The Second Mountain by David Brooks

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Somewhere in his 50’s, David Brooks, author and social commentator, suffered an existential crisis. He and his wife of 29 years got divorced. In a midst of soul searching in profound loneliness, Brooks wrote two books, “The Road to Character” in 2015 (see review in my website) and “The Second Mountain” in 2019. Between these writings, he married his long-time researcher, 23 years his junior and a Christian, and discovered Christianity. Grew up nominally Jewish, he confesses that his apparent conversion was more an intellectual ascent as well as an emotive solicitude. It is not unexpected that his biographical strokes smudge his latest book.

Deeply troubled by the breakdown of civil discourse in American politics, the avarice of market place culture, and his own loneliness in professional success, he explores the meaning of the moral and committed life in “The Second Mountain.” The first mountain is what those who adhere to meritocracy (a political philosophy that insists trophies, like economic power, belong only to the high and successful achievers.) climb to seek success, fame, and wealth. Our education system and societal structures provide for this meritocratic pursuit. Implicit in meritocracy is a hyper-individualism that thrives on self-autonomy, self-love, self-involvement, and self-determination.

Some reach their career’s summit only to realize that it is a “borrowed prestige” where their notoriety depends more on what school they attend or what company we work for. Accomplished or not, research shows that most of us find our career wanting. The vacuous spaces in the basement of our soul mildew the harsh realization that our job doesn’t care for nor provide a nurturing environment for character building and personal flourishing. On top of the second mountain, the view of the world (worldview) is diametrically contrary to hyper-individualism. Those who climb here realize what they truly long for is truly worth longing for – meaning, significance and community. A recovered moral and committed life can fulfill these human longings. (See my muse on the Committed Life) It can transform the independence of individualism to the interdependence of community. A committed life belongs with others, is loyal to others, cares for the well-being of others, and wants a shared joy that is completed with others.

Brooks explores four primal human endeavors of the moral and committed life: 1. a life-long vocation – there is nothing more worthwhile than a sense of calling (meaning of vocation) and mastery of that calling. A life-long vocation is a life-completing journey; 2. a marital and familial fidelity – there are few things worse than a bad marriage. A life-long commitment to fulfill what a marriage and family requires can become a life-completing labor of love; 3. an informed worldview – what our view of the world informs us can reform how we go about it in the world. Its “moral ecologies” will anchor our intellectual and relational endeavors; 4. a community – finally, a committed life puts our relationships and communities at its center. We can only live, move and complete our being with those whom we share a community.

The moral and committed life volitionally, and viscerally, seeks not independence from but interdependence with others. It replaces “I am free to be Me!” with “I am because we are.” (an African proverb) Implicit in the committed life is that those who are mutually committed are in it together, for good and forever.