“I have a natural disposition toward shallowness.” That’s a curious line from someone engaged on an exhaustive quest to plumb the depths of human character in a best-selling book, but it sets a tone for the main themes circulating in New York Times columnist and PBS commentator David Brooks’s most recent work, The Road to Character.
Brooks’s self-effacement (“I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am…”) mirrors much of what follows as he takes us on brief biographical tours of various figures he considers moral exemplars through history. His goal is to seek guideposts and commonalities among people of great character, in the hope that he and his readers can be informed, uplifted and inspired to cultivate and improve their own.
It’s an interesting and somewhat disjointed approach. Sometimes it casts great and deep insight into critical internal qualities of people who live with a passion to do great things and thereby lead meaningful lives. (Or is it the other way around?)
Other times, the potpourri of biographical sketches have a hopscotching quality, wherein Brooks tosses down a beanbag full of quick reflections linking his theme to events in the person’s life and then pauses to muse and elaborate on them before he brings another figure into brief focus in the next square.
Among the figures populating those squares before I let the hopscotch metaphor go: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (the first female cabinet member of the United States, 1933-1945), Catholic Worker founder and social justice activist Dorothy Day, civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, General George C. Marshall, President Dwight Eisenhower, and 19th century Victorian novelist George Eliot. Then reaching farther back into history: 18th century writer and all-around icon of brilliance Samuel Johnson, 16th century philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, and the 4th century’s St. Augustine of Hippo, renowned saint and early Christian theologian whose life and work still figure prominently in modern philosophical and intellectual thought.
What stands out about these and the other lives whose contours Brooks examines after immersing in their biographies?
Probably chief among them is a deep sense of humility and self-effacement (which often become conflated with self-denial, of which I will say more below).
For all of their towering achievements, most of these figures were laid low in a profound emotional-psychological-spiritual sense at some point in their lives, brought to their knees not so much by pure circumstance as by a humbling realization of their own failings and imperfection as human beings. Yet rather than shrink them, these failures provided them with renewed direction, vigor and need to make something of their lives in the service of humanity.
This emphasis on the overarching importance of humility stands in stark contrast to much of the messaging in modern media and educational culture, where just the opposite theme prevails: You’re awesome, one-of-a-kind, super-duper special!
Not that they ever emerge and sit atop the world in triumph like the football quarterback who not long ago kissed his own biceps on national television after scoring a touchdown. Rather, these people carve out their character inch by inch, resolving every night to continue the struggle against vanity and its attendant horsemen of thinking themselves superior to the rabble and needful of their veneration.
This emphasis on the overarching importance of humility stands in stark contrast to much of the messaging in modern media and educational culture, where just the opposite theme prevails: You’re awesome, one-of-a-kind, super-duper special! Celebrate yourself!
And so you are, in a certain context—see Your Epic Life, for my previous discussion on this theme. Yet it is also axiomatic and of no small importance that human beings don’t amount to squat in the vast stretch of the cosmos, that we may indeed contain multitudes as Walt Whitman says, but that among those multitudes is a Big Humble Nothing, a self that was Nothing for billions of years of this planet’s existence before we were born and will be Nothing again for billions of years after our speck of a life expires.
And whatever their varying expressions of religious faith, Brooks’s heroes all conclude that rather than throw Nothing personal lives away into a deeper Nothingness, they will instead treat those lives with utter seriousness while they are here. If they won’t, who will?
So they will do what they can to “keep the line moving,” as it were, heeding some almost innate and self-transcendent need for service.
Some of this Humility of the Great Person does beget questions of how extreme and denying that humility must be. Often slipping in the door alongside the burning desire to be useful and to better oneself is a kind of penchant for violent swings from one obsession to another. (The atheist becomes a fulminating preacher, the alcoholic an ultramarathon runner.)
Dorothy Day lived a life of intense physical ardor and even promiscuity before her spiritual awakening that arose from something very close to self-disgust. When she did awaken as such, she veered from extreme Bohemianism to extreme asceticism, seemingly with no way station in between where she could affirm both her new life of devotion to service and an acceptance of the abundant gifts of beauty and delight that life also offers us.
Must one choose between these? Day seemed to think so.
“Day was unusual, maybe even perverse, in that she sometimes seemed to seek out suffering as a road to depth,” Brooks writes.
So Day went from writing lavish, erotically charged letters to her man detailing how she was making “a beautiful new nightie, all lacie and exotic, also several pairs of panties you will be interested in, I am sure,” to resolving to live a chaste life that included sleeping in spare unheated rooms through New York winters, wearing donated clothes, taking no salary, often eating, as she chronicles in her journal, “Breakfast, a thick slice of dry bread and some very bad coffee.”
“All around her people were celebrating nature and natural man, but Day believed that natural man is corrupt and is only saved by repressing natural urges,” Brooks writes.
One can’t help but lament that while submerging her Self in the service of her beloved Jesus, she just as surely submerged her joy as well. With his dinners and feasts and exhortations to live for the day, Jesus himself would appear to have been about something more than somber service to outcasts.
It may well be that many great people of great accomplishment must give way to their own great need for extreme effort that somehow becomes extreme denial. But one question arising from many of Brooks’s life-and-character sketches is whether and how that has applicability to the not-so-great.
The self-denying Day, the self-berating Eisenhower, Randolph with his strict “upright carriage” and great aversion to self-exposure, Marshall’s refusal ever to seek carer advancement or personal recognition.
Is this necessarily the way to go for lesser mortals than them?
Of Marshall, Brooks observes: “He hid his vulnerabilities and detested the idea that he might be dependent on others.”
This, of course, runs counter to the humility Brooks points to earlier as reflective of great character. Self-denial and false independence should not be confused with humility, but can instead be seen as a stubborn clinging of the ego to delusions of complete self-sufficiency.
These contradictions and examples of half-baked humanity aside (“We are dappled souls,” Brooks writes, and that includes the exemplars whose lives he lifts up in this work), there is much to be gleaned from this fine and provocative book. It regularly gave me great pause and reason to scribble notes to myself, then stare off into the distance, considering the implications and subsequent byways for thought engendered by any given snippet or paragraph.
His delineation of “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues” is a handy modernized summation of the “Adam I” and “Adam II” sides of human nature as described by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik 50 years ago.
Essentially, resume virtues are the external, careerist, accomplishment-oriented goals that we spend a great deal of our lives pursuing, often to the at-least-benign neglect of “eulogy virtues.” The latter have to do with character, basic decency, self-examination, and our capacities for love, joy, humor and sacrifice, irrespective of their influence on our job prospects or public station in life.
Brooks touches a deep-but-all-too-apparent spiritual nerve in suggesting that modern life and culture are lopsidedly concerned with Adam I, to the great detriment not only of our civic and religious life, but also to individual human happiness. The message is perhaps banal by now but seemingly in need of endless repetition (with apologies to Socrates): “The unexamined, externally driven life is perhaps worth living for a while, but you’ll be sorely disappointed in yourself if you try to take it to the grave.”
Brooks himself seems to veer or at least waffle from one angle to the next regarding his biographical subjects. The overriding emphasis of his ideal character seems to be on those with straight-spined moral rectitude and humility (always borne from some kind of suffering) and a profound aversion to self-aggrandizement.
Yet in a soaring section on George Eliot, Brooks lauds her rebellious nature, her dismissal of the conventional mores of her day, and her tumultuous, over-the-top romanticism reflected in various affairs (sometimes of the heart, sometimes more) with married men. These included her long-term liaison with George Henry Lewes, whom she called her “husband” over their 24 years of living together, though he never divorced his previous wife.
Eliot is the most clear-cut exception to those Brooks holds up to our light, though. In many ways, his choices for moral exemplars reflect his own conservatism and somewhat restrained personal demeanor. It’s no coincidence that he’s none too far in basic temperament from most of his subjects, who tend to reflect decidedly “Brooksian” qualities in qualifying for his personal Character Hall of Fame. But there is more than one way and one person with which to skin a characterological cat, and in this, the book seems narrow in its choice of subjects.
What about exploring lives of people who lived sensually, joyfully, with at least a dash of the libertine, but were no less committed to personal and human advancement?
People of a slightly more pleasure-and-joy-focused mindset? The Greek philosopher Epicurus, for instance?
Or Franklin Roosevelt, who got an awful lot done and lived a life of indisputable grandeur under the handicaps of his physical disability and a contentious political and historical climate.
Or the poet Kenneth Rexroth, prodigiously intellectual and self-directed but sensualist, too, barely a denying or stoic bone in his body?
Or even Thomas Merton, the paradoxical “monk in the world” who was at once a Trappist committed to silence and abnegation of the personal self while also avidly pursuing the garden of earthly delights in a world and among people he just could not get enough of?
These figures and countless others, too, offer potentially valuable insights and guideposts on the human project of how to forge a Self.
But we should forgive Brooks his somewhat narrow range of exemplars, at least with respect to their basic internal qualities. One could do far worse than heed the overarching thrust of his biographical capsules:
1) Life ain’t a bowl of cherries or anything else sweet and yielding,
2) It takes great, ceaseless effort and a well-defined moral compass to decide how to approach it in a meaningful, life-affirming way,
3) We need guides, from human history and from among our own lives, including family and friends, to help us along.
That’s because we rub off on each other in multiple ways, Brooks says. We are deeply affected by what we see, whom we admire and with whom we consort.
So choose your heroes accordingly, and surround yourself with those who can both serve as moral exemplars within your own circle and help you cultivate humility when you aren’t as moral as you’d like to be. Because probably the greatest of humility’s many virtues, Brooks reminds us, is that it “relieves you of the awful stress of trying to be superior all the time.”
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