Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

The Pursuit of Virtue

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

The author of this book kicks off with the ostentatious claim that “I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul.” I merely read it, so I don’t know how this repetitious, over-explained, quotation-stuffed cri de coeur affected my soul, but I do know what plowing through it did to my corporeal self. According to my tombstone, “Now she belongs to the pages.”

David Brooks is a leading member of the punditry who writes a column for the New York Times, teaches at Yale, has published several successful books, and is a regular guest on public radio’s All Things Considered and TV’s Meet the Press. At first glance, his search for character would seem to qualify as the thinking man’s midlife crisis, but Brooks doesn’t see it this way, because he doesn’t see himself as an authentic thinking man. “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness,” he confesses. “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. . . . I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger 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.”

While he’s putting himself down, the rest of the country is bingeing on self-celebration. We live in the era of what he calls the “Big Me.” The victory dance in the end zone, the commencement speakers who tell graduates “You can succeed at anything you want to do,” the graduates who justify unrestrained behavior with “I gotta be me.” The culture as a whole celebrates Big Me opinions and affiliations: Brooks has seen so many message T-shirts, sympathy ribbons, vanity license plates, boastful bumper stickers, threatening protest signs, and narcissistic tweets that he finds himself longing for the days when modesty and reticence were such a given that typewriters had no exclamation points on their keyboards.

Character is what gets lost or ignored in times like these. Now all that matters are what he calls the “résumé virtues”: People promote themselves by making sure others are aware of the scholarships, degrees, awards, and promotions they are accruing to rise to the top of their professional lives. Character, on the other hand, gets noticed only when our good deeds speak for themselves, i.e., after our death. Brooks calls these the “eulogy virtues” and serves up ten figures from politics, religion, and the arts to answer that fascinating question, “What will they say about me when I’m gone?”

This might have been a fairly good book if only Brooks had trusted himself more. His résumé-virtues–eulogy-virtues construct is a clear and concise expression of contemporary attitudes, but he shifts immediately to a backstop: an essay titled “The Lonely Man of Faith,” by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

Soloveitchik imagines two Adams in the Garden of Eden, Adam I the mover and shaker, and Adam II the humble inquirer. The rabbi’s treatment is, says Brooks, “the source of the methodology” for his own book.

And, God help us, it is. He starts quoting and analyzing the rabbi in long, intense passages. “Adam II lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. . . . Self-satisfied moral mediocrity. . . . You have to give to receive. . . . You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. . . . Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. . . . To fulfill yourself you have to forget yourself. . . . To find yourself you have to lose yourself.” Enough of this and the lights go dim and the reader hears the ticking of a big pocket watch. Anybody who says you can’t be hypnotized against your will is lying. You can.

The rabbi and his two Adams stick around through the rest of Brooks’s book, a collection of ten short biographies of people — three women and seven men — who died with their characters on. My favorite is Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a cabinet post. A graduate of Mount Holyoke who dabbled in the usual upper-middle-class good-deeding, she was changed forever when she witnessed the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory near her Washington Square home. Seeing the girls jump to their deaths turned her into a serious social worker. She went to work for Al Smith and specialized in workers’ rights, but she did not become a radical. On the contrary, she took on conservative colors for entirely practical reasons. Working with rough, streetwise labor unionists, she discovered that they did not trust attractive, feminine women. The only women they respected were their mothers, and so she made herself look like one, taking care to be as frumpish as possible. It worked.

She could almost be called the mother of the New Deal, being the influence behind the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and “relief,” as welfare was first called, but when her own family members fell upon hard financial and medical times, she did not allow them to get on the rolls but paid their expenses herself.

The other good chapter is on A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who led the campaign to force defense industries to hire blacks. Randolph’s lifelong goal was not civil rights per se but dignity. He strove for perfect English, building his vocabulary until he regularly used words like “vouchsafe.” His refusal to call anyone by his first name put some people off, but he reminded them, “We will need [good manners] when this is over because we must show good manners after we have won.” Above all, he rejected financial donations by sympathetic whites, saying, “This must be a victory that we organize and win on our own.” Al Sharpton, take note.

These two chapters contain fewer quotations than the others, but much of the rest of the book is virtually unreadable owing to Brooks’s reluctance to rely on himself. He seems compelled to quote somebody every chance he gets: not just pithy one-liners but passages of exposition. Some pages contain two or three chunks. Just follow the signposts: “Thomas Aquinas argued . . . Alfred North Whitehead suggests . . . As Søren Kierkegaard noted . . . Thomas Merton believes . . . G. K. Chesterton states . . .” and on and on, all the way down to Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Brooks’s greatest challenge is defining the stoic ideal that shapes the character of military men for whom love of country must come first, before any lesser loves. “The cost of his perfect self-denial and self-control was aloofness,” he says of General George C. Marshall, who could not get close even to himself: He opposed the widespread practice of military men of keeping a diary, because diaries offered a temptation to boast.

Brooks’s search for the attitude of warriors toward personal happiness is centered on the golden age of classical antiquity, and ranges from Plutarch to Edith Hamilton before settling on “the great-souled leader in the Periclean tradition,” but this still doesn’t hit the mark. A better quotation is needed, and he finds one — one that is also found in millions of American homes because it was sold suitable for framing after it was read aloud on Ken Burns’s Civil War series: Captain Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his wife, Sarah, which closed with “When my last breath escapes me on the battlefield it will whisper your name.” Naturally Brooks quotes 26 lines of it, but neither this overkill nor his Greek and Roman omnium-gatherum can equal the single familiar line “I could not love thee, Dear, so much / Loved I not Honour more.” It makes the whole point, but Brooks doesn’t quote it.

He does, however, quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower on his method for handling tough questions at a news conference. “Don’t worry,” he told his press chief, “I’ll confuse ’em.” Asked about the trouble with Russia and China over the Formosa Straits, he replied: “The only thing I know about war are two things. The most changeable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation, but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature. And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred and in the way it is carried out. . . . So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may someday face a president.”

It took me a second to realize that this was Ike. I thought I was still reading Brooks.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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