We live in a culture that demands success and esteems achievement. Constant pressure to perform, compete and excel shapes nearly every aspect of our lives. Yet in the end, our greatest desire is for friends and family to remember, not what we did, but who we were.
In The Road to Character, David Brooks offers a fascinating reflection on the decline of moral virtue in the Western world and contrasts our present condition with the (comparatively) better days that lie behind us.
The book is built around three sections. The core consists of eight chapters of biographical sketches that provide real-life examples of the kind of character that is noticeably absent from our society. The opening and conclusion feature the author’s incisive cultural assessment and critique. The following paragraphs highlight a portion of each section.
1. Adam II
At the outset, we are introduced to Adam I and Adam II, a concept borrowed from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitis’ book Lonely Man of Faith. Brooks contends that our natures are divided, and he adopts this paradigm to make sense of that division. Adam I is the part of us focused on the external. He looks outward, is driven by ambition and battles others to succeed or be recognized. But Adam II looks inside and is concerned with internal success. His goals are self-mastery and self-respect. Whereas Adam I cultivates his strengths, Adam II confronts his weaknesses.
2. A character repository
According to Brooks, “example is the best teacher.” Thus, almost the entire book is made up of the stories of real people whose lives were marked by character that most would regard as noteworthy. The examples span across the ages and display closely related traits. Among them are love, dignity and self-control. The cultivation of Adam II in each life was the key to their character.
3. Curbing the "Big Me"
The conclusion confronts what Brooks brands the “Big Me—” the pervasive mentality of modern culture that places self at the center of everything.
To remedy the long-term effects of this issue, Brooks offers a single proposition: humility. If society has been taken up with an overinflated view of self, the needed course correction is to “reassert a balance between Adam I and Adam II.” In order to promote a more balanced moral ecology, Brooks offers “The Humility Code—” 15 observations derived from the lives and character of the persons considered.
The road as Brooks sees it
Brooks is a perceptive cultural critic. He writes for The New York Times, which demands a certain soundness of thought. Brooks confesses that he wrote this book to save his own soul, realizing that intellect alone is not enough to fend off the erosive forces of culture. Brooks recognizes that we are in need of more than better thoughts. We need better loves.
“Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character,” he writes. Because character is the practice of a bygone age, Brooks would have us look backward as we make our way ahead. He shows that history often guides us better than we guide ourselves.
Application for the church
This book is of distinct importance to the church because it provides perspective. Christians should read this book to exit the echo chamber and hear the voice of a seasoned cultural observer from outside of their own tradition. So often our pulpits and tweets decry the downfall of a culture we know discernibly little about. The Road to Character provides scope and insight that is often unavailable in our limited spheres.
At the same time, Christians should read this book in order to confirm what they already know. Our natures are marred by sin, and this shapes the world in which we live. The Bible instructs us to master ourselves over against a culture that constantly screams, “Embrace yourself!” In this regard, Brooks is exceedingly helpful to point out the follies of cultural wisdom.
Finally, I would recommend this book to believers because the road to character looks, in many ways, like sanctification. Perhaps unknowingly, Brooks provides some helpful tools and vocabulary for discussing spiritual growth. The traits he surveys are often the result of the Spirit’s work in the life of the Christian (Gal. 5:22-24).
We certainly don’t agree at every turn, but I am deeply indebted to David Brooks for the wisdom and insight he displays in this book.