Sunday, February 28, 2016

David Brooks: The Road to Character

This is not a book I would have read, but it related well to a journal article I was writing-- and the editor of the journal recommended it. To me, the title is needlessly vague and even off-putting. That said, the book is an easy read and worth your time, particularly for conservatives and communitarians who enjoy biography. 

Brooks provides a diverse set of brief biographic sketches and series of anecdotes. Aside from George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and Augustine, Brooks’ stories are from the 20th century, ranging from Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath to Dorothy Day and General George C. Marshall. The vignettes are interesting in and of themselves. But Brooks' goal is to call us back to the pursuit of character. So, the stories are chosen to illustrate various moral principles and social trends

is primarily motivated by a theme developed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Man is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). But God is portrayed in strikingly different terms in Genesis 1 and 2, leading Soloveitchik to posit two different natures inherent in man: Adam I and Adam II (xi-xvii).
Following the majestic God of Creation in Genesis 1, Adam I is “the external, resume Adam [who] wants to build, create, produce and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.” (xii) Following the personal God who walks in the Garden with man in Genesis 2, Adam II is “the internal Adam” who wants to “love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities” (xii).
Brooks reduces these to “resume values” vs. “eulogy values”. Resume values have a focus on success and accomplishment. Eulogy values are the high-character traits that one wants to leave as a legacy. God exhibits both perfectly; man lives in the tension of both—quite imperfectly. How do we “succeed” while avoiding pride? How do we fulfill the mandate given to Adam I, while staying grounded in the self-sacrificing, redemptive goals of Adam II? “The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction.” (15)
Despite its limitations, Adam I usually gets the lion’s share of attention. The World avidly pursues it; the Flesh finds it alluring; and the Devil is happy to work with both to tempt us. In Genesis 3, Satan appeals to the Flesh and the values of the World to tempt Adam and Eve to sin against God. God doesn’t know or want what’s best for them—and so, going their own way and achieving success in their own terms becomes a temptation they will not forsake. Jesus is tempted in a similar manner in Matthew 4—the Devil trying to sell the values of the World to the Flesh—but Jesus avoids the temptation by appealing to three passages from Deuteronomy on the character and promises of God.
Brooks argues that we had a far-greater emphasis on Adam II until the 1950s, but lost much of it through “the greatest generation” (245). Tom Brokaw (1997) popularized this term and argued that this was “the greatest generation” because of its amazing accomplishments, motivated by “doing the right thing” rather than fame or other trappings.
Brooks does not argue directly against Brokaw’s narrative, but claims that things changed dramatically once the pressures of economics and war were removed. Brooks sees the Great Depression and World War II as catalysts for people (reasonably) wanting an easier life. After 16 years of brutal economic conditions, a devastating war, and an unimaginable Holocaust, people were “ready to let loose, to relax, to enjoy” (245). Brooks observes that consumption and advertising expanded rapidly. And the most popular books of the day (245-246) emphasized “peace of mind” (Joshua Liebman), positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale), an optimistic humanist psychology (Harry Overstreet and Carl Rogers), and lax child-raising (Benjamin Spock).
Brooks also points to the growth of “authenticity” grounded in subjective forms of self-expression (249-250). Authenticity can be under-valued, especially in a world that emphasizes “objective realities”. But a fully-subjective authenticity can lead to a range of problems. Brooks points to a mindset that diminished the concept of sin and relegated it to “the external structures of society”. (250) Instead, “sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair…[and] because sin is a communal.” (54) When “the Devil made me do it” dominates repentance and  when the sins of others (individuals or institutions) trump the sins within, narcissism and blame-shifting are the likely fruits.
Overarching historical narratives (whether Brokaw or Brooks) tend to over-reach and simplify. But we do know that the popularly acclaimed parents of the 1950s produced the children of the 1960s—and the myriad of social, cultural, and political problems that followed. Whatever the cause and effect of the problems we see today, what are the approaches that promise the most help?
Brooks advocates a return to 15 tenets of what he calls “the humility code”. (261-267) His list is too long to replicate here, but it can be reduced to “the fruit of the Spirit”—or related inferences—from Galatians 5:22-23a: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”.  Paul wraps up that section of his letter with a funny little quip: “Against such things there is no law.” Nobody is bothered when these fruits are practiced and exhibited. But those fruits cannot be achieved through laws.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home