Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Book Reviews

Profiles in Humility

James K.A. Smith

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement; Judd Mehlman/New York Daily News Archive/Getty.

Where is virtue to be found?

David Brooks clearly intends his newest book to be nothing less than a moral education, an invitation into a different “moral ecology,” as he puts it. What’s sad is that such a remedial offering is necessary. In a healthy culture, we don’t need such books: We have parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and priests and rabbis who walk with us on the road to character. Our moral educations should happen at dinner tables, in classrooms, on football fields, in synagogues and churches. But when an entire society’s moral ecology is captive to self-expression and the nurturance of “Big Me,” even these traditional spaces become outposts of Self-Esteem, Inc. That’s why we need books like The Road to Character—as a summons to remember what even our “traditional” schools of virtue have forgot.

Brooks is forthright about this countercultural posture: “The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture. The answer must be to join a counterculture. To live a decent life, to build up the soul, it’s probably necessary to declare that the forces that encourage the Big Me, while necessary and liberating in many ways, have gone too far.” In the end, such “standing against” comes down to remembering. To cultivate such virtues, he concludes, “it’s probably necessary to revive and follow what we accidentally left behind: the counter-tradition of moral realism”—what he describes as the “crooked-timber school” of Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin. In a society captive to romantic dreams, life is one big adventure of releasing “my” inner goodness, realizing “my” precious uniqueness. For the crooked-timber school, life is a call to self-combat, the arduous quest to master our disordered nature. (Brooks doesn’t shrink from calling this, simply, “sin.”)

As he tried to do in his 2011 book The Social Animal, Brooks uses names and places to concretize abstract concepts. The book is framed by a distinction, drawn from the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” These two “characters” represent two sides of our nature. Adam I is driven, ambitious, career oriented. He is fixated on “résumé virtues”—the traits and accomplishments that land you the next job up the ladder. Adam II, in contrast, is playing a longer game, cultivating “eulogy virtues”—the sort of character traits “that get talked about at your funeral.” Adam II cultivates a life of introspection. He is a member of the crooked-timber school precisely because when he looks inside he sees the demons and monsters of his own nature. Adam II is on the road to character, and Brooks wants us to join him.

The book’s implied audience is probably narrower than the author expects. The presumed reader is a meritocratic animal of the kind you find living on the coasts, in urban centers, and in training at the nation’s best colleges—a type bred for achievement and bent on success, of a sort. (A mentor to Ivy League undergraduates once described his students to me as “world-class hoop-jumpers.”) Having written in the past about the bobos in paradise, Brooks is now largely writing to them. In terms of Charles Murray’s trope in Coming Apart, Brooks has written a book that will speak to those in Belmont; I’m not sure readers in Fishtown will see themselves in it. Which is a shame, because it’s not just the meritocracy that needs to rediscover the virtues.

Aristotle emphasized two ways to acquire virtue: through practice and by watching exemplars, imitating those who embody a virtuous life. Appropriately, Brooks’s method in The Road to Character picks up on the second track: He pictures virtues in people, tethering them to lives well lived, ranging from Augustine and George Eliot to Dorothy Day and George C. Marshall (as well as some less canonical candidates like Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin). The result is a series of profiles in humility, a hall of fame of character stocked with figures who eschewed the spotlight and would likely cringe at the attention. But of course that’s exactly why we need to look at them, despite the fact that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West keep trying to jump into the frame. It is the quiet, understated beauty of these exemplars that gives them their allure and makes them curiosities that might get our attention in the age of the selfie.

Many of these profiles are both informative and moving, introducing character through a cast of characters who often experienced failure, disappointment, and suffering. The animating conviction of the crooked-timber school is that virtuous people are made, not born. (It’s romantic devotees of Rousseau who fancy that our goodness is original.) So Brooks is interested in the backstories of great leaders and activists; in each profile, he focuses on childhood formation as the fount of later virtue. Indeed, the “moral country” he invites us into is one where home is often an incubator of character, without pretending these homes are always idyllic. Dwight D. Eisenhower was apprenticed in humility, self-control, and patience in a tiny dwelling on the Kansas plain. Augustine was a going concern of his mother, Monica, to whom he paid tribute in his Confessions. Despite deep differences that engendered a veritable “Holy War” with her father, after his death George Eliot asked, “What shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if part of my moral nature were gone.”

Perhaps the most heartening takeaway from The Road to Character is that many of these greats—including Eisenhower and Marshall—were “stumblers,” as Brooks calls them, folks who learned humility the hard way. There is not a hint of hagiography in these portraits: The celebration of character comes complete with warts and foibles and disappointment. Brooks calls this “the U-curve”: “They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.”

Marshall’s story is particularly affecting in this regard. Lacking academic prowess, dismissed by his father and mocked by his brother, he nonetheless submitted himself to the disciplines and rigors of the monastery-like Virginia Military Institute. Its traditions and routines were like grooves his soul could run in: “He found a way of living and a pattern of discipline exactly to his liking.” He could breathe and work and become his own man in the military. But even then he was passed over for promotions and field commands. So Marshall began to devote himself to acquiring a masterful command of logistics and operations—“not exactly the glamor side of military life.” He cultivated the “institutional mindset” so in danger of becoming extinct today. Perhaps his greatest heartbreak was being passed over as commander of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France in World War II. Marshall’s response was magnanimous: Not only did he devote himself to the (no less important) logistical side of the operation, he even saved a copy of the memo appointing Eisenhower to the command, later sending it to Ike with a handwritten note of congratulations. Marshall’s quiet leadership would later win him the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the unstinting respect of everyone around him, who, Brooks relates, uniformly recognized him as “great-souled.” Upon his death in 1959, it became known that he wanted no state funeral, simply a “short, plain service at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, using the standard Order of the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer, with no eulogy.” One who most deserved words of praise was the one who refused them. Brooks makes up for it in his chapter here.

Not until I read The Road to Character would I have regarded David Brooks as a kind of twenty-first-century Samuel Johnson. But Brooks’s profile of Johnson’s tenacity, humanism, and self-examination might double as a peek into both Brooks and this new book. As he succinctly puts it, “Johnson more or less wrote himself to virtue,” and readers of Brooks’s New York Times columns over the last several years might say the same of him. Indeed, it’s hard not to read his description of Johnson as aspirational self-description: “Especially toward the end of his life, it becomes hard to categorize his writing. His journalism rose to the level of literature; his biographies contained ethics; his theology was filled with practical advice. He became a universal thinker.”

The big challenge for this book is that it will be ignored, even dismissed, by those who need it most. Those eager to read The Road to Character are likely already receptive to its argument, whereas those who inhabit the moral ecology of self-expression and so-called authenticity are also most comfortable with ironic distance and haughty confidence in their own righteousness. Brooks’s argument cuts to the root of this: There’s no character without discipline. There’s no discipline without submission. And there’s no submission without something beyond me. How do you get people to want to submit? How do you open people to something beyond themselves? How do you invite people to sign up for ancient traditions? Our best shot is to paint portraits of virtuous lives that have a strange allure about them, whose old-souled strangeness exerts an inexplicable tug on our souls.

Maybe you just have to wait people out. “Adam I aims for happiness,” Brooks notes, “but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys.” After the way of self-expression fails to arrive at satisfaction, the road to character will remain open.