The Road to Character
Random House, 317 pp., $28
The contemplation of virtue is never a bad thing, and many of us don’t do it as often as we ought. It was once the case that moral essays were common fare. Several classic American examples started out as sermons, and at the time of the Founders volumes such as those by Jonathan Edwards, Noah Webster, Jonathan Mayhew, John Wesley, Moses Mather, John Witherspoon, and others were bestsellers. Self-scrutiny and virtue were in the air as personal aims in a religious era. David Brooks, in his new book The Road to Character, does not go back to Edwards or Webster, nor does he dwell on changes in the culture that have re-contextualized how we think about character. Instead, he deploys nine mostly 20th-century biographical sketches effectively to illustrate the qualities he particularly values and, more briefly, to contrast them with more shallow goals.
Brooks offers two arguments as he seeks to lay out the components of a “eulogy builder” as opposed to a stock-in-trade “résumé builder”, but they stand in need of being pulled apart. The first theme, which embraces most of the chapters, works well; the second, though plausible, is insufficiently if elegantly defended, and warrants serious scrutiny.
Argument number one claims, in classic fashion, that studying graceful accounts of virtuous past lives can illustrate and enliven crucial moral qualities as abstract discussion of the ingredients of a meaningful life cannot. In Brooks’s able hand, this is an eminently readable approach. One can quibble around the margins, and speculate whether this rather old-fashioned admonition will have much of an impact—the achievement of best-seller status may be encouraging on this score, not because it stocks Brooks’s bank account but because it may testify that a goodly number of people are reading and taking to heart the book’s message. But bestseller or not, a solid case emerges.
The second argument, which is presented only briefly but which runs through the biographical accounts that populate the book, holds that virtue is in decline in modern times. The reader gets the impression that for Brooks the inflection point of decline is somewhere in the 1960s, though he oddly muddies the chronology at several points. The claim here—a contemporary accounting of declension—constitutes an ambitious use of history in contrasting present with past around such an amorphous topic as personal character. It surely will strike a chord, however fleetingly, with many readers—perhaps particularly those of a certain age apt to evoke the latent curmudgeon in the human condition. But the claim is not proved or even very well defended. It may nevertheless be correct, but the flimsy grounds on which Brooks invites its acceptance leaves open the possibility that he may be well off the mark.
Brooks deliberately presents a range of examples: Of his nine main cases, three are women and two African Americans, one of whom was gay. Four of his American examples were politically on the Left, which is interesting coming from a writer considered slightly right of center, but he also uses Dwight Eisenhower, which may right the balance on this score; George Marshall, another major case, is best considered a centrist. Of the nine, three are non-Americans, which some may see as a limitation, others as a distraction. But for purposes of illustrating virtue it may not matter much how the selections came to be; even if they seem a bit random, they still do the job. Only when one also seeks to claim change over time—Brooks’s second argument—do his principles of selectivity come into serious play. At this point it is sufficient to note that Brooks clearly wants to deflect any claims of bias in his American choices, while offering enough biographical variety to drive home the key points.
Most of the biographical chapters rely on a single major secondary treatment, plus Brooks’s own interpretation of some of the subjects’ writings. The accounts seem accurate, however. Brooks makes it clear that his subjects had flaws, but as with all the stories of the Hebrew Bible, for example, virtue and meaning do not depend on perfection. He may have a slight tendency to gloss over certain weaknesses or bad patches—I worried about this particularly in the case of Eisenhower—but on the whole Brooks avoids hagiography. His point that good character exists amid personal complexity and fallibility comes through strongly.
And his cast of characters is interesting. If Eisenhower and Marshall are broadly familiar, as is St. Augustine (his one example from before the 18th century), then Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and, across the pond, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) and Samuel Johnson are hardly household names to most readers. So their careers and aspirations provide good stories for those who do not already know them as well as moral lessons.
In Brooks’s hands, the nine cases—along with a few other illustrations drawn in brief, like Montaigne, Viktor Frankl, and Isaiah Berlin in his encounter with the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova—share several vital features in common. Most of them had rigorous childhoods, and if a few, like Augustine, had an ensuing wild-oats phase, they got over it. They did not define themselves in terms of public adulation, but rather cultivated humility. They knew or came to know some of their own weaknesses and worked on controlling them. They understood and exemplified the need for struggle, including struggle against sin (the reality of which Brooks emphasizes at several junctures). One of Brooks’s nice touches is the repeated emphasis that the test of character is not so much the comparison to others as to one’s past self. His exemplars cultivated moderation and restraint. And they had, and acted on, a sense of vocation, a desire to serve others, and they gained satisfaction in service.
These strengths of character are as a matter of course contrasted with less desirable alternatives. Brooks’s chosen few were not materialists. They were not narrowly careerist. They were not self-indulgent and they all avoided the mistake, which Brooks argues is common among many of their counterparts today, of seeking attention for its own sake.
The biographies vary in important ways as well, and if this fact adds inconsistencies it also allows illuminations. Some of Brooks’s subjects came to be shaped by love, which helped take them out of themselves. Others, such as Frances Perkins, were less defined in this respect. Brooks singles out George Marshall for his institutional loyalty, which he finds sadly lacking today and yet is vital in holding society together. Dorothy Day, on the other hand, though a constructive figure in many ways, was not really an institutionalist and indeed struggled against institutional confines. (Brooks, however, deals less with her agitation for peace than might be useful.) Some of those selected were clearly religious, but others—like Eisenhower—though influenced by religion, were not actively participant.
Above all, these were people who sought to do good and be good. In a memorable phrase, Brooks notes that these were people who could be better defined by their eulogies than by their résumés—though they all had many career accomplishments. A life well and constructively lived easily trumps the clever gaming that builds short-term credentials. And Brooks effectively notes his own struggles to rise above shallowness in pursuit of a more rigorous moral path. Many of us can empathize and benefit from his effort, in the old-fashioned phrase, to use history to teach by example.
But, as noted at the outset, moral uplift is not the only purpose of The Road to Character. Brooks explicitly argues that good character, as defined in these cases, has become harder to achieve because modern society so values shallower qualities as to make real virtue more elusive. To the extent that Brooks also makes a case that good character is socially as well as personally essential, he calls into question the quality of the collective good in 21st-century America.
This of course is where history comes in. It’s fine to rail against current turpitude, though in fairness Brooks jabs more than he rails. But when the argument posits a superior past, it engages in sweeping historical as well as moral analysis. At one level Brooks know this. He uses some valid general examples—usually, however, more in passing than through careful confrontation—to contrast present with past. He identifies and castigates the self-esteem movement and the measurable increase in American claims of self-importance and personal pride. He discusses the way experts and educators urge their charges to build on strengths rather than undertake the more challenging task of correcting weaknesses. He notes our loss of reticence, our confidence in the world’s eagerness to know our smallest activity simply because it is ours. He touches on, though oddly does not elaborate, the current penchant for seeking happiness, often rather superficially defined. And of course he sees materialism and greed, as well as narrow careerism, as triumphing over the more subtle demands of character.
Toward the end of the study, Brooks elaborates his historical framework: The West operated, from Moses onward, with a clear emphasis on moral realism, with its willingness to recognize and combat sin and human weakness. But this moral realism fell before the spirit of romanticism, which from the late 18th century onward placed great emphasis on the positive qualities of the individual. This individualism didn’t actually undermine character right away (this is where the history gets a bit vague). Only with the end of the Depression and World War II did Americans suddenly lurch toward self-indulgence and laxity—and here Brooks drags in some familiar villains of permissiveness like Dr. Spock and Norman Vincent Peale. And of course technology and social media, including the selfie, did their part as well, though whether all this played a role before the end of the 20th century is not established. In the end, Brooks lacks an historian’s punctilio for pinpointing change.
Let me be clear: A more careful rendition of this argument may be right; American character may have changed, and possibly changed for the worse. But this argument cannot be made successfully in the casual fashion Brooks offers, except insofar as self-selected readers wish to be or already are persuaded of it. The point is important; it is not just an historian’s desperate attempt to make his discipline seem relevant. It is important, first, because the argument may be wrong and, if so, we need to know that since historical interpretations, once planted in the mind, affect the future. It is important, second, because any attempt to remedy decline surely depends on an accurate assessment of it. Brooks may also be right but for the wrong reasons, and to distinguish among reasons one again needs better history. We know from past efforts—from a special kind of history, that is—that it’s deceptively easy to castigate one’s own age. While this doesn’t mean that Brooks’s historical interpretation is off the mark, it does invite some—excuse a contemporary locution—critical thinking.
Four problems intrude here. First, Brooks is hardly the first of his genre, and it would improve accuracy, as well as demonstrate intellectual humility, to reference precedent. From the Romans on, a recurrent jeremiadic tradition runs through Western culture—and especially in the American one—that belabors the frivolity of the current generation. Nearer to our time, a considerable scholarly apparatus from the 1920s examines the shift in emphasis from character to personality; David Riesman’s important study, The Lonely Crowd, on the American change from inner- to other-direction, would have helped Brooks explain as well as elaborate on some of his key points; Christopher Lasch’s 1970s’ work on the culture of narcissism, which also snared much attention, including that of Jimmy Carter, would have done the same. Confronting and using this material could have provided greater precision about character change, and its timing and causes, and some desirable guidance, perhaps, about how negative change might be countered. For example, Brooks wonders about the moral impact of the decline of child mortality or the disappearance of household labor for children, but instead of wondering, he could actually have consulted some significant existing historical analysis. The same applies to the history of obedience, a virtue that Brooks seems to think began to decline only recently, but which had begun to slide in the United States by the 1840s. The effort to explore changes in the American character did not have to start from scratch.
Then there is the question of sweep. Did Westerners really operate in a single moral framework for all those centuries, only to see it messed up by a few wayward childrearing experts and postwar exuberance? What about the Italian Renaissance, which Brooks skips over, which had all sorts of self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking types whom most of us are taught to admire. What about the initial advent of mass consumerism and upper-class hedonism in late 19th-century America (from which Brooks draws no examples)? Maybe character frameworks change recurrently and in mixed manner rather than in some all-of-a-sudden or homogeneous collapse mode.
A third issue involves deeper perspective. Brooks himself notes, albeit briefly, some possible drawbacks to the moral past he largely prefers. He cites the career of Katherine Graham to acknowledge that the contemporary emphasis on self-assertion may have had some benefits for groups like women. But the nuance, once acknowledged, then drops away. In another odd passage Brooks seems to think he is bolstering his case by briefly contrasting football quarterback Johnny Unitas (born in 1933) with Joe Namath (born in 1943)—Unitas with his quiet competence and absence of bombast, Broadway Joe with all the contemporary shallowness displayed in cultivating the limelight. But wait: Fine about Unitas, but what about earlier self-aggrandizers in sports like Babe Ruth? Namath admittedly benefited from television, a newer ingredient in sports stardom, but he hardly invented the shallow American sports star. The history of character is important, but it is important only if seen as a complex issue, not a matter of a few one-off comparisons.
Last, and perhaps most important, The Road to Character offers a crate of apples and oranges. Brooks sketches a few developments, like the self-esteem movement and more indulgent parenting that really do deserve assessment—and on which some useful historical and social science work has already been done. But the bulk of his book is not about American character in general, but about a few really interesting and, by definition, unusual people—all of them (in the American cases) born between 1880 and 1913. We’re supposed to take these six cases, against Brooks’s briefly sketched backdrop of wider cultural change, and assume that character is going down the tubes because there are no more recent examples.
But why should we do this? Brooks wants to assert that exemplars like his six Americans could not be found here after the 1930s, but I very much doubt that this is true. To be sure, it’s harder to gain a full vantage point on people still alive, but I think most of us could come up with some candidates—in fields ranging from human rights to science to peacemaking—who could match up well against his sextet. Obviously, a more recent grouping would be more debatable, if only because the blinding dust of the present has yet to settle, but the fact is that Brooks hasn’t looked for one. He wants to persuade by implication more than by real evidence, and such an approach must be questioned.
If Brooks’s effort encourages readers to take a closer look at the larger body of work that has been done on American character in general, and perhaps add to it, great—but his own book has not in and of itself done the job. There is reason to pay attention to parenting styles and other issues, but it is not at all clear that they inhibit the development of great character any more than the drawbacks of previous epochs did. These are big and important issues, but for the moment, as against Brooks’s style of argument, they have to be labeled “not proved.”
Finally, if our character is slipping, both in general and at the pinnacles of virtue, what does Brooks offer by way of remedy? Since he has not dealt extensively with the causes of change, he’s hampered in addressing countermeasures. A few asides about more rigorous parenting really don’t do the trick. Brooks has to hope that a good set of character studies will by itself begin the process of countering Dr. Spock and all the indulgence-encouraging literature that would make laziness a virtue. This may indeed be a valid place to start. But again, we must look to history: Recurrent efforts over the past several decades to persuade Americans to examine their collective flaws seem not to have done much good. Jimmy Carter’s attempt to counter the culture of narcissism, most notably, failed rather loudly. Christopher Lasch won fleeting attention, but neither his efforts nor anyone else’s has yet to stem the tide—if there really is one. If we really do have a problem, we need to think much more rigorously about more effective responses. An opportunity for personal reflection does not a persuasive claim for a contemporary tide of moral mediocrity make.