The Road to Character by David Brooks (Random House, 2015)
I read this book on the recommendation of our rector, so I'm sorry to say how much I dislike it. I read it through to the end, hoping it would improve—and because I'm the kind of person who finds it very hard not to finish a book once I've started it, even if I find it depressing.
Generally, I don't read depressing books. If I want to be depressed, I can turn on the news, or spend too much time on social media. As I've said so often, a good book is one that inspires me to be a better person. I don't need books that inspire me to throw up my hands in despair at the state of the world and crawl back into bed.
The sad thing is that this book was intended to have just the opposite effect. From the introduction: This book is about ... how some people have cultivated strong character. It's about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart.
Here's a mystery for you. The above is as much as I had written on this review back in January. The book has long since been returned to the library, and I have absolutely no desire to read it again, not even for a review. But I have pages of quotations that represent a lot of work and would be a shame to waste. In addition, there's the following intriguing quote from C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, which I remember that I included because it struck me as representative of what bothered me about several of the people the author chose to use as his postive role models.
"Well, then, it was jolly rotten of you," said Digory.
"Rotten?" said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look.
"Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I'm sure, and I'm very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys - and servants - and women - and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny."
As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle's face ... and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew's grand words. "All it means," he said to himself, "Is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants."
To the best of my recollection, my quarrel with David Brooks was largely over this attitude; he appears to justify heinous behavior for the sake of a particular character trait he respects. I'm sorry I can't give concrete examples, but the book really isn't worth rereading to find them. Take my word for it, or not.
But the book's not all bad, so here are the quotations:
From the introduction
Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.
They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments. They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either— but right through every human heart.”
These are the people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. ... These are the people we are looking for.
From Chapter 1: The Shift
It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II. This little contrast set off a chain of thoughts in my mind. It occurred to me that this shift might symbolize a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self-promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.”
For example, between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn't 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls.
Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention… I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary… Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”
Along with this apparent rise in self-esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals. In one study, middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second, and Paris Hilton third. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant— for example, Justin Bieber’s—than president of Harvard. (Though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure the president of Harvard would also rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.)
Frankly, if I learn that the last statement is true, I will lose all respect for the president of Harvard.
People who live this way believe that character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core. If you don’t have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will happen.
[C]haracter is built not only through austerity and hardship. It is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and then absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and earn their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions. Through devotion to some cause, you elevate your desires and organize your energies. Moreover, the struggle against the weaknesses in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside— from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way.
The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage this struggle well—joyfully and compassionately. [British author Henry] Fairlie writes, “At least if we recognize that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.”
People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”
From Chapter 3: Moderation (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
[T]he moderate knows she cannot have it all. There are tensions between rival goods, and you just have to accept that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life, devoted to one truth or one value. The moderate has limited aspirations about what can be achieved in public life. The paradoxes embedded into any situation do not allow for a clean and ultimate resolution. You expand liberty at the cost of encouraging license. You crack down on license at the cost of limiting liberty. There is no escaping this sort of trade-off. The moderate can only hope to have a regulated character, stepping back to understand opposing perspectives and appreciating the merits of each. The moderate understands that political cultures are traditions of conflict. There are never-ending tensions that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism. The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate can only hope to achieve a balance that is consistent with the needs of the moment. The moderate does not believe there are some policy solutions that are right for all times (this seems obvious, but the rule is regularly flouted by ideologues in nation after nation). The moderate does not admire abstract schemes but understands that it is necessary to legislate along the grain of human nature, and within the medium in which she happens to be placed.
The best moderate is skeptical of zealotry because he is skeptical of himself. He distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity because he know that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right.
Let's hear that again: in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right.
Eisenhower warned the country against belief in quick fixes. Americans, he said, should never believe that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” He warned against human frailty, particularly the temptation to be shortsighted and selfish. He asked his countrymen to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” Echoing the thrifty ethos of his childhood, he reminded the nation that we cannot “mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” He warned, most famously, about the undue concentration of power, and the way unchecked power could lead to national ruin. He warned first about the military-industrial complex—“a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” He also warned against “a scientific-technological elite,” a powerful network of government-funded experts who might be tempted to take power away from the citizenry. Like the nation’s founders, he built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.
This was the speech of a man who had been raised to check his impulses and had then been chastened by life. It was the speech of a man who had seen what human beings are capable of, who had felt in his bones that man is a problem to himself. It was the speech of a man who used to tell his advisers “Let’s make our mistakes slowly,” because it was better to proceed to a decision gradually than to rush into anything before its time. This is the lesson that his mother and his upbringing had imparted to him decades before. This was a life organized not around self-expression, but self-restraint.
Although I was around during Eisenhower's administration, I knew nothing of his politics (and, frankly, that's still true). But this chapter makes me wish he'd been the one to craft our national health insurance policy. "Let's make our mistakes slowly" is so far from today's attitude, prevalent among politicians, manufacturers, and software developers, of "Let's throw something together and fix it later."
From Chapter 4: Struggle
[quoting Dorothy Day] “one of the hardest things in the world is to organize ourselves and discipline ourselves.”
From Chapter 5: Self-Mastery
The work of the Roman biographer Plutarch is based on the premise that the tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.” In 1943, Richard Winn Livingstone wrote, “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal. We detect in others, and occasionally in ourselves, the want of courage, of industry, of persistence, which leads to defeat. But we do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good.”
One more time: We do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good.
From Chapter 7: Love
Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses, and general disruption that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer programs to improve their lives, but they may not take full advantage of them because they don’t have confidence that they can control their own destinies.
Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self-control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don’t have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening. But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. A person who loves his town does not love his country less. Love expands with use.
He's right about love, but I’m certain, despite recent studies, that he is wrong about self-control. Perhaps it is true in the short term, but I’m convinced that over time, self-control gained in one area makes it easier to gain self-control in another. Using his own analogy, muscles grow by use.
From Chapter 9: Self-Examination
The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit—loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness.” This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.
Today many writers see literature and art only in aesthetic terms, but [Samuel] Johnson saw them as moral enterprises. He hoped to be counted among those writers who give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.” He added, “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better.” As [literary critic Paul] Fussell puts it, “Johnson, then, conceives of writing as something very like a Christian sacrament, defined in the Anglican catechism as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us.’ ”
Many try to avoid sorrow by living timid lives. Many try to relieve sorrow by forcing themselves to go to social events. Johnson does not approve of these stratagems. Instead, he advises, “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment…. Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away. It is the putrefaction of stagnant life and is remedied by exercise and motion.”
From Chapter 10: The Big Me
If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.
According to an Ernst & Young survey, 65 percent of college students expect to become millionaires. … parents with college degrees invest $5,700 more per year per child on out-of-school enrichment activities than they did in 1978.
I include the statements in the last paragraph just because they exemplify one of my pet peeves with writers who throw numbers around casually. The author thinks he is supporting his points, but these numbers are meaningless. "Millionaire" does not mean the same thing in 2016 as it did 100 years ago, when there were just over 200 in the whole country of 102 million people.* And a bare figure like "$5,700 more" means nothing unless you know whether or not it has been adjusted for inflation, which between 1978 and now was 363%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What's the point of using numbers in this way? At best they confuse; at worst they deceive.
*I know you're curious. Today American millionaires number about 10.4 million out of a population of 323 million or so. If you think there's been a lot of inflation since 1978....