Pramod Biligiri's Reviews > The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David  Brooks
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David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” is anachronistic in more ways than one. Firstly, this book is not about character traits that are directly related to succeeding in the day-to-day material world. So you don’t read about how to manage your time, energy and relationships in order to reach known goals. Instead, it is about developing an inner compass that lets us discover what goals can give greater satisfaction over a lifetime. Secondly, the book does not talk about identifying and nurturing strengths, but on locating and combating our specific weaknesses. And lastly, the approach of the book is decidedly old fashioned. Brooks does not dazzle you with brilliant results from psychology, behavioral sciences and their ilk. He draws extended life sketches of a handful of great people from history, to show how they went about their lives and what issues they conquered. He interjects sufficient commentary so that you can appreciate the finer points but yet don’t feel talked-down-to like a school kid. Some of the personalities discussed are Dwight Eisenhower (the former President), Frances Perkins (author of the New Deal political reforms in USA), George Marshall (author of the plan to revive Europe after WW2), George Eliot, Samuel Johnson and Saint Augustine.

Moral realism
Underlying this style is what Brooks calls an ancient philosophy of “moral realism”, which holds that none of us are born perfect or innocent. We all have big innate character flaws and it behooves us to better ourselves continuously in our lifetimes. Thus, our greatest victories are not the “resume virtues” which are character traits that can lead to career success (within a specific time and place, arguably), but the “eulogy virtues” which are the effortful strides we make against our own flaws and limitations (again context-sensitive, I argue), and thus presumably merit a mention in a eulogy by near and dear ones. Progress is not measured against others, but against our own past self.

In the case of Eisenhower, he battled lifelong against a short temper. Perkins’ college advisors deliberately put her out of comfort zones. Marshall was mocked for being a dunce in school, and so on. Brooks asserts that this mindset of focussing on flaws has many indirect benefits. It keeps us humble. It makes us distrust desire and instinct, and prize restraint and control (it’s not so much what rules we follow but we develop the ability to follow rules). And lastly, we soon realize that none of us can fight our demons on our own. We need help from others around us, belief systems, institutions and so on. Brooks also seems to imply through the character sketches that this is a fruitful, if not a necessary, way to begin a broader engagement with societal institutions at large - something I don’t quite buy.

This philosophy is in contrast to more recent ideas dating from the Romantic era, where one is encouraged to contemplate within for aesthetic and revelatory benefits. Today we call it discovering one’s true self / identity, finding one’s passion etc., with the implicit belief that all that is innate or natural is good, or at least worth pondering about. But Brooks insists that the self, or “character”, is not “found” but “built” assiduously over years if not decades - something I do agree with. Instead of passion, older words like “vocation” and “calling” are invoked. In short, you suppress the self precisely so that you can look more humbly - objectively - at the world around you, find where your abilities best meet the world’s needs, and attend to it with gusto. And that is the road to character.

Brooks also lists issues in our age which are like obstacles on this road. I can see one strong pattern myself. Young people are told of the need, the importance and the grandeur of self-actualization, but they are constantly enveloped in accoutrements of instant gratification. How can you develop character when pleasure is almost always at hand, when solitude is out of reach, and youthful celebrities are held up everywhere as if to mock the time it takes to do anything substantial (or unpopular)?

Moral realism exists within a broader moral “ecology” of interpreting the world through a moralistic lens. Here, words like sin and guilt are not shunned but used as instruments for development. Brooks suggests that the absence of such words in our vocabulary points to the loss of an entire moral ecology itself. In one chapter he weighs in strongly on the necessity for ‘sin’: “When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or sensitivity, or tries to banish words like virtue, character, evil and vice altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language.”

Luckily you can enjoy this book without delving deep into any of the moral philosophy! Each person’s life is interesting on its own. Behind Martin Luther King Jr’s success was an earlier, Gandhian leader called Bayard Rustin who eventually withdrew to the background because of his openly gay and often promiscuous nature. Eisenhower’s charge on D-Day could have as well belonged to Marshall, but he refused to lobby for himself in deference to the institution that he worked for. Mary Anne Evans’ (a.k.a George Eliot) emotional life is a mess until she finds a true companion in George Lewes, who encourages her to write fiction and gives up his own career for her sake. Saint Augustine is enjoying a good career as a civil servant in the Roman empire, when he gives it all up and becomes a Christian theologian (In fact I found much overlap between his Doctrine of Sin and the moral realism theme of this book itself). Samuel Johnson grows up with unbelievable physical handicaps, but fights his ailments and nurtures his talents until he is recognized as a thinker and writer.

I knew next to nothing about any of these people before starting on their chapter, and each time I was astonished at how important their place in history turned out to be, and how unlikely it seemed at the beginning! Brooks mixes commentary and biography seamlessly. He cites ideas from a wide range of philosophers and theologians you’ve probably never heard of, but will then feel like going on to read for yourself. It’s also a good dip into biographical literature, if you are new to the genre.

I can’t let this book pass by without discussing some flaws in detail. For a book that talks so much about humility, each of the persons described ends up making a huge contribution to humanity: as a public servant, military official, social reformer and so on. There are no examples of people who faithfully accept their lot in life - say as workers, parents, friends, children - without necessarily creating history in the process. And what about people who have (to) overcome big personal or relationship hurdles even within their small life? In these and other aspects, I wish he had looked beyond Christianity into other philosophies as well. At one point Brooks justifies his selection in part by saying that large moral victories are only manifest in public service or the military; a person involved in commerce rules himself out of such successes. I don’t remember him commenting on purely ordinary people at all.

Brooks talks a lot about suppressing our ego so that we can observe and fix our personal flaws, and work towards maintaining and improving existing societal institutions (the family, Church, institutions of State) instead of looking to remake everything with brash ambition. But the personalities described all broke new ground: the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Civil Rights movement, the first English dictionary, the Doctrine of Sin to name a few. From a historical perspective, societal institutions are created in response to human needs and failings. In any modern, liberal democracy, there’s a good chance you’ll find your deepest desires being reflected in one of the numerous already existing public or private institutions. So whereas an intensive inner examination of self may work for a well educated man in the 4th Century, in today’s world you are better off engaging with society as it exists and drawing from our civilizational history as necessary.

It struck me that there wasn’t much emphasis on eulogies themselves! Where the person’s life is summarized by people near and dear to them, in terms of what they meant to them - although that forms the point of departure for the book in the beginning. Instead we only get Brooks’ assessment of their life.

The biggest flaw would be this. Due to its constant focus on larger-than-life characters and the associated sense of inevitability of their success, a shallow reading of this book carries the risk of imbibing the exact opposite of what it seeks to convey, namely: Avoid the self-oriented, self-righteous feeling that accompanies worldly success. In fact, stay focussed on your flaws and approach life with a mindset of service, not validation.

I find that same sentiment easier to reference through a song made famous by Gandhiji’s adoption of it (source: Wikipedia):
Vaiṣṇava jana to tene kahiye, Je pīḍa parāyī jāṇe re,
Para duḥkhe upakāra kare to ye, Mana abhimāna na āṇe re
(Translation: Call those people “Vaishnavas” who feel the pain of others, Help those who are in misery, But never let self-conceit enter their mind).

Don’t let the above flaws deter you from picking up this book at all. Elsewhere he has written that it is the start of a conversation in this realm and certainly not the end of his explorations of the topic. There are many, many thought provoking and touching passages here, always presented in his elegant, eloquent style. Brooks might defer to the numerous greats described in the book. But even as he is comparing the lives of the famous essayists Johnson and Montaigne, you find yourself admiring Brooks himself for what a master of that craft he is. You could do much worse than occupy your mind with fine prose that details the lives and times of some magnificent specimens of humanity.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 1, 2016 – Finished Reading
December 9, 2016 – Shelved

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