The University Bookman


Winter 2016

A Modern Plutarch

book cover imageThe Road to Character
by David Brooks.
Random House, 2015.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $28.

Jason R. Edwards

David Brooks’s résumé confirms his place among America’s intellectual elite. Currently, he writes a column for The New York Times, teaches classes at Yale University, and regularly appears on PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NBC’s Meet the Press. In the past, he has written several best-sellers and served as an editor for some of the nation’s most prominent magazines and newspapers. However, Brooks’s latest book, The Road to Character, resulted from Brooks’s fear that he perhaps has gained the world but lost his soul. Ultimately, his book is about a culture that has done the same.

Brooks begins The Road noting the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues” and lamenting that he, along with the current American culture, has spent too much time on the first at the expense of the second. In America today, résumé virtues secure high status and esteem but ultimately fail to confirm true character. In contrast, it is what Brooks identifies as the “eulogy” virtues that mark the true essence of a person and are what will be remembered after the shine of material achievement fades. Even for the individual, the promises of worldly achievement ultimately prove empty. Brooks openly admits:

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.

The Road to Character reflects Brooks’s valiant effort to gain such knowledge and to pass on the wisdom he gleaned in the endeavor.

In his concluding chapter, Brooks lists no less than fifteen propositions that he believes define a lost tradition still capable of informing twenty-first century life. They include that we “don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness,” that human nature is flawed, and that “humility is the greatest virtue.” He further lists pride as our central vice, the struggle against sin as “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.” Brooks writes that “we are all ultimately saved by grace” and that wisdom “starts with epistemological modesty” so the “humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness.” Finally, he writes, “no good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation” but a “vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us.”

Though containing a concluding list of valuable maxims, it would be a mistake to understand Brooks’s work as merely that. Likewise, though Brooks’s language about the purpose and meaning of life rings with Christian overtones, religion is neither his stated standard nor his methodological approach. As Brooks argues, one cannot build a rich life “simply by reading sermons or following abstract rules.” While rhetorically attractive, such a stance does present a problem for Brooks because, as he seemingly recognizes, cobbling together a series of maxims according to one’s own reason will ultimately fail to generate a rich life. As such, in listing his maxims, Brooks perpetually uses words such as “grace,” “holiness,” “sin,” and “vocation.” Those words are powerful precisely because they have a cultural and historical tradition behind them. By refusing to write from such a tradition, Brooks is borrowing the power of the words without truly invoking their substance.

Presumably Brooks would maintain he successfully avoided the necessity of writing from a religious tradition by following the model of an acknowledged master of moral, but not religious, training—the Greek historian Plutarch. Brooks argues that the road to true happiness and satisfaction is to “immerse ourselves in the lives of outstanding people and try to understand the wisdom of the way they lived.” To that end, the body and bulk of Brooks’s work is a series of biographies designed to reveal to the postmodern world the grown-over road to true character.

“Eclectic” accurately describes the cast of characters Brooks drafts into his service. Frances Perkins, George C. Marshall, Augustine, Samuel Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, and Dorothy Day all appear and seemingly provide each reader with at least one opportunity to initially nod one’s head with approval and tilt it with surprise. Nevertheless, Brooks’s treatment of each is consistently lively and brimming with little-known events and anecdotes from each person’s life. Brooks’s research seems sound, though heavily reliant on relatively few secondary sources for each individual. As such, when Brooks states the thoughts and motivations of each personality, he frequently seems to be slipping into one of his self-confessed problems—that of being a person paid to appear “more authoritative” than he really is or could be. Nevertheless, he deftly uses each biography to tease out important insights into character, and despite the variety of individuals, common elements of a richer life do stand out.

Anyone could benefit from reading The Road to Character, but it seems especially ideal for a young person first experiencing the diverging roads of adulthood. Likewise, the book would be naturally attractive for readers already convinced that modern American culture has jumbled its priorities. Therefore, it is somewhat frustrating that Brooks opted to potentially alienate such readers with both verbiage and stories that many will reasonably find inappropriate, particularly in a book on developing character. Brooks undoubtedly swims in waters that would find such concerns prudish and silly, but is the “f-bomb” or a graphic description of Bayard Rustin’s promiscuous, homosexual prison life really necessary or helpful? Whether blinded by class bias or hampered by his reluctance to identify with a particular tradition, Brooks occasionally needed an editor to keep him from needless verbal distractions in his otherwise engaging prose style.

Undoubtedly, Brooks’s editorial decisions will keep his work out of some hands and assumedly so will his association with one side of America’s fractious political divide. That is a shame. Brooks has produced a work that proves the study of both history and morals—a combination undoubtedly considered by many inherently dull and trite—not only inspiring, but also essential for individuals and the culture at large. Simply put, even with its flaws, David Brooks’s The Road to Character is one of the most important books of 2015. Read it. The soul saved just might be your own. 

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College and a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values.

Posted: March 6, 2016

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