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The Road to Character

David Brooks
Published by Random House in 2015

Kevin Ryan is Director Emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University.

David Brooks has written a book of moral philosophy that quickly jumped to The New York Times’ Best Seller list and lasted there for 22 weeks. Brooks is a regular columnist for the Times and a weekly commentator on both National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. This is Brooks’ fourth work of non-fiction, the other three being treatises on contemporary American society.

The Road to Character is composed of an introduction and 10 chapters. The Introduction and the first and tenth chapters lay out Brooks’ argument on the current moral health of the nations, the desirability of pursuing good character and specific recommendation on how to form one’s character. Each of the middle eight chapters are devoted to biographical sketches of a range of historical figures: Frances Perkins, Generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans], St. Augustine, and Samuel Adams.

Having stated his views on what constitutes good character, Brooks uses the eight biographies to illustrate various aspects and principles that constitute or contribute to the formation of good character. Each of these engaging biographical sketches contributes to the author’s major thesis: among great contributors to world progress, character frequently was formed well into adulthood, and often forged by personal crises.

Brooks is the product of an undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. He is a Burkian conservative and, therefore, holds to certain intellectual principles which are somewhat out of fashion in today’s academy. Principles such as a reverence for the past and its traditions, a sense of human limitations, enduring truths, and the worth of slow, incremental change over fevered revolution. While not explicit in the text, they provide the intellectual platform upon which he makes his case.

What further distinguishes this book on what is currently called “character education” is the depth and breadth of the sources he draws upon to make his case. Most of the books on moral and character education that have been written in the last three decades have been written by university professors who all too frequently write on this subject as if it were discovered by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1950s. Brooks, a journalist, draws on the thought of such thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Charles Taylor, Aristotle, Plato, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, David Hume, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Balthasar Gracian, Sigmund Freud, St. Teresa of Avila, Emanuel Kant, and Johnny Unitas. In this, he acknowledges the long history of human concern for this topic and draws heavily on this treasure of thought.

Human character is, of course, at the center of this book and Brooks bases his understand of character on Aristotle. That is, “Man becomes virtuous by doing virtuous acts. He becomes kind by doing kind acts. …” He quotes Anthony T. Kronman describing character as “an ensemble of settled dispositions—of habitual feelings and desires” (57). Brooks makes this definition more practical by referring to Henry James writings on the habits which constitute good character. According to James, a moral habit or virtue is acquired by repeated actions, by “engraving” the habit on one’s being. On the other hand, character is strengthened by eliminating immoral habits or vices by systematically not giving into them. This very direct and practical method of character formation is reminiscent of young Benjamin Franklin, who as a poor boy yearned to be a gentleman. Franklin drew up a chart of the 12 virtues which he believed a gentleman possessed. Each night before bed, Franklin graded himself on how he behaved that day vis-à-vis each virtue. In addition, each month he selected one virtue for intense focus. The rest, as they say, is history.

A major theme introduced early and running through the book is Adam I versus Adam II. Adam I represents our ambitious side, our drive to get ahead and succeed. Adam II stands for our internal side, the part of us that desires to be good and do good. That is the part that wants to be of service to others and live a peaceful interior life. Brooks posits that today these two Adams live in great tension with one another. Adam I’s motto and driving source is success, while Adam II’s motto is charity, love, and redemption.

Brooks posits that this is the internal battlefield of our lives, but comes at this point another way. Adam I is busy promoting himself, building what Brooks calls “résumé” values. We perform actions to look good in the eyes of the world. Students are urged to do “service projects” because that will help them get into a “good college,” which will help them get a good, high-paying job, which will help them get into a top golf club and on and on. In contrast, we ought to be developing “eulogy” values. That is, we ought to think of what kind of a life we are building and what we hope people will say about us at our funeral. “She was always helping others.” “He was the first to volunteer for a difficult job and he always did it to perfection.”

Brooks lays out the case for Adam II and clearly favors that our lives be directed toward eulogy values. Nevertheless, that central question of our post-Christian era emerges: “Why be good?” Brooks, who is known to be a secular Jew, offers two answers. The answer to the secular reader is something on the order of, “Because it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a good in itself.” While satisfying to some, this reviewer wonders whether this answer is enough to keep in check Adam I’s dark side, his aggressive, selfish nature. Or what Kant refers to, and Brooks cites, as man’s “twisted timber.” On the other hand, Brooks gives a great deal of respectful attention to the classic, religious answer to the question, “Why be good?” The book is filled with religious and theological terms and concepts. Among them are sacred purpose, human weakness, shame, humility, pride, benevolence, lust, and sin. At one point he refers to the need to reclaim and modernize terms such as “sin,” “vocation,” and “soul.”

Sin, of course, is as out of fashion in today’s public discourse as petticoats. Modern culture buries the notion of sin with words like “error” and “weakness” and degrades words such as “vice” and “evil.” But sophisticated Brooks marches sin into the public discourse. “Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture” (34), Brooks reminds us.

Brooks, if not on a personal religious journey himself, is making a strong case to the secular community for the need to rethink its rejection of religious concepts. A co-member of my Bible Study group reported that she read The Road to Character as spiritual reading. I suspect Brooks would be pleased.

The final chapter is both a sharp critique of modern American society and the culture we have developed. However, Brooks then gets quite specific about how we broken souls can reform. In the section on his “Humility Code,” he outlines 15 specifics steps we can engage in to acquire virtue and develop our inner Adam II. This chapter alone makes this book a strong contribution to the popular writing on character.

Character and its formation during the course of a life are, of course, huge topics. Brooks has chosen to focus on the character development of adults. While certainly a proper target, it is disappointing that forming the good character of children and adolescence is not within the book’s ken. Brooks surely recognizes the importance of forming the habits and moral dispositions of young people during the more plastic period of their youth. I am sure that he recognizes that our public schools [that educates 90% of American children and currently spends over 12,000 taxpayer dollars per student] have dramatically retreated from moral education and their traditional in loco parentis responsibilities. I am sure, too, that such an acute observer of American society is aware that instead of promoting our nation’s core values, the culture of our public schools promotes our nation’s lower values, such as pervasive vulgarity, an obsession with sex, a fascination with celebrity and violence, and, most concerning, a conception of human happiness keyed to material consumption. These are the values of a corrupt, pleasure-obsessed society, not the core values of the just and caring democracy we claim to be promoting in our schools. One can hope that the success enjoyed by The Road to Character will encourage Brooks to address what appears to be one of the greatest failures of our time.

Finally, it needs to be acknowledged that David Brooks has brought moral philosophy back to front and center of our national dialogue. This book represents a convincing reclamation of lost wisdom about our “twisted timber” nature. But even more important, it is a guidebook on how to engage in life’s most fundamental responsibility, the crafting of our own good character.

Cite this article
Kevin Ryan, “The Road to Character— An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:3 , 269-272

Kevin Ryan

Boston University
Kevin Ryan is Director Emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University.