David Brooks’ Road to Character


David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, a bestselling author, and the teacher of a few classes at Yale University covering the history of Western thought and moral philosophy. He has led a rich life—one cannot read his book without noticing that he has a thoughtful inner life and that he is widely read. Yet he has also achieved a great deal of conventional professional success and wealth, and the life of a pundit does lend itself to shallow narcissism. I believe this makes him well suited to challenge the soul of American meritocracy – he has one self-aware foot in the company of our nation’s elite, and another foot in the humanistic traditions and stories that could form its soul. His book, The Road to Character, is an exploration of this redemptive biography and moral philosophy.

This deep well of humanity and thought is what he calls “moral realism” or the “crooked timber” tradition, drawn from Kant’s famous line: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Brooks argues convincingly that our society was once attuned to this moral realism. The common man was not necessarily reading Augustine’s Confessions in his spare time, but the popular culture still reinforced the wisdom embedded within the tradition. The Road to Character opens with Brooks’ recounting of the old radio programs rebroadcasted by his local NPR station every Sunday evening.

One such program, Command Performance, offered a variety show for the troops during World War II. It brought the era’s biggest celebrities together in a great production. As the Allies achieved victory, Command Performance show host Bing Crosby opened with:

Well, it looks like this is it. What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run-of-the-mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over… Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.

The broadcast continued with the actor Burgess Meredith reading a note by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. The note was written just before his death, anticipating the Allies’ victory:

We won this war because our men are brave and because of many other things—because of Russia, England, and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.

Our nation had its rapturous celebrations of victory. But they were shot through with solemnity, self-doubt, humility, and reverence.

Brooks argues that human nature is divided between two halves, our spirit rooted in two deep wells, representing two sets of virtues: Adam I and Adam II. Adam I represents the résumé virtues that contribute to external success. Adam II represents the eulogy virtues, the virtues spoken about at your funeral, those that exist at the core of your being. Adam I is the builder, maker, creator, producer, and innovator. Adam II is the moral adventurer—less about how, and more about why, less about conquering, and more about a calling to serve the world.

We like to say that the eulogy virtues are more important—but Brooks confesses that much of his life is spent thinking about the résumé virtues. Primary education, higher education, corporate life, social media, self-help books, and most of our modern life is built around Adam I. The empowerment of Adam I and his human capital has brought economic and technological dynamism like the world has never seen before. Adam I enabled the explosion in digital media and social media that brought me to Brooks’ book, and you to this review. Adam I enabled me to travel from a family farm in North Dakota to a wonderful college in New Hampshire and now to the Marine Corps infantry. Brooks makes clear that Adam I isn’t bad—but he is tragically incomplete.

In the process of frantically digging deeper into the well of Adam I, we have inadvertently buried the well of Adam II. Brooks writes, “My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate.” He cites the work of Notre Dame’s Christian Smith, who studied the moral lives of American college students in his 2011 book Lost in Transition. Smith found that two thirds of his study subjects could not describe a moral problem in their lives, or if they did, it wasn’t moral at all—like not having enough quarters for a parking meter. This is the moral drama of our modern age.

Our peril is the precipice of meritocracy without a soul, where every occasion and person becomes a means to our own ends. Brooks writes, “The meaning of the word ‘character’ changes. It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely.” We will all become shrewder animals, and as Brooks writes, “The shrewd animal has streamlined his inner humanity to make his ascent more aerodynamic.” One does not have to look far in history, or our society today, to see where streamlined inner humanity takes us.

There is no seven-step self-help program or listicle of life hacks sufficient to build our Adam II lives. Brooks argues that we must do two things. First, we must immerse ourselves in the lives of outstanding people and seek to understand the wisdom they embodied. Second, we must relearn the moral realism of our forebears and embark on the great moral adventures of Adam II. As G.K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy, one must “seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it.” We must submit ourselves in service of what life demands of us, in the particular lives of our neighbors, and in our numerous duties. In the purifying fire of our duties, struggles, self-control, and selflessness, we bust the rust off the soul, scouring away stagnancy and endowing Adam II with the true wealth of inner virtue.

The majority of The Road to Character focuses on immersing the reader in the lives of outstanding people. Brooks obviously worked with some excellent collaborators; the depth of research into the diaries, letters, and biographies of his subjects is profound. Every reader will find someone to connect with.

A particularly outstanding profile is that of Dorothy Day. Her life embodied noble struggle, following a wild trajectory of immature religiosity, virulent radicalism, disorder, personal upheaval, and finally self-discipline and heroic service.

Day was born with a passionate nature, the daughter of a distant father and troubled mother in a home filled with gloomy silence. She bloomed intellectually, winning a scholarship to the University of Illinois, where she joined the Socialist Party and embraced a virulent and confrontational atheism. She dropped out to write in New York City where she became a leftist radical and advocate for the poor. Day wound up leading a chaotic Bohemian lifestyle that included a pregnancy and abortion from her relationship with a cruel newspaperman named Lionel Moise. She attempted suicide. She married a rich man for his money, used him to travel to Europe, and then left him on her return. She was arrested once for public disturbance while protesting, and later was mistaken for a prostitute and arrested when the police raided her drug addict friend’s apartment on Skid Row.

Imprisonment sparked Day’s extraordinary self-scrutiny and self-criticism. She felt a deep spiritual hunger and renounced the life she was leading. She wrote in her memoir, “The strong could make their own law, live their own lives; in fact they were beyond good and evil. What was good and what was evil? It is easy enough to stifle conscience for a time. The satisfied flesh has its own law.” She dove into literature for a time and found a new lover named Forster Batterham who would father her only daughter, Tamar. Batterham, a political radical who abhorred the bourgeois institution of marriage, wanted nothing of their new family. The “rush and roar of the cataclysm” of her daughter’s birth was a spiritual revolution for Day, and her transformation into a committed Catholic slowly began. She was drawn to Catholicism not by Church history or politics—her initial predispositions were radically opposed to Church authority—but instead by the Catholic immigrants she covered and served, awed by their poverty and dignity and generosity. She would eventually give up everything for the Church.

Day was drawn to the structure of the Christian faith. Brooks writes, “She decided that even though she would have found it more pleasant to spend Sunday mornings reading the papers, she preferred the church to her own will.” Her conversion was not comprised of fireworks and gratification – she recalls it as a dreary and joyless time in her memoir. Batterham left her and her daughter in protest. Her daughter, Tamar, was baptized in July 1927, and Day joined the Catholic Church that December. The arduous path she chose would define her life, as she came to see in the Catholics around her “that Catholicism was something rich and real and fascinating. … I saw them wrestling with moral problems, with the principles by which they lived, and this made them noble in my eyes.” The rituals and sacraments of the Church created a spiritual center of her life that resisted fragmentation. This provided the foundation for the newspaper she founded called The Catholic Worker and the tireless social work she did till her death in 1980. She was relentless in her writing of articles for the paper, raising money, serving coffee and soup, and bearing witness to the totality of Catholic social teaching.

Brooks considers her a saint—not ethereal, but “more fully of this earth, more fully engaged in the dirty, practical problems of the people around them.” She served heroically, yet never dropped her guard against her own spiritual pride. She wrote, “The hunger of my ears can be as severe as someone else’s stomach hunger; the joy of hearing those expressions of gratitude.” She embraced the fearful gift of suffering and lived alongside the poor. Her example has inspired generations of young Catholics since.

The Road to Character does not describe perfect people. Instead, it shows that its subjects’ moral heroism is often born of brokenness. Day could be solitary and aloof, and as a young mother traveling to run a social movement, she often sacrificed her relationship with her only daughter. We have much to learn from imperfect people who share our frailties.

I believe that Day’s life holds an important message for us today. Brooks writes, “The bourgeois culture of commerce could merge with the bohemian culture of the 1960s precisely because both favored individual liberation, both encouraged people to measure their lives by how they were able to achieve self-gratification.” Day was countercultural because she surrendered her self. It was not an instrumental act. Day did not endure this suffering directly to improve the material conditions of the poor, or to launch a popular newspaper or her personal fame. Day sought to be Christ-like and provide a model for Christians to not only serve the poor, but also address their own inner brokenness as they served. The Adam I virtues were products of Adam II adventures.

Our culture today celebrates total liberation in every sphere of life. We maintain a single-minded focus on Adam I. As equipoise, Brooks proposes re-acquaintance with moral heroes of the past who can inspire our own inner virtues, and a reintroduction of moral realism in our schools and other institutions. At the end of The Road to Character, Brooks offers a “Humility Code” with a number of maxims that anyone would do well to print out and hang on their wall. Numbering over ten, they include, “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” and “Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed.”

Brooks has written this book as part of an effort to improve the Adam II lives of its readers—yet he acknowledges that it is not enough to contemplate the Adam II virtues. They must be lived and embedded in the daily routines and habits and institutions of life. Our moral adventures will be lived out in the public square and in our families. What we are is what we do. Contra Brooks, however, I am pessimistic that Adam II can flourish within broader American popular culture. Adam I has become our idol, and America will have no other idols before him so long as he sends rain.

Isaiah Berg

Isaiah Berg is a United States Marine Corps infantry officer with the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. He hails from a family farm in Starkweather, North Dakota, and is a graduate of Dartmouth College.