Tuesday, June 16, 2015

David Brooks: "The Road to Character": stories on How to Be Good

Author: David Brooks
Title: “The Road to Character
Publication: New York: Random House, 2015; ISBN 978-0-8129-9325-7, 300 pages, hardcover, 10 chapters
Amazon link
Fareed Zakaria featured this book recently on his Global Public Square, as a treatise on how we can “be good”, crossing all cultural and religious traditions underneath western civilization.
Most of the chapters deal with some aspect of the evolution of character, like “Self-Mastery”, “Struggle”, “Self-Mastery”, “Dignity”, “Love”, “Ordered Love” (an interesting refinement), and “Self-Examination”, winding up with “The Big Me”.
Each chapter presents a couple of historical figures whose lives demonstrate the concept. The book almost has an anthology feel, something like John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles In Courage”, which we all had to read in history class in high school, or even David Boaz’s companion “Libertarian Reader”; so many of those essays in some way discussed how individual character interacts with individual freedom.
Brooks starts out with stating a dichotomy, between the “resume self” and the deeper self that one would want to be remembered for, in an afterlife.  Early, in a chapter called “h Summoned Self”, where he talks about the expectation that social service workers at a place called Hull House  avoid any sense of superiority to their clients, but instead tale turns walking in their shoes.
In the chapter “Struggle” Brooks describes activist Dorothy Day, who sought a kind of purification through loneliness, and then in writing, eventually to feel ashamed enough of her book “The Eleventh Virgin” to want to buy every copy.
In the chapter on Dignity, Brooks chronicles the life of civil rights activist David Rustin, who had to work out own his own his identity both as black and as a gay man, and found these were quite independent, despite political correctness today.
But perhaps the most compelling chapter, “Love”, is the story of British novelist George Elliot aka Mary Ann Evans, who had rejected the upper class compliance with religious practice as intellectually dishonest, to the displeasure of her family, and refused conventional ideas of marriage, before really falling in love, and finding that love required a submission of the self, not a seeking for one’s own virtue.  The story here almost reminds one of Paul Rosenfels.
Then comes “Ordered Love”, with the examination of St. Augustine, who came to question self-ownership and personal autonomy (and the illusion of self-sufficieny), and an acceptance of one’s own need for God and others. I find this off-putting, yet my own schizoid insistence of autonomy and self-sufficiency makes me vulnerable to the first accident.  I think that Brooks could have added a chapter on Resilience here.  One need relationships with others who may themselves be far less than perfectly virtuous in order to keep living after adversity.  One could talk here about the “Upward Affiliation Fallacy” which conservative author George Gilder described in the 1980 in his “Men and Marriage” (April 12, 2006).
“Self-Examination” leads to the narrative of indie English writer Samuel Johnson, who wanted to see everything in moral terms (rather the way I do), in contrast with French writer Michel de Montaigne.
This all leads Brooks to discuss meritocracy, along with the idea in modern culture that everyone gets to broadcast himself as special (the “Selfie” culture – where the other day I noted that a friend, while tweeting his own birthday, offered an Instagram of a food offering rather than of his own handsome face and body.   Meritocracy and the “value of human life” will come into tension, even contradiction.

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