in our Adam I’s obsessed “selfie.”  His observations are dotted with research data. For example, in 1950, 12 percent of high school students told a Gallup poll that they considered themselves important. Fifty years later, another survey showed 80 percent shared the same self-centeredness. Brooks confesses that he himself is a professional narcissistic jabberer – someone who gets paid to babble about the “big me.”

Much of his acuity is agreeable with me but some of his conclusions are confusing and even contradictory. Far from being the book’s weakness, I think this shows his honesty that his understanding is yet unfinished. Recent media gossips suggest that he was struggling with marital woes while writing this book. Whatever. Even if it was true, that could only add to his earnest endeavors toward character. At the end, he confesses that we are all “crooked timber” when building character and on the road to character we are but “stumblers.”  I appreciate even more the ubiquity of the Judaic-Christian God on every page. As a theologian once wrote, “social morality depends upon the remembrance of God.” Here Brooks remembers the God of his Jewish traditions and his resent Christian faith on the road to character.

The Road To Character by David Brooks. Random House, 2015