Review: David Brooks' 'Road to Character' focuses on traditional virtues

Published May 20, 2015

Coming from a conservative political pundit who writes columns for the New York Times, The Road to Character is not exactly what you might expect. Don't look for mentions of the current crop of presidential candidates or hand-wringing over that terrible news on the front page of the newspaper. Instead, David Brooks has written a deeply meditative reflection on personal character and living a life of meaning. To take such a deep dive into the heart of living, Brooks turns away from contemporary society and looks to historical figures — St. Augustine, George Eliot, Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, to name just a few — for his inspiration.

Our current problem, as Brooks diagnoses it, is that society encourages too much self-expression and self-actualization — he calls it the Big Me. While seeking our own personal bliss has its benefits, the pendulum has swung too far, Brooks says. Individualism, achievement and the meritocracy have devolved into self-centeredness, selfishness and pride. We are uneasy, and we are living lives of smug superficiality. The antidote, Brooks argues, is finding a larger purpose and cultivating both humility and gratitude.

Brooks has a fondness for several metaphors that get at this internal conflict of the soul. Most notably, he riffs on the idea that we have a divided nature, one that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in 1965 described as Adam I and Adam II. Adam I strives and grasps; Adam II is quiet and contemplative. Adam I is self-seeking; Adam II submits himself to a greater cause. Adam I has what Brooks calls the resume virtues: those attributes that help us get the next job, the next raise and praise from our peers. Adam II, meanwhile, has the eulogy virtues — the attributes that people will remember us by when we die — like love, compassion and kindness.

Those who have mastered the eulogy virtues, Brooks writes, "radiate a sort of moral joy. … They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all."

People don't achieve eulogy virtues by accident, Brooks writes, but by the hard work of character building every day. After laying out his call for a return to inner virtue, he turns to history to observe those who have made the journey before us. Each chapter tells the story of someone who exemplified a specific trait. These minibiographies form the core of The Road to Character. They make for fascinating reading and are a springboard for Brooks' broader exploration of virtue.

Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was a great general and a prudent president, but he suffered from fits of anger that he tried to control his whole life. He constantly monitored his own words and actions, logging some of his most scathing thoughts into private diaries. (Writing of a U.S. senator he disliked, he noted, "In his case, there seems to be no final answer to the question, 'How stupid can you get?' ") In public, Ike worked to appear measured, even simple. But even when he was profound — such as in his famous speech warning against the military-industrial complex — Eisenhower strived for moderation. "He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they have inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new," Brooks writes.

Then there are those who ardently rejected the top echelons of power. Dorothy Day ran soup kitchens and served the homeless as part of the Catholic Worker movement. That was after her bohemian years of the 1920s, hanging out in Greenwich Village with alcoholics and addicts and running through a string of romantic partners. Day eventually chose to renounce that life for one of struggle and deep religious devotion, which she wrote about in her memoir The Long Loneliness and in columns in the Catholic Worker newspaper. In Day, Brooks sees someone who embraced suffering in service to a transcendent purpose.

The author George Eliot — real name Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819 — is one of Brooks' most fascinating portraits. Evans was an educated, brilliant woman who was also virtually addicted to love, moving from infatuation to infatuation. Eventually, she met her soul mate, George Lewes, a man who was already legally married but estranged from his wife. If Evans went with him, she'd become a social outcast. But she took the leap. In return, Lewes helped her to become the celebrated author of Middlemarch. Eliot "had to grow out of self-centeredness into generous sympathy. But it was a satisfying maturation. … From disgrace she rose, by the end of her life, to be celebrated as a large angel."

Augustine of Hippo sought satisfaction through career, reason and achievement, but soon saw that his rationality carried him only so far. Augustine eventually learned that knowledge has its limits: "Knowledge is not enough for tranquility and goodness, because it doesn't contain the motivation to be good. Only love impels actions. We don't become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves."

In his final conclusions, Brooks suggests finding a vocation — a purpose in life that exceeds a career. He also says a loving community is critical in providing "redemptive assistance" for people who are engaged in trying to live a better life. (This advice will resonate with people in group-based recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.) But for such a deeply personal book, Brooks reveals very little about his own process of character building. In interviews, he has avoided questions about his own personal religious or spiritual beliefs. "You do some violence to private emotion and private thought when you reduce it to simplicities of public conversation," he said in an interview with the Washington Post.

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That lack of personal revelation is somewhat refreshing in this confessional age. Brooks isn't one for lofty rhetoric, sweeping prose or overwrought confession. Instead, his workmanlike, modestly phrased observations have their own comfortable cadence. We are welcomed into Brooks' philosophical inner world, and it's a sympathetic place to spend time.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. Contact her at Follow @AngieHolan