2016 March Book Review: The Road to Character

Mar 9, 2016 | AAL in the News | 0 comments

Book Review: The Road to Character

by Jessica Merrill, AAL Project Manager

by Jessica Merrill, AAL Project Manager

In the introduction to David Brooks’ The Road to Character1, the author calls upon a key distinction which will lay the foundation for the rest of the book. Referencing the work of Rabbi  Joseph Soloveitchik in Lonely Man of Faith2, Brooks notes that the book of Genesis contains two differing accounts of the creation story. Without getting into specifics, the first account represents an entrepreneurial mentality Soloveitchik calls “Adam I,” while the latter represents a more subdued way of being: “Adam II.” Adam I embodies the striving aspects of our nature–he is ambitious;  career-focused; success-oriented. Adam I wants to conquer. In contrast, Adam II is the humbler, more inward-looking being, who is less concerned with accomplishments than he is with purpose. Adam II asks why we are here, and how he can be of value.

As the author states, “We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I and neglects Adam II.” The two modes of living represent the tension between what Brooks calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”  It is the eulogy virtues that concern Brooks here. In Brooks’ own words, today’s world has “lost the understanding of how character is built”; in the “age of the selfie,” outward markers of success have trumped the inner work of developing a “moral ecology.” Brooks’ aim is to offer portraits of men and women throughout history who built their character the old-fashioned way–slowly and deliberately.

These portraits are diverse, following no clear through-line except for their subjects’ willingness to face their own vulnerabilities head-on. Some, like Catholic worker Dorothy Day, find their salvation in religious life; others, like author George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans), renounce religion entirely.  Many have flaws that run counter to their legacy. Dwight D. Eisenhower, celebrated here for his self-restraint, had a notorious temper. Frances Perkins, who was galvanized to fight for fair labor laws after witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, had a fractured and complicated relationship with her own daughter. In each portrait, Brooks does not gloss over the less trumpeted aspects of his subject’s biography. Rather, he takes the long view, examining the “long obedience in the same direction”; the lifetime work of cultivating the inner self.

Not all of the portraits fit easily into Brooks’ value-driven narrative; at times, the characteristics that the author seeks to spotlight can feel shoe-horned on to his subject. And admittedly, Brooks’ transparent pining for the way things were can feel overly broad-brushed and simplistic (though he does openly admit that the halcyon days of true character struggle were a much more difficult time for minorities and women). Still, he has a point. At the risk of selling out my millennial contemporaries, there is a real need–perhaps especially in mine, but across all generations–for individuals to grapple with their own moral code, and spend time with the issues presented by Brooks here. The Road to Character is hardly a “fun” read, but like the long road to character itself, it rewards those who undertake it.

1Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.

2Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Lonely Man of Faith. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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