David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar

David Brooks
David Brooks

CharacterIn The Road to Character,[1] as noted in a prior post, David Brooks asserts in the last chapter, ““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.” (Emphasis added.)

But the book does not identify such an exemplar (an admired person who deserves to be copied). Brooks’ short biographies of ten individuals do not suggest, at least to me, that any of them should be an exemplar. Yes, each of them can be admired for certain aspects of their lives, but they are hardly exemplars.[2]

Instead Brooks describes an ideal exemplar in these words from the first chapter. “[C]ertain people seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are . . . the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain.”

Such people “seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

“They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly accused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service. . . . They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.”

Such people, Brooks says, “are the people we are looking for.”

Look no further, Mr. Brooks. Such an individual has been found. He is Jesus Christ!

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). A lengthy interview of Brooks provides fascinating background for the book and his thinking about religion and other topics. (Bailey, Interview: David Brooks on sin, Augustine and the state of his soul, Wash. Post (May 1, 2015).)

[2] These individuals are Francis Perkins, Dorothy Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne.

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).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prior posts have examined the substance of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the performance of Joseph Welch, the Army’s lawyer, in the hearings, and the Army’s hiring of Welch for this purpose.  Now we look at the role of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in these events.

During the hearings, President Eisenhower maintained his public distance from the battle between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Army. The President believed that any public criticism of McCarthy by the President would merely enhance the Senator’s publicity value without achieving any positive purpose and that it was the Senate’s constitutional responsibility, not the President’s, to curb the Senator.

George C. Marshall

Eisenhower did so despite having an intense dislike of McCarthy and his methods. This stemmed from the Senator’s past attacks on George C. Marshall, who was Eisenhower’s friend and Army colleague and who was the former Secretary of State in the Truman Administration. The dislike was exacerbated by McCarthy’s attacks on several of Eisenhower’s top-level nominees in 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration, and by McCarthy’s investigation of the Army starting in 1953. Eisenhower said privately, “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk.”

We now know, however, that the President was active behind the scenes to fight McCarthy.

Though his Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, Eisenhower selected Welch as the Army’s attorney. Before and during the hearings, privately within the White House, Eisenhower expressed his extreme displeasure with McCarthy and was active in various ways regarding the hearings.

Robert Stevens

Moreover, Eisenhower wanted to give McCarthy enough rope to hang himself even though the Army would suffer in the short run. When the initial hearings went badly for McCarthy, the Senator suggested that there be no more television coverage. Army Secretary Robert Stevens discussed this proposal with the President, who rejected the idea, saying, “Now we have the bastard right where we want him!” The proposal was rejected. Television coverage continued. McCarthy destroyed himself.

As another example of the “hidden hand” of the Eisenhower presidency, the President invited television-journalist, Edward R. Murrow, to the White House to congratulate him for his television program’s exposure of McCarthy’s methodology.

When the hearings were over, the Army’s lawyers, Joseph Welch and James St. Clair, had a private meeting at the White House with the President. The President congratulated them on their presentation of the Army’s case and agreed with Welch that the main effect of the hearings had been to expose McCarthy’s disgraceful tactics before a national audience and that this exposure would ultimately benefit the country.1[1]


[1] Subsequent posts will review Welch’s activities after the hearings and his background. I interviewed Fred Fisher and James St. Clair in 1986 and have reviewed many source materials that document the assertions in this post. If anyone wants to see the bibliography of these sources, I will do so in another post at the conclusion of this series. Just make such a request in a comment to this or the other posts in this series.  By the way, after the hearings, Welch and St. Clair also had a private meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of Welch’s law school professors at Harvard.