The crooked-timber tradition of how to live and what to live for

Road to Character coverOn the first page of the Introduction, David Brooks establishes the framework for this book by distinguishing between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The one kind you list on applications for work and the other kind is recited at your funeral. Eulogy virtues, Brooks writes, are generally a better sign of your character than those given in résumés. He then cites Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 book Lonely Man of Faith in which the writer refers to the two accounts of creation in Genesis and argues that they “represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he calls Adam I and Adam II” (xi).

We could say, Brooks continues, “that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature” who wants to build, create, produce, and discover things.” In contrast, Adam II is the internal Adam” who “wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good” (xii).

We live in a culture, Brooks continues, that nurtures Adam I and neglects Adam II. In order to combat this tendency, we need to focus strongly on the inner values and resist the tendency toward shallowness. “A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.” At this point, some readers may be inclined to dismiss Brooks’ newest book as another example of over-generalization on the basis of a modest body of factual data. How can any writer speak as though there is one culture in a nation as large and complex as the United States? Even segments of the American people—such as a generation, or those living in a particular region, or an ethnic or sociologically defined group—are too complicated to be summarized in a few paragraphs or pages.

Despite this reservation, two reasons can be given for continuing with the book. The first is that Brooks’ main purpose is not to analyze American culture but to recommend a pattern of character development that he believes to have been widely inculcated in past generations but since World War II has waned significantly.

He advocates that people today reacquaint themselves with a previously prominent road to character by examining “an older moral ecology” and hearing the stories of people who have walked the road that strengthened their eulogy virtues. Reviewing movies, TV performances, and other evidences of popular culture after World War II, Brooks discerns “a strain of humility” that was deeply ingrained in people and marked the way that they thought of themselves. There was a strong sense of self-effacement. He uses the phrase “the little me” to describe this character trait that stretches back centuries. In more recent times, however, the social code emphasizes “the big me,” There has been an “apparent rise in self-esteem [and] a tremendous increase in the desire for fame” (7).

A second reason for staying with Brooks is that the main part of the book is interesting and fruitful even if readers are skeptical about his primary thesis. It consists of character studies of eight people each of whom “exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character.” The character traits listed in the chapter headings and the persons portrayed in these chapters indicate the breadth of Brooks’ exposition: The Summoned Self—Frances Perkins; Self-Conquest—Dwight D. Eisenhower; Struggle—Dorothy Day; Self-Mastery—George Catlett Marshall; Dignity—A. Phillip Randolph; Love—George Eliot; Ordered Love—Augustine; Self-Examination—Samuel Johnson.

The chapters vary in their detail, but all of them focus on the character-forming challenges the persons experienced rather than on the broad details of their lives and careers. Brooks also provides extended discussions from other literature that explore the character trait that a chapter exemplifies. Although each chapter focuses primarily upon one person, several of them also include interpretations of others who were part of the story. Two examples are Augustine’s mother, Monica, and essayist Montaigne whose way of life contrasted sharply with Samuel Johnson’s. Read moreThe Crooked-Timber Tradition

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One Response to The crooked-timber tradition of how to live and what to live for

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Keith, thanks for this comprehensive review of David Brooks new book “The Road to Character”. He has long been one of the most thoughtful observers and commentators of the past and dynamics at play in emerging new cultural patterns, both that builds and enhances character, and that which does not. You’ve motivated me to get a copy of his latest literary effort.

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