Book Club | The Road to Character
“I’m hoping you and I will emerge from the next nine chapters slightly different and slightly better.”
David Brooks’ 2015 book Road to Character dives deep into questions that ultimately shape the development of who we are as people. Brooks begins by outlining two thoughts:
First, he invites us to examine what he calls our “resume virtues,” and “eulogy virtues.” The resume virtues are fairly self-explanatory, the skills, ideas, talents we bring to the market place, and eulogy virtues describe personal characteristics that we’d hope would be spoken about at our funeral, things like honesty, kindness, love.
Brooks notes that while most of us would want to be remembered for our eulogy virtues, the reality is that we spend very little time and thought in developing these virtues. In the day to day, rapid pace of the 21st century, we tend to prioritise and laud others for their resume virtues, the hustle and skill which makes them more professionally successful. These attributes are not necessarily bad things in and of themselves, but if people at your funeral said “he/she was a hard worker,” would we be satisfied? Is that good enough feature as the highest good of our personal character?
- Which virtues would you talk about if you were giving a eulogy for someone you admire?
- Which virtues would you like others to talk about when talking about you?
- Are there virtues that straddle both “resume” and “eulogy” type categories?
The second thought Brooks introduces is the conceptual identities of Adam I, and Adam II. Taken from the works of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I is the ambitious, worldly, “hard working” side of our nature. Adam II is the humble, softer side of our nature, the part of us that not only wants to do good, but to be good. The Road to Character is Brooks’ attempt to invite readers to seek formational change within their own character—an attempt to sketch out the argument for why we should all want to “be good.”
- What do you think about the binary identities of Adam I and Adam II? What do they align with in your own experience?
Brooks then takes the next eight chapters to tell the story of eight people’s lives, offering portraits of these known and lesser known historical figures that can teach us characteristics of wisdom, sacrifice, love, self-control, dignity, integrity. All of these characteristics are ultimately shaded by what he describes as the “grandparent” of all virtues: humility.
The subjects of the portraits…practiced a mode of living that is less common now. They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses. They waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect. And when we think of them, it is not primarily what they accomplished that we remember— great though that may have been— it is who they were.
The “Summoned Self” – An insight into the clarity of vocational call through the life of American labour activist Frances Perkins
“She [was] willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself, she finds a purpose that defines and fulfils herself.”
Self-Conquest – Seeing the transformative power of a lifelong journey of discipline to overwhelm the unpopular notion of personal sin, through the life and anger of President Dwight Eisenhower.
“We can’t always resist our desires, but we can change and reorder our desires by focusing on our higher loves.”
Struggle – The stark invitation to encounter our suffering as a teacher that can transform our character and purpose, seen through the life of Dorothy Day.
“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different… suffering becomes a fearful gift, very different from that other gift, happiness, conventionally defined. The latter brings pleasure, but the former cultivates character.”
Self-Mastery – The value of denying oneself for the benefit of others, told through the story of George Marshall, an unimpressive student who found meaning and inspiration through service to great institutions that invited him to devotion to a greater cause.
“Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation.”
Dignity – This chapter advances that opportunities to lead and fight for a cause can also offer the temptation to pride and self-promotion, and illustrates the quality of the personal character of civil rights leaders Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
“In their best moments they understood that they would become guilty of self-righteousness because their cause was just…they would become more vain as their audiences enlarged; their hearts would harden as the conflict grew more dire and their hatred for their enemies deepened…the more they altered history, the more they would be infected by pride.”
Love – Brooks outlines the story of author George Eliot, a woman who is described as being desperate for the love of others, so much so that it made her emotional and creative world a slave to the opinions and acceptance of others. He describes her adult journey towards “agency,” the ability to have a mediating respect of self, that allowed Eliot to interact with the world and express her own best work. With this sense of agency, Eliot finds the kind of love she was always looking for.
“Love impels people to service. If love starts with a downward motion, burrowing into the vulnerability of self, exposing nakedness, it ends with an active upward motion. It arouses great energy and desire to serve. Love is waking up night after night to breastfeed, living year after year to nurture. It is risking and sacrificing your life for your buddies in a battle. Love ennobles and transforms. In no other commitment are people so likely to slip beyond the logic of self-interest and unconditional commitments that manifest themselves in daily acts of care.”
Ordered Love – the necessary sorting and submission of our desires to overcome the grave perils of sin, pride, and selfishness as seen through Augustine’s “Confessions.”
“Augustine hung between worlds. He wanted to live a truthful life….The crucial flaw in his old life was the belief that he could be the driver of his own journey. So long as you believe that you are the captain of your own life, you will be drifting farther and farther from the truth… Augustine came to conclude that this all was incomplete. He didn’t withdraw from the world… his public work and effort was nestled in a total surrender. The point, according to this view, is to surrender, or at least suppress, your will, your ambition, your desire to achieve victory on your own.”
Self-examination – Brooks offers us the contrasting examples of two writers, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne, both men who did not try to distract themselves from their own failings, but instead spent time investigating their inner life and how they might overcome their shortcomings with very different methods.
“Both tried to pin down the chaos of existence in prose and create a sense of internal order and discipline. But Johnson is all emotional extremes; Montaigne is emotionally moderate… Johnson is about struggle and suffering, Montaigne is a more genial character, wryly amused by the foibles of the world. Johnson investigated the world to become his desired self; Montaigne investigated himself to see the world.”
THE “BIG ME”
In the final chapter, Brooks summarises “The Big Me,” examining the last 60 years of human history, with specific commentaries on the growth and vital belief that our life is primarily about the autonomous-self. It brilliantly maps out the “self-is-best mindset we are surrounded by, and goes on to highlight the desperate need for us to form counter cultural habits, mindsets and characteristics—suggesting the ones he has laid out through the previous eight chapters. He leaves us with 15 proposals we can adopt in his Humility Code that will help us form character for the good of ourselves and the good of the world.
THE HUMILITY CODE
- We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
- We must understand that we are flawed creatures, with an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence.
- We are also splendidly endowed with the capacity to struggle with ourselves and grow.
- Humility is the greatest virtue in our struggle against our own weakness.
- Pride is the central vice because it blinds us to our weaknesses and makes it hard for us to be vulnerable with those whose love we need.
- We must be willing to engage in the struggle against our own sin, and be serious about contending for virtue.
- Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.
- 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.
- No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.
- We are all ultimately saved by grace, the struggle involves regular wins and losses and we learn to admit our need for grace from others when we lose.
- The struggle against weakness requires the habits of reticence, modesty, obedience, and a capacity for reverence and admiration.
- Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty, understanding that experience is a better teacher than pure reason.
- No good life is possible unless it is organised around a vocation.
- The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it, as a steward for their organization, trying to pass it along in a slightly better condition than they found it.
- When you successfully struggle against weakness or sin it may or may not make you rich and famous, but you will become mature, a quality that is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be.
QUESTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION
- Which of Brooks’ eight stories resonated with you?
- Is it wrong to pursue resume virtues?
- Why do you think the BIG ME shift happened so swiftly? Why at all?
- Is character an innate thing? How much control can we exert over it?
- How does Brooks’ vision of love as a transformative force in the life of George Eliot match up with your own knowledge of familial, friendship, and committed love?
- If you had to add a characteristic to the 8 that Brooks has offered, what would it be?
- How can we be using this time in Covid-19 lockdown to self-examine and use Brooks teaching as a guide to all these characteristics of self?
- Is Brooks’ view of suffering through the story of Dorothy Day applicable in every situation?
- Like Perkins, how can we respond to the call within a call? What are your circumstances calling you to do in your vocation?
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