David Brooks Speaks on “The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church
David Brooks @ Westminster
David Brooks @ Westminster

This was the title of David Brooks’ May 14th presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum. An appreciative audience of over 3,000 filled the Sanctuary and other rooms at the church to hear the talk and demonstrated why he called Westminster his “favorite venue.”[1]

Both the talk and his recent book, “The Road to Character,”[2] emphasize “modesty and humility” and assert that “human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness” and that “character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.” This at least is what the Syllabus for his “Humility” course at Yale University states. Or as he said in his talk, we are “splendidly endowed, but deeply broken.”

Brooks recalled with gratitude three personal uplifting moments. One was observing his then three young children playing on a beautiful day. Another was watching women in Maryland teaching English to immigrants. The last was sitting at a luncheon next to the Dali Lama and experiencing his inner joy and laughter. These moments produced David’s overwhelming sense of gratitude to have experienced these moments of higher joy, an enlargement of his own heart and an acknowledgement that these had happened to him by the grace of God.

Because issues of morals and character in western culture have been discussed by Christian theologians, his book uses their vocabulary. We need to recover and perhaps modernize that vocabulary, said Brooks, especially to recover the meaning and importance of the concept of sin.

He also mentioned that many contemporary U.S. politicians feel compelled to promote and advertise themselves and as a result start to believe their own propaganda. Exceptions of politicians of modesty and honesty are former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Westminster member who was in the audience; Minnesota’s former U.S. Senator David Durenberger; and current U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

His book provides biographical sketches of how 10 different people in different ways created disciplines that built character. He mentioned the following six of them in his talk.

Ida Stover by age 11 had lost both of her parents and then was an overworked indentured servant in another household, but at age 15 she left to be on her own, to get a job and an education. Later she married David Eisenhower, became Ida Eisenhower and raised five sons, one being Dwight D. Eisenhower. After Ike threw a temper tantrum at age 10, Ida paraphrased Proverbs 16:32 to him: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater that he who taketh a city.”[3] In other words, the central drama of your life is fighting against your own sinfulness and weaknesses. Many years later Ike said this was one of the most valuable moments of his life that helped him to recognize his temper as a weakness and to develop techniques to prevent it from interfering with his leading others.

Frances Perkins was a genteel graduate of Mount Holyoke College who found her vocation of improving worker safety by happening to be a witness to the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in Manhattan, in which many workers lost their lives. She responded to what the world was demanding of her.

Augustine for many years resisted his mother’s efforts to become a Christian, but after he had done so, the two of them shared a beautiful moment in a garden just before she died when “all the clamors of the world slipped into silence” and were “hushed.”

Dorothy Day, a social activist, near the end of her life started to write her “life remembered,” but could not do so. Instead she “thought of our Lord [Jesus], and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!” Day’s “The Long Loneliness” shows her intense self-criticism, her discovery of her vocation and her humility. It is one of Brooks’ favorite books and also of the students in his Yale course on humility.[4]

George Eliot (born Mary Anne Evans) obtained character through her love for George Lewes, and such love, according to Brooks, humbles a person, making you realize you are not in control of your own life; allows you to express tenderness and vulnerability; de-centers your self; and fuses two individuals together.

Brooks advised the high school students in the audience to make the following commitments by the time they were at least in their mid-30’s: adopting an existing faith or philosophy of life; choosing a vocation; getting married; and choosing a community in which to live. Although he did not say so, these commitments may change during your life.

With respect to the marriage commitment, Brooks quoted this beautiful excerpt from a beautiful wedding toast that was offered by his friend and noted American author, Leon Weiseltiere, to an unnamed couple:

  • “Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach. It will not be accelerated, or made efficient: love’s pace is its pace, one of the fundamental temporalities of mortal existence, and it will not be rushed or retarded by even the most glittering pressures of service or success. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it — a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist one in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses, but we may not be idols.”

The unnamed couple who were thus toasted were (a) Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the author of the award-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and a former Harvard Law School Professor and (b) Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School Professor, an acclaimed author and a former aide to President Obama.

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[1] The audio recording of the speech is available online and later the video of same will be added. . Brooks’ prior appearances at the Forum, also to overflow audiences, are also available online: “The Historic Election of Barack Obama” (Nov. 13, 2008) and “The Social Animal: Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (Mar. 31, 2011).

[2] The recent book was discussed in the following prior posts: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character “ (May 1, 2015) and David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015). Brooks has created a website about the new book to foster readers’ comments about character.

[3] The Authorized King James Version of Proverbs 16:32 states: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

[4] The Dorothy Day book is on the 2013 edition of the Syllabus for Brooks’ “Humility” seminar at Yale. The other books on the syllabus as well as the topics covered in the seminar make one wish to be a student again. In light of Brooks’ recent book’s not including biographical sketches of any Jewish people and his comments on that omission to a Jewish critic, it is noteworthy that the Syllabus describes one seminar session as being devoted to Moses, the “most humble man on earth;” the “Jewish formula of character building through obedience to the law;” the “way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge;” and the Book of Exodus as the reading. The Yale seminar has prompted comments by a student who was in the seminar, criticism of the Syllabus and Brooks’ defense of the seminar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).