Does character matter?
Weaving wisdom and insight with the life stories of fascinating people, in The Road to Character, David Brooks offers a much needed book. Each chapter focuses on a different person and theme. Through the lives of people like Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Augustine, Samuel Johnson and Montaigne, we consider dignity, struggle, self-mastery, love, self-examination and more.
begins, though, with the categories of Adam I and Adam II–Adam I being external-oriented and achievement-oriented while Adam II is internally focused, seeking inner character. Adam II seeks to embody certain moral qualities, to have an inner center, a sense of calling. While we are all no doubt a mix of Adam I and Adam II, Brooks pays special attention in this book to Adam II.
One theme he notes is that several people he highlights, like Frances Perkins (the first woman U.S. cabinet member), were socially liberal and daring but personally conservative–self-disciplined, guarding against self-glorification. Perkins was reticent, private, kept her personal life separate. But in public life she pushed the boundaries for women and for workers.
Another theme is what Brooks refers to as the “crooked timber” school of humanity, people who are very aware of their flaws and as a result, push against their bent selves to achieve strength. This is especially highlighted in the moral realism of Samuel Johnson, Dorothy Day and George Eliot.
Related to this, Brooks sees sin is a valuable concept. “Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to f___ things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. Sin, when it is committed over and over again, hardens into a loyalty to a lower love” (p. 55).
last chapter he makes the case that the shift from a culture of humility to a culture of the Big Me, from emphasis on people of depth to people with a thin veneer, has not come over the last fifty years. Certainly there has been plenty of self-promoting individualism during that time.
Rather, the shift came about two hundred years ago with the rise of the romantic movement. Realists distrusted the self while romantics idealized the self. Interestingly, Brooks says we need both dimensions. The problem is that the romantic side has overwhelmed the moral realist side in recent decades, and we need to rebalance.
This is an extremely worthwhile book that pushes us to answer many key questions for ourselves:
How is character formed?
How do achievement or character go together and fight against each other?
What have we found helpful in cultivating an inner life?
What hinders us from developing character?
And, yes, does character matter?