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The Road to Character by David Brooks

The Road to Character by David Brooks The Road to Character by David Brooks. Random House. 320 pages. 2015 Audiobook read by Arthur Morey with an introduction by David Brooks

I recently listened to an interview Eric Metaxas had with David Brooks, in which Brooks was identified as one of two conservative columnists at the New York Times. Hearing the interview convinced me to read this book. Brooks begins the book by saying that it’s an attempt to save his soul. In fact, one may wonder after reading the book if Brooks (who has been described as a cultural Jew), has indeed had a spiritual awakening as he talks of sin, holiness and that we are all ultimately saved by grace. He quotes Tim Keller and C.S. Lewis, among others in the books. But we don’t really know as he has said in recent interviews that he doesn’t talk about his faith in public. He has stated that he has a lot of questions, but hasn’t settled, indicating that “the shoots are too green and the grass too fragile.”

I’m very interested in the subject of character. I’ve often heard character defined as doing the right thing when nobody is watching. I like that definition and find it helpful. Brooks refers to character as “a set of dispositions, desires and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.”

Central to the book is what Brooks learned about Adam One and Adam Two from the 1965 book The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik. Adam One has what Brooks refers to as resume virtues, and wants to build, create, produce, win and achieve high status. Adam Two has eulogy virtues, those nice things people say about us at our funerals that enable us to do good and be good. Adam Two knows that in order to find yourself you have to lose yourself. Adam One seeks success in the world, while Adam Two is more committed to character and the inner life. These two Adams are always in conflict.

Brooks’ goal is the recovery of a “vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation”. He does this with mini-biographies of what he calls heroes of renunciation who are marked by selflessness, generosity and self-sacrifice. With each diverse individual – some I was familiar with and others not – he discusses a particular virtue such as humility, sacrifice, love, etc. He tells us about Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower and his mother Ida, Dorothy Day, George Marshal, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Anne (aka George) Elliot, Augustine and Samuel Johnson. Brooks tells us that each had to go to humility on the road to character.

He ends with a striking contrast between NFL quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, but then tells us that those changes didn’t come in the 1960’s or 1970’s as we might assume, but actually back in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.

I enjoyed Brooks’ discussion of vocation, quoting from Victor Frankl and Frederick Buechner, whom Jeff Goins also quoted from in his recent book The Art of Work. Brooks writes that a vocation is not a career, but rather a calling. In discussing how things have changed, he states that we used to ask what life wants from me. But we are asking a different question these days, asking what do I want from life?

He writes that sin is not talked about today, but that it is essential to the concept of character. Brooks defines sin as when we “screw” (not his word) things up. He refers to today’s culture as the “Big Me” culture and discusses how our culture has changed since World War II, including a changed definition of character.

As I was going through the book, enjoying his portraits of the above individuals, I wasn’t seeing a thread tying everything together. As I reflect back now I think he may be trying to tell us that there are many different roads to character that a person takes. Brooks writes that some of these individuals were saved by religion, some harmed by it and some had no use for it. He helpfully summarizes things at the end with what he calls the Crooked Timber, a 15-point humility code. The individuals Brooks looks at in the book were redeemed by their weakness. He writes that “we are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling.”

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