The Road to Character was given to me by my priest, and is David Brooks’ humble reflection on living a good life. Through examining the lives of a diverse set of admirable individuals, he moves toward a definition and outline of character in his “Humility Code.”
Let me start by recognizing that there are better manuals of character development, the best of which not written in the twenty-first century. However, Brooks brings a uniquely contemporary, American, popular perspective on the matter, each of which is important in turn: contemporary and American because he prescribes cures to troubling trends of increasing inwardness in our present place and time, and popular because he writes about Plutarch and Augustine for a culture that is much more likely to read him than those figures of antiquity.
Brooks opens by reflecting on the two sides of our nature, using the terms Adam I to refer to our pursuit of the résumé virtues, and Adam II to refer to our pursuit of the eulogy virtues.1 “While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world” (xii). Brooks frames his reflection on character in the context of this Adam II living against a life of “vague moral aspiration” and with the goal of better articulating what charater is and how we might strive for it.
Key to understanding and living character is a reminder of the “moral ecology” of our past. To move beyond the shallowness of the present, we need to slow down and recover a moral vocabulary and imagination: “I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration—vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved."2. Some key concepts elucidated further through the mini-moral biographies he shares include humility, sin, and vocation.
One of the changes concerning Brooks is the increase in unwarranted self-congratulation. He gives the example of the amount of celebration after a play in a football game today as compared with winning the Second World War. He then points to the virtue of humility, which he views as the most important of the virtues in our inner struggle. Humility is “the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong”, and intellectual humility is “accurate self-awareness from a distance” (9). Humility is all about knowing ourselves honestly—good and bad—so that we can grow in virtue.
Humility opens our eyes sin. Again, we must reclaim our moral language to understand this since “we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language” (54). Sin is not pretty, but it is there within us and must be recognized and overcome, with help from outside ourselves. Since sin feeds on itself, we need to turn to moral exemplars of the past and present, as well as the grace of God, to move beyond sin.
In overcoming sin and self-centeredness we need to focus on others, especially in our vocation. Vocation is chosen for you, for the benefit of a world that contains more that just yourself. “People with vocations are generally not morose…They feel the joy of having their values in deep harmony with their behavior. They experience a wonderful certainty of action that banishes weariness from even the hardest days” (25). By ordering our lives around people, institutions, and traditions larger than ourselves, we move beyond the shallowness within.
I finished The Road to Character, including the section on Authenticity, while attending a leadership course entitled Authentic Leadership. This gave me many fresh thoughts with which to approach—and at times disagree with—the instruction. The concept of individual “authenticity,” with its roots perhaps in Rousseau, is discussed in detail recently by Charles Taylor as the view that “I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can find it only within. Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover."3 The lack of an external reference to some universal truth and natural law is what I find to be blatantly missing from this modern view. Brooks levels the same critique: “Moral authority is no longer found in some external objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self” (249). Certainly a look inward is important, but we are ultimately lost if the only direction in our lives ignores eternal truths beyond ourselves.
So what then is Character, and how can we develop it? Brooks summarizes in The Humility Code which I have paraphrased below:
- We are not made for happiness, we are made for holiness.
- We are sinners.
- But, we are also wonderfully made.4
- The greatest virtue in the struggle against our own weakness is humility: awareness of ourselves and our place in the universe.
- Conversely, the central vice is pride, which misleads us into thinking we are better than we are and the authors of our own lives.
- The central struggle in life is that against sin and for virtue. Our purpose is not to “win”, but to improve.
- Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. Central to character is self-discipline.
- Character is a long-term project. People with character are anchored by permanent attachments to important things.
- The struggle of character we need redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rulers, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.
- We are saved by grace.5
- Defeating weakness requires quieting the self: reticence, modesty, obedience, and reverence.
- Develop wisdom through epistemological modesty, starting with the tradition of our past.
- We live the good life by answering the call from without, by living out our vocation.
- A good leader is the steward of her organization and leads along the grain of human nature.
- Our aim should not be riches or fame, but maturity: a settled unity of purpose.
I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.
- “This book is about Adam II. It’s about how to cultivate strong character. It’s about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart. I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul” (xiii).
- “I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration—vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved” (xiv).
- The people picked in the following chapters were aware of their weaknesses and fought against them (the “crooked timber” approach to life). We can learn from their example.
1. The Shift
- we have shifted from a culture of humility, The Little Me, to a culture where people see themselves as the center of the universe, The Big Me (6)
- Humility: “the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong” (8-9); intellectual humility: “accurate self-awareness from a distance” (9)
- Wisdom: “The moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation” (9)
- “crooked timber” view of humanity he references if from Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” (11)
2. The Summoned Self (Frances Perkins)
- Vocation: “People with vocations are generally not morose…If you serve the work—if you perform each task to its utmost perfection—then you will experience the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and you will end up serving the community more richly than you could have consciously planned. And one sees this in people with a vocation—a certain rapt expression, a hungry desire to perform a dance or run an organization to its utmost perfection. They feel the joy of having their values in deep harmony with their behavior. They experience a wonderful certainty of action that banishes weariness from even the hardest days” (25)
- Silence: “I have discovered that rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge…It is really quite remarkable what it does for one” (44)
3. Self-Conquest (Dwight Eisenhower)
- Ike’s turning point was his mother reminding him of this from the Bible: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city” (52, cf. Proverbs 16:32)
- Sin: “we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language” (54)
- “The danger of sin is that it feeds on itself” (55)
- Character: “Since self-control is a muscle that tires easily, it is much better to avoid temptation in the first place rather than try to resist it once it arises” (56)
- Character is an ensemble of settled dispositions—of habitual feelings and desires” (57, cf. Anthony T. Kronman)
- Self-Control: “Freedom has been defined as the opportunity for self-discipline” (61, Eisenhower)
- “Always try to associate yourself closely and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you” (63, cf. At Ease by Eisenhower)
- Leadership principle: “My own conviction is that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he has himself selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs” (64)
- On not letting on to all that you know: “He was reasonably learned in ancient history, admiring especially the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles, but he never let that on. He did not want to appear smarter than other people, or somehow superior to the average American. Instead, he cultivated the image of simple, unlearned charm” (68)
4. Struggle (Dorothy Day)
- Dorothy Day’s reading list: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, The Imitation of Christ by Kempis. Her autobiography: The Long Loneliness (76)
- “It’s hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it—reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one’s life around the heroic and deep soul one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended on it” (79)
- “Early in her religious journey, Day met three women who were in love but weren’t sleeping with the men they intended to marry, even though it was obvious how much they wanted to. Day looked at their self-denial and began to feel ‘that Catholicism was something rich and real and fascinating…I saw them wrestling with moral problems, with the principles by which they lived, and this made them noble in my eyes’” (89, cf. All is Grace by Jim Forest)
- Saints: “They are more fully of this earth, more fully engaged in the dirty, practical problems of the people around them” (91)
- Solitude: “Day was not a naturally social creature. She had a writer’s personality, somewhat aloof and often craving solitude” (92)
- 100-101 is a beautiful description of how Day responds to other people’s suffering
5. Self- Mastery (George Marshall)
- Why read biographies: “The work of the Roman biographer Plutarch is based on the premise that the tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, ‘Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.’” (107, more on 108)
- “Great individuals are made, not born, and they are made through training…The Act precedes the virtue” (109-110)
- he became an autodidact at Fort Leavenworth (112)
- Respect for institutions (115-116)
6. Dignity (A. Philip Randolph & Bayard Rustin)
7. Love (George Eliot)
- How best to overcome “non-impartitiveness”? “For most of this time, Mary Anne had nobody close to her intellectual level with whom she could discuss what she was reading. She invented a word to describe her condition: ’non-impartitive.’ She received information but could not digest it through conversation” (157)
- discussion of Agency: 163-164
- “It’s communication between people who thing that the knowledge most worth attending to is found not in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional, and existential wisdom. It’s a communication in which intellectual compatibility turns into emotional fusion. Berlin and Akhmatova could experience 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 judgments. They were spiritually ambitious” (169)
- Love and freedom: “All love is narrowing. It is the renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of one choice” (175)
8. Ordered Love (Augustine)
- Selfishness: “If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires. Everything is coldly instrumental…We use the word ‘lust’ to refer to sexual desire, but a broader, better meaning is selfish desire. A true lover delights to serve his beloved” (192)
- Augustine’s key insight: “Left to ourselves, we desire the wrong things” (195)
- “People can understand themselves only by looking at forces that transcend themselves. Human life points beyond itself” (197)
- Pride and Humility:
- “To believe that you can be captain of your own life is to suffer the sin of pride” (199)
- “Pride is building your happiness around your accomplishments” (199)
- “Humility relieves you of the awful stress of trying to be superior all the time” (205)
- “The petty distinctions you earn for yourself do not really speak to your essential value as a human being. God possesses talents so all-encompassing that in relation to them, the difference between the most brilliant Nobel laureate and the dimmest nitwit are simply a matter of degree. Every soul is equal in the most important sense” (205)
“Humility is a virtue of self-understanding in context, acquired by the practice of other centeredness” (209)
- The ultimate conquest of self, in this view, is not won by self-discipline, or an awful battle within self. It is won by going out of self, by establishing a communion with God and by doing the things that feel natural in order to return God’s love” (207)
- “You become what you love” (207, cf. Matthew 6:21)
- Good summary of Augustine 208-209
9. Self-Examination (Samuel Johnson & Montaigne)
- An important observation in our world of infinite options: “When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can los coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure” (218)
- “We have less reason to be surprised or offended when we find others differ from us in opinions because we very often differ from ourselves” (219, cf. Adventurer essays; reminds me of Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.")
- Generalism: “He who can talk only on one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps never wished for, while the man of general knowledge can often benefit and always please” (223)
10. The Big Me
- moral culture change had these phases:
- Moral realism (or “the crooked timber” school of humanity that recognizes sin): started in biblical times
- Moral romanticism (with its focus on inner goodness): started in the eighteenth century
- Brook identifies the end of WWII, the late 1940s and 1950s as the final collapse of moral realism and the rise of positive psychology and the self-esteem movement
- I read this while at a leadership course called Authentic Leadership
- we are born into Charles Taylor’s culture of authenticity, where we have a golden self inside, which is our best moral guide
- this frames the battle not as one against the weakness of self, but as a liberation and self-expression
- “Moral authority is no longer found in some external objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self” (249)
- information technology has 3 effects on the moral ecology (250-251):
- fastness and business takes us away from the stillness we need to find Adam II
- social media allows for a self-referential information environment: everything revolves around us
- social media encourages broadcasting personality
- what meritocracy gives us: “Any hypercompetitive system build upon merit is going to encourage people to think a lot about themselves and the cultivation of their own skills…Subtly, softly, but pervasively, this system instill a certain utilitarian calculus in us all” (252-253)
- see The Humility Code from pages 261-267 paraphrased above.
Brooks cites The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as the source of the terms Adam I and Adam II. For Adam II, relationship—particularly a redemptive relationship with God—is important. ↩
David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), xiv. This reminded me—in both phrasing and meaning—of Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (New York: Norton, 2008), 8. ↩
cf. Psalm 139:14, “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.” ↩