The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks “The Road to Character”

David Brooks
David Brooks

Character

David BrooksThe Road to Character [1] makes the legitimate point that too often in contemporary society all of us emphasize what he calls “résumé virtues” at the expense of “eulogy virtues.”  [2]

In the final chapter, Brooks sets forth the following as what he regards as the most important eulogy or moral virtues:

  1. “We . . . live for holiness . . . ., [for lives of ] purpose, righteousness, and virtue.”
  2. Living lives of purpose, righteousness and virtue “defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature . . . [:] we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence . . . . to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do things but end up doing the opposite.”
  3. We “are also splendidly endowed. . . . We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.”
  4. “In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. . . . Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.”
  5. “Pride is the central vice. . . . Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. . . . Pride deludes us into thinking we are the authors of our own lives.”
  6. “Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. . . . This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd.”
  7. “Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment.”
  8. “The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. . . . People with character . . . are anchored by permanent attachments to important things.”
  9. “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.”
  10. “We are all ultimately saved by grace. . . . It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. . . . [You] are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.”
  11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. . . . The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement—reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing—and a capacity for reverence and admiration.”
  12. “Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts. . . . The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness . . . [and] understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. . . . [Wisdom] is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”
  13. “No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. . . . [which] is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?”
  14. “The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. . . . [He] prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. . . . [He] prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden.” [2]
  15. “The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin . . . will become mature. . . . [Maturity] is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.”

Most of the book is devoted to short biographies of ten individuals who struggled against sin and weaknesses and who demonstrated that such a struggle is, in Brooks’ words, “the central drama of life” and that “character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. [3]

For a Jewish man like Brooks, many of the words in this list sound amazingly like Christian theology: sin, humility, pride, vocation, saved, grace, redemption. Moreover, most, if not all, of the biographical subjects in the book were serious or nominal Christians, and none is Jewish like Brooks. The only reference I found to Jewish thought is the Introduction’s use of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s creation of the notions of Adam I, whom Brooks characterizes as the “external résumé Adam,” and Adam II, whom Brooks calls the one “who wants to have a serene inner character.”

In an interview on NPR, Brooks admitted that he is “a believer” and for this book has been “reading a lot of theology” which has “produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart. But it’s also fragile and green [and] I don’t really talk about it because I don’t want to trample the fresh grass.”

Moreover, at last October’s annual meeting of The Gathering, “a community of Christian givers actively providing opportunities for education, challenge, connection and encouragement to people all over the world, as well as one another,” Brooks delivered a speech, “How to be Religious in the Public Square.” He said he “spend[s] a lot of time in the Christian world” and before he criticized some Christians’ creation of walls of separation from others, he said, “I want you to know I am for you and I love you.” Brooks then affirmed “ramps” to the Christian life, saying, “There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ.”

A Jewish critic asked Brooks why there were no Jewish subjects in the book. The response: “an earlier version included a chapter on Moses. He was the meekest man on earth and yet called to lead. He was humble enough to try to get out of it. That basic humility, the wrestling — the Greeks and Romans didn’t know what to do with Moses’ style of leadership. But the Moses chapter ended up on the cutting room floor because the great biblical prophet didn’t leave a trove of personal writings the way other characters did.” [4]

I wholeheartedly agree with Brooks that “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.” Providing such assistance is a major duty for family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions and institutions like congregations, both Christian and Jewish. A subsequent post will discuss our shared need for “redemptive assistance from exemplars.”

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). The New York Times review of the book, in my opinion, is a very unhelpful grappling with the book. (Iyer, Résumé vs. Eulogy, N.Y. Times Book Review (April 29, 2015).)  Much more on point is Gerson, David Brooks’ new book: ‘The Road to Character,’ and a path to grace, Wash. Post (April 23, 2015), A review in the Guardian from London complains, “Any reference to how economics – the lack of money or status – shapes character is myopically absent.” (Roberts, The Road to Character review—a smug search for the roots of good nature, Guardian (April 20, 2015).)

[2] Item 14 about leadership seems out of place on this list of moral virtues. It is a succinct statement of a classical conservative political philosophy ala Edmund Burke, and one may certainly be a moral person and an exponent of this philosophy. But, in my opinion, this point is not a sine qua non of moral virtue. For similar reasons, I also wonder whether item 12 about “epistemological modesty” should be in this list of moral virtues.

[3] The subjects of these short biographies are Frances Perkins (“The Summoned Self”); Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Self-Conquest”); Dorothy Day (“Struggle”)’ George C. Marshall (“Self-Mastery”); A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin(“Dignity”); George Eliot (“Love”); St. Augustine (“Ordered Love”); and Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne (“Self Examination”).

[4] Eisner, The Road to David Brooks’ Character, Forward (April 23, 2015).

The Founder of Modern Conservatism’s Perspective on the Current U.S. Political Turmoil

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in Britain’s House of Commons as a member of the Whig party. He is remembered for his support of the cause of the American Revolution and for his later opposition to the French Revolution. He often has been regarded as the philosophic founder of modern conservatism.[1]

In 1774 Burke was elected to Parliament for Bristol, which at the time was “England’s second city” and a great trading city. Many of his constituents were opposed to free trade with Ireland, which Burke supported. This and other issues lead to his defeat in the 1780 parliamentary election.

After his election in 1774, Burke gave what became a famous speech on the philosophy of the duties of an elected representative. He said:

  • “[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs—and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
  • But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure—no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. . . .
  • [G]overnment and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide, and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
  • To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to consider. But authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest convictions of his judgment and conscience—these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution.. . .
  • Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest—that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavour to give it effect.” [2] (Emphasis in bold added.)

Fast forward from Britain in 1774 to the U.S. in 2011. Many groups now ask or demand that candidates for public office sign pledges to adhere without exception to certain positions held by the group. I think especially today of Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform with his insistence on “no new taxes.”[3]

This is a horrible development in our political life. I am opposed to all such pledges on the grounds advanced by Burke. I am also opposed to the Norquist pledge in particular.[4]


[2] Edmund Burke, Speech To The Electors Of Bristol At The Conclusion Of The Poll (Nov. 7, 1774), http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html.

[3]  Wikipedia, Grover Norquist, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist; Americans for Tax Reform, http://www.atr.org/taxpayer-protection-pledge.

[4] Post: My Political Philosophy(April 4, 2011); Post: Passionate, Committed Political Leadership (July 22, 2011); Post: Disgusting U.S. Political Scene (July 23, 2011).