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.”)