Review: David Brooks’ The Road to Character

Bayard_Rustin_before_demonstration_NYWTS‘I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness’ writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in his introduction to The Road to Character. As Brooks would be the first to admit, this isn’t a bad quality for a columnist to have: the demands of regular opinion writing are such that the big-name commentator is bound to sail close to superficiality. The question is whether Brooks is able to transcend this superficiality in his longer non-fiction. On the evidence of his books so far, and The Road to Character in particular, this reviewer is forced to conclude that he can’t.

The problems begin with Brooks’ definition of the problem The Road to Character purports to address: the problem of how to be less shallow, to mobilise our better selves in an effort to ‘confront the meaning of true fulfilment’. In a simplistic formulation, Brooks suggests that we have, not one, but ‘two natures’ – one based in what he calls the ‘résumé virtues’ (ambition, the desire to get on in the world) and one in what he calls the ‘eulogy virtues’ (the qualities that will be invoked at our funerals). Following Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, he calls these Adam I and Adam II, which, as well as calling to mind those romper-suited scamps in The Cat in the Hat, manages to manure the ground for a reductive and rather puritanical essay on the efficacy of the inner struggle against personal sin and impersonal circumstance. If only we could learn to face our own brokenness, to put aside self-love and embrace humility, we could get to ‘a different moral country’ where ‘an older moral ecology’ obtains.

By way of illustration, the reader is treated to a number of hagiographic essays on some of the author’s heroes, all of whom were ‘acutely aware of their own weaknesses’ and all of whom ‘had to go down to go up’. (Brooks’ ‘moral country’ is a hilly place and his book full of Bunyanesque references to peaks and troughs, valleys and uplands.) Thus we are given the story of Frances Perkins, who dedicated her life to workers’ rights after 47 textile workers died in a factory fire in New York; of Dorothy Day, the journalist and activist who wrestled with her inner demons before committing herself to Christian socialism; and of Saint Augustine, who turned his back, and then his ire, on the pleasures of the flesh in the name of God. Also praised are Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Ida Eisenhower, and the civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

The point of these portraits is to demonstrate the relationship between greatness and ‘self-confrontation’, but this relationship is more assumed than explored. It would be difficult to find a successful person who hadn’t experienced some ‘struggle’ in their lives and easy to find an unsuccessful one who had, and it isn’t clear to me why, say, Rustin’s promiscuity and his (partly successful) efforts to contain it are relevant to his political effectiveness, or why, if they were, the same was not true for Martin Luther King – an incorrigible shagger. Surely the relevant struggle, in both cases, has less to do with personal ‘sin’ than with being black in an officially racist country.

But that wouldn’t fit with Brooks’ rather bland, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps morality. What do fit are Day’s Catholicism, Eliot’s political meliorism, and Rustin’s ‘personal traditionalism’ – all of which, we are invited to conclude, are not so much ideological choices as aspects of the ideal character. ‘It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or at a charity distributing medicine to the poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of the income scale or the bottom … The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself.’ Oh please.

Brooks says that he wrote The Road to Character in order to save his own soul. What he’s actually done, it seems to me, is to mistake his own politics for eternal virtues and his own state of mind for the state of the cosmos. Like so many books that claim to offer a deeper insight into the human self, The Road to Character strikes me as a symptom of the very shallowness it claims to despise.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Note: the photograph accompanying this article is of the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.