The Road to Character by David Brooks


41BfG5+LceLIn an effort to displace the thoughts that our political landscape have put in my head, I listened to David Brooks' book about character.  The introduction assured me I was in the right place:

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I'm paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I've also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration–vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some higher 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. 

He refers to the resume traits that people work to develop (achievements that gain people wealth, respect, position) in contrast to the eulogy virtues of being kind, brave, honest, faithful. Though we spend much time and money developing the former, the latter are ultimately more important. 

The lives of a wide variety of people, ranging from Dorothy Day to Dwight Eisenhower, St. Augustin, and Samuel Johnson were described to illustrate efforts to develop the various eulogy virtues. Whatever the success or failings of these individuals, it was uplifting to focus on their efforts. Along the way, David Brooks quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, in one of my favorite passages:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint, therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

While I didn't always find Brooks' efforts to identify societal pressures that move us away from the focus on eulogy virtues persuasive, the book was a welcome antidote to the ugliness in evidence in the Republican Party rhetoric. 

David Brooks, The Road to Character, Random House, 2015, 320 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries.




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