Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House. 2015
New York Times columnist David Brooks wants to have an important national conversation about moral character in his recently published book. He begins, “Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed…. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop profound character.”
Brooks indicates that this book is the product of his own spiritual journey, his search to identify the character traits that really matter and to figure out how those traits were developed. He calls the two sides of our nature—reflected in the contrasts between résumé and eulogy virtues—Adam I and Adam II.
Adam I lives by “straightfordward utilitarian logic…. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.” Adam II knows that “to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.” Brooks concludes, “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”
In 10 lengthy chapters Brooks examines the lives of men and women throughout history who exhibited strong moral character. Many are almost unknown; all are flawed. A thorough reporter, he describes them warts and all.
At the end of his journey, Brooks writes, “I’ve found in myself, and I think I’ve observed in others, a certain meritocratic mentality, which is based on the self-trusting, self-puffing insights of the Romantic tradition, but which is also depoetized and despiritualized. If moral realists saw the self as a wilderness to be tamed, and if people in the New Age 1970s saw the self as an Eden to be actualized, people living in a high-pressure meritocracy are more likely to see the self as a resource base to be cultivated. The self is less likely to be seen as the seat of the soul, or as the repository of some transcendent spirit. Instead, the self is a vessel of human capital. It is a series of talents to be cultivated efficiently and prudently. The self is defined by its tasks and accomplishments. The self is about talent, not character.” And to combat this tendency in contemporary Western society, Brooks proposes a Humility Code.
Excellent advice for those of us who grieve
Then he concludes: “Each struggle leaves a residue. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy. The stumbler doesn’t aim for joy. Joy is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.
“There’s joy in a life filled with interdependence with others, in a life filled with gratitude, reverence, and admiration. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to people, ideas, and commitments greater than oneself. There’s joy in that feeling of acceptance, the knowledge that though you don’t deserve their love, others do love you; they have admitted you into their loves. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel in morally good action, which makes all other joys seem paltry and easy to forsake….
“Joy is not produced because others praise you. Joy emanates unbidden and unforced. Joy comes as a gift when you least expect it. At those fleeting moments you know why you were put here and what truth you serve. You may not feel giddy at those moments, you may not hear the orchestra’s delirious swell or see flashes of crimson and gold, but you will feel a satisfaction, a silence, a peace—a hush. Those moments are the blessings and the signs of a beautiful life.”
If you want to participate in the discussion, visit Brooks’ website, The Road to Character: A Cultural Conversation. Or add your thoughts in the comment box below.