This is a book review. I know, super boring, right? You might be thinking, “Maybe it will start as a book review, and then turn into something really interesting and profound?” But you would be wrong. Because it is literally just me talking about a book.
First things first, even though I loved this book, it is important that I begin with a detailed character assassination of the author. Because all of you should be fully informed of whom we are dealing with. First, David Brooks is a conservative.1
As if that weren’t bad enough, he is also . . . . a Canadian.2
Armed with these two facts,3 I cautiously began reading.
- Who works for the New York Times. So, you know, one of those conservatives.
- So, you know, once again, bear that in mind when I use the word “conservative.”
- Full disclosure—I wasn’t actually aware of these facts when I began reading.
What I Loved: The people he chose to profile.
What I Didn’t Love: Some of his rambling thoughts at the beginning and end of the book.
The Road to Character begins with the identification of a very apt problem (although I don’t necessarily love the framework Brooks uses to explain the problem): Basically, in life, there are resume virtues, and there are eulogy virtues, and in Brooks’ opinion, we spend far too much time on the former, and utterly neglect the latter. I agree. Resume virtues are essentially the attributes we would put on a resume—things we have accomplished. Eulogy virtues are things we want to be remembered for, particularly by those who know us well. Eulogy virtues, far more than resume virtues, might be called character.
Having established this distinction (and then having wasted a few dozen pages belaboring the distinction) Brooks turns to the examples of various individuals from history who, in his view—and in addition to rather impressive resumes—had excellent character. What follows is a brief biography of these historical luminaries, along with his thoughts on what made them great—or, perhaps more accurately, good.
- Frances Perkins, the labor secretary under FDR, and the first woman in the Cabinet
- Dwight Eisenhower (and his mother, Ida Eisenhower), the 34th president of the U.S. and, before that, the man with the coolest sounding title in history (“Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe”)
- Dorothy Day, renowned Catholic social activist
- George Marshall, FDR’s Chief of Staff of the Army during World War II and Truman’s Secretary of State during the rebuilding of Europe and Japan
- Philip Randolph, a prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement, and Bayard Rustin, an openly gay leader of the Civil Rights movement, who worked together to organize the March on Washington
- George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, and her partner, George Lewes
- Augustine, the preeminent Christian philosopher
- And finally the British writer Samuel Johnson and the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
First, let’s be clear that I loved this book in large part because I love biographies. If you find biographies dreadfully boring, then this book probably won’t be of much use to you. But I loved each of these profiles. Here are just a sampling of my favorite insights Brooks gleaned from their sundry lives:
[Perkins] . . . reflected on a distinction that had once seemed unimportant to her. When a person gives a poor man shoes, does he do it for the poor man or for God? He should do it for God, she decided. The poor will often be ungrateful, and you will lose heart if you rely on immediate emotional rewards for your work. But if you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged. A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement. The job doesn’t have to pay off every month, or every year. The person thus called is performing a task because it is intrinsically good, not for what it produces.
[Eliot] despised “men of maxims,” because the “complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. – Elliot
“There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my every-day fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch, for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy.” – Elliot.
The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it.
Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars. . . . You have to draw on something outside yourself to cope with the forces inside yourself. You have to draw from a cultural tradition that educates the heart, that encourages certain values, that teaches us what to feel in certain circumstances. We wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs, and the boundaries between us are indistinct.
There are many more quotes that I might have included—he spends several pages on the nature of sin, and my initial reaction was that I wanted to tear those pages out and read them word for word from the pulpit; it is a sermon everyone needs to hear. Perhaps a later blog post will be dedicated to it.
For now, I will just conclude by noting the elements I loved most of all:
First, Brooks didn’t try to reconcile these individuals’ attributes. On the contrary, at times—with Randolph and Rustin, with Johnson and Montaigne—he seemed to relish comparing blatantly contradictory figures.
The lesson was clear: His “road” to character was not singular. He found no single, foolproof method practiced by all of history’s best men and women that would allow us access to perfection. These people travelled different roads, and even reached different endpoints. Some had virtues that others utterly lacked. Some had vices they never overcame. Some developed negative characteristics in the pursuit of good characteristics. None of this seems to bother Brooks. While he has his complaints about modern life, and doesn’t necessarily leave much to the imagination when it comes to picturing what the ideal person might look like to Brooks, he doesn’t foist this image on you. Rather, he lets you read about people he kind of likes, and lets you draw some lessons from their lives. At the end of the day, he is not all that bothered by the contradictions. Instead, he rather obliquely notes in the conclusion that “Legitimate truths sit in tension with one another”—a very true sentiment. In doing so, he seems to be acknowledging the validity of Eliot’s observation: Maxims aren’t that useful, because life is rather complex.
Second, Brooks succeeds in reminding readers of where their priorities really should lie. Too much of his book, perhaps, is a peon call to days-gone-by that likely never existed in the first place. While he offers a full-throated acknowledgment that yesteryear was regrettably filled with far greater racism, sexism, and homophobia than today—an acknowledgment he deserves credit for, since not all 1950s-obsessed conservatives admit it—his constant refrains to ‘how things used to be’ gets tiring. Yet buried in all of it, he has still succeeded in identifying a number of modern flaws; he rightly points out some of our cultural priorities are unsustainable. I am more convinced than ever that character does matter, and that the modern-day world does not naturally breed character in children. We can dispute whether any previous society has been successful in bestowing children with so-called character education, but we should agree that it is not currently very successful in the endeavor, and that we should be concerned by that.
And finally, perhaps my favorite point, and in opposition to so many self-help books that are available today, Brooks not only identifies, but revels in, the fact that ‘self-help’ is not an individual enterprise. A better attitude, positive thinking, loving ourselves, etc., etc., while potentially important, will not in and of themselves ever really determine who we are. Such attributes may make us more susceptible to change—but it is in our interactions with others that the change actually happens. This is important to me. The line between self-help and selfishness is thin. This book recognizes that self-fulfillment is important; snarky comments about the value of suffering and the distinction between happiness and joy and fulfillment aside, at its core, Brooks does seem to want people to live a good life, difficult though it may be to define it. But such a life comes by stepping outside—not in endless self-reflection. Too often self-help books don’t emphasize enough the value of community and friendship and interdependence. Yet I believe those things are vital to our emotional and mental well-being.
So if you like self-help books, or if you just like history or biography, I would highly recommend this book. It in many ways embodies one of my favorite quotes from Les Miserables:
Now, to us, in history where goodness is the, pearl of great, price, he who has been good stands almost above him who has been great.