Book review: The Road to Character by David Brooks

I failed, right from the outset. David Brooks asks us to act with greater humility and restraint, to move away from the ‘Big Me’ model of the self towards a nobler outlook. But the first thing I did with his book was check the index for my own name.

After all, I know Brooks a little, we’ve sat around seminar tables together, and I’ve worked on character formation. He has even written about my work in his New York Times column. Imagine my humiliation, then, on discovering that I don’t get a single mention.

Perhaps I ought to be grateful. After all, humiliation is the painful path towards humility, and most of us could do with a little more of it. Indeed, Brooks believes that American society – indeed, perhaps Western culture more generally – needs a wholesale shift of mindset, away from individualistic, meritocratic materialism towards a quieter, smaller, less selfish way of life. I should not judge myself against the index.

In his role as a columnist, Brooks is superb at creating clear distinctions which serve as effective tools for digging into a particular subject. Here, he divides character traits into ‘Résumé’ virtues and ‘Eulogy’ virtues. The former category consists of the ‘skills you bring to the job market’. The latter are ‘deeper… the ones that get talked about at your funeral… whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed.’

If you don’t like those labels, don’t worry: he has others. Borrowing from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith, he also discusses two versions of the creation story in Genesis, which ‘represent the two opposing sides of our nature’, Adam I and Adam II. Basically Adam I is all about the résumé; Adam II will get a great eulogy. Adam I may be quick, clever, popular and successful: but unlike Adam II will never ‘cultivate strong character’, and ‘inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow’.

One of the most attractive features of the book, and of Brooks’ writing in general, is his willingness to be self-critical. As a newspaper columnist and TV pundit, Brooks occupies a particularly narcissistic corner of the labour market. He is surrounded by Adam Is. Indeed, he confesses to being a bit of an Adam I himself, and shares his own desire to be better. Not many authors will say of their book: ‘I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul’.

Brooks adopts a twin-track approach to this task. The central sections of the book are pen-portraits of individuals who have developed a strong character of the eulogy kind. These range from labour rights campaigner Frances Perkins, to Ida Eisenhower, mother of the general-turned-President, to gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, through to Augustine of Hippo, George Eliot and Samuel Johnson.

In each case, Brooks offers a glimpse into the development of a deeper character, whether from exposure to a personal tragedy such as the loss of a child, or a public one, like the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Brooks brings novelistic interest to each short story, and then reflects on the implications of each for the development of character. How to be ‘self summoned’ to a greater cause like Perkins? Or to triumph over everyday sin, like Mrs Eisenhower? Maintain dignity in the face of horrible discrimination, like Bayard Rustin? Know ourselves as Augustine did?

The stories are joined by a common thread of self-abnegation – the triumph of will, discipline, love or a commitment to the greater good, over the satisfaction of immediate desires. Brooks does not gloss his heroines and heroes. He shows how they become better people, despite themselves. The book is worth reading just to learn a little more about each.

These mini-biographies are sandwiched between chapters that are in Brooks’ more typical style, consisting of arguments about the state and shape of contemporary society illustrated by findings from social science and surveys. Apparently Gallup has a ‘median narcissism score’ that has risen 30 per cent in the last 20 years. In another survey, middle school girls were asked which person they would most like to have dinner with (really, who funds these studies?). The top three dinner companions, in ascending order, were Paris Hilton, Jesus Christ, and Jennifer Lopez. Brooks sees this as a sign of moral decline. Frankly, it is incredible to me that Jesus pipped Hilton to the number two spot. More seriously, these surveys are doubtful evidence.

In his strongest analytical section, Brooks charts how the idea of meritocracy has narrowed into a combination of academic achievement and earnings. As he correctly points out, ‘any hypercompetitive system built upon merit is going to encourage people to think a lot about themselves and the cultivation of their own skills’. Even parenting gets distorted, with mothers and fathers offering ‘merit-tangled love’, partly conditional on the child’s performance. Being an ‘honor roll’ student or joining the ‘honor society’ is now a matter of maths, not morals: ‘In today’s schools, the word “honor” means earning top grades.’ Brooks is right: we do need to broaden our definition of merit, provide alternative sources of status and a greater plurality of paths towards them. Merit is not only a market good.

Brooks shows quite clearly the cultural costs of greater individualism. There is no doubt that the increased emphasis on the self has eroded some important values, and may have hindered the development of certain virtues. But these costs are not as great as Brooks suggests. Young Americans are more likely to volunteer than the previous generation, for instance (though of course, this may be for résumé purposes.) Society has generally become more tolerant of different lifestyles. Meanwhile, some of the excessive permissiveness of the boomer generation, for example on childrearing and divorce, has diminished.

But moral individualism has brought huge benefits, too. The slow shift of authoritative judgment from institutions to individuals has allowed for huge advances in equality in terms of race, gender and sexuality. John Stuart Mill wrote that ‘the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’. Mill was not advocating a mindless hedonism, but a world in which each of us determines the nature of a good life, rather than being handed a recipe by a politician or priest. Brooks is right to say that we have paid a price for our expanded liberty. I think he is wrong to say it has been too high.

This book review originally appeared on Demos Quarterly.