When I recently reviewed my book purchases from Amazon for the past few years, I was surprised to note how many of the titles I had ordered after I watched Charlie Rose’s interview with the author on his PBS talk show. I also observed that, while an interview with the author could prompt me to purchase a book, as a motivation to actually read the book, it was decidedly less effective. That was a major reason, then, for undertaking this series of fourteen special posts during Lent, each one referencing a different title from my “new books” shelf.
When I selected the fourteen titles for this series, I had not yet read more than half of them, but I had purchased them because I felt fairly certain they would help me move, to quote E.M. Forster once again, “a little farther down the path” in the direction my life has taken over the past few years. After I published the list on Facebook and here on my blog, I had second thoughts about one or two of the titles. Not about whether they would be worth the expenditure of time to read, but about whether they would illustrate forcefully enough the principle of moving me a little farther down the path.
David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character, was one of the titles that prompted second thoughts. I bought it (after hearing the author discuss it with Charlie Rose) during the exquisitely painful year-long primary election process that preceded the even-more-painful general election campaign and its horrific aftermath. Character, as I understood the term, seemed to be in short supply among the candidates seeking the nation’s highest elected office, at least from what I perceived by watching debates and reading commentary by journalists whom I respected.
David Brooks is one of those journalists. He is a moderately conservative Republican with whom I became acquainted when I was a Republican even more conservative than he—which I was until about ten years ago. He is now one of very few conservatives whom I read regularly. I find him thoughtful and provocative, even when I disagree with him, and I admire his careful, understated style, his precise use of language, and the way he expands my vocabulary without pretense or snarkiness.
Brooks begins The Road to Character by distinguishing between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former ostensibly help us move ahead in our chosen fields of endeavor, and the latter, while they may not translate into career advancement or material “success,” reveal a depth of inner character and integrity and are the qualities people will reflect upon at our funeral.
To illustrate this distinction, he devotes the bulk of the book to a series of biographical sketches of notable figures that range, historically, from St. Augustine to Joe Namath and include Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson and Johnny Unitas.
I love biography, especially when it tells me something I would otherwise never have known, nor even suspected, about prominent persons. Not something sordid or criminal, you understand, but something not immediately apparent or obvious that helps me understand how the person thought or worked or achieved prominence or lasting influence. Brooks’s research is thorough, and his presentation of the fruit of that research is engaging throughout. I was never bored. I was sometimes confused, especially when he seemed to laud one person for a trait that he criticized in another.
As he brings the book to a close, he summarizes his main thesis by, first of all, posing some important questions: Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? What virtues are the most important to cultivate and what weaknesses should I fear the most? How can I raise my children with a true sense of who they are and a practical set of ideas about how to travel the long road to character?
Then he gathers all that he has gleaned from examining those dozen or so lives into a list of fifteen propositions that he calls a “Humility Code.” Here’s a sample. (Note, each point of his summary is far more extensively considered than the short phrase that I include in these abbreviated examples.)
- We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
- The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures.
- In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.
- Pride is the central vice.
- The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility.
- No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.
- We are all ultimately saved by grace. (Don’t read evangelical theological overtones into that term.)
- Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. (Sounds complicated, but well worth exploring.)
- No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation (in the sense of an overarching sense of call, not employment). A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?
- The person who successfully struggles against weakness may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. Maturity is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. Maturity does not glitter. It is not built on the traits that make people celebrities.
Much of this book is stimulating and enlightening. Some of it is frustrating and a bit confusing, but this is not a thoroughgoing review. All of the books I am referencing in this series have flaws. I have not mentioned those weaknesses in these blog posts since, as with The Road to Character, the benefits of each book for my personal pilgrimage far outweigh any perceived limitation or inadequacy.
Character counts. The most effective leaders know that. We who follow their leadership should appreciate that fact as well. If we do not—as, sadly, we did not do in the most recent presidential election—the consequences could be costly, even disastrous. Lord, have mercy.
Note: This is the seventh in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works that I have found helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence and will generally be published on Tuesday or Wednesday and on Friday or Saturday each week through the end of Lent on Saturday, April 15.