David Brooks in two recent New York Times’ columns discusses humility and equipoise (the ability to hold various opinions or identities in equilibrium) as two fundamental civic virtues. Here are his arguments for these conclusions.
“The truth is plural. There is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth. Sometimes immigration restrictions should be loosened to bring in new people and new dynamism; sometimes they should be tightened to ensure national cohesion. Leadership is about determining which viewpoint is more needed at that moment. Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all.”
“Beware the danger of a single identity. Before they brutalize politics, warriors brutalize themselves. Instead of living out several identities — Latina/lesbian/gun-owning/Christian — that pull in different directions, they turn themselves into monads. They prioritize one identity, one narrative and one comforting distortion.”
It is a myth, according to Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters. . . . In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.” And the “more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. . . . [Moreover, these multiple identities or attachments should enable an individual] to practice equipoise [which is] . . . the ability to move gracefully through your identities—to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.”
With such equipoise, one more easily can “turn the other cheek, love your enemy. Confront your opponent with aggressive love.” This was Brooks’ indirect quotation of a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 27-31):
- “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“Creativity is syncretistic. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . don’t just pull their ideas from the center of the ideological spectrum. They believe creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible. They might combine left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law. Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise [politician and citizen]. . . can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.”
“Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.”
“Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The [wise politician and citizen] . . . is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.”
“In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the [wise politician and citizen] . . . operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith. He understands that most of the choices are among bad options (North Korea), so he prefers steady incremental reform to sudden revolutionary change.”
“Moderation [The wise politicians and citizens, for Brooks, are moderates, who] do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.”
“Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”
Especially important for me is the recognition that all human beings have multiple identities that should be honored and that all of us need to keep reminding ourselves of this fundamental truth. Everyone is a child of a mother and father, usually grows up in a specific place with a specific nationality and perhaps is a brother or sister to other siblings and a cousin to others. With adulthood everyone may choose to become a spouse or partner of another human being and perhaps a parent of a child or children. Everyone may choose be an adherent of a particular religion or of no religion. Everyone may choose to change some of these identities and to adopt other identities such as attendance at a specific college or university in a specific class and participation in a specific occupation or profession.
One could also agree with Brooks that partisanship is blinding, that politics is a limited activity and that its lows are lower than its highs are high and, therefore, conclude that one should avoid all political involvement and stand on the sidelines as an “independent.”
But that is the wrong conclusion, especially in a representative system of government. Instead, one should be so involved. This is where the virtue of moderation comes in.
More fundamentally Brooks’ conclusions remind me of Biblical passages. The Lord requires us mortals “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) “[A]ll of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5) (emphases added.)
 Brooks, What Moderates Believe, N.Y. Times (Aug. 22, 2017); Brooks, In Praise of Equipoise, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017). Earlier blog posts discussed a book by Brooks and his presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on :The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).