Summary: We need to be pursuing eulogy virtues, not resume virtues.
I like David Brooks. I don’t always agree with his politics, but I think he is largely a reasonable pundit and even when I disagree I usually understand his position. I really liked his earlier book Bobos in Paradise but I just have not gotten around to reading his last two books. But after a positive mention on twitter by James KA Smith and Englewood Review of Books editor Chris Smith (and noticing that the audiobook was on Scribd, but going away soon as part of some changes there) I picked it up.
This is a hard book for me to review. There is much to commend here. In many ways this is a better version of Eric Metaxes’ 7 Men and the Secret to their Greatness. Brooks has a clear vision and has no problem actually telling us what the secrets to greatness of his profiled people are. The secret is character.
But at the same time this felt like a nostalgic look at character. For Brooks, character is about suffering. I do not completely disagree, but it seems like an overly simplistic understanding. Suffering is where we see character, suffering is like exercise that helps to develop character. But the development of character requires more than just suffering.
This is a surprisingly religious book. Brooks is Jewish and is known for being observant. But Brooks also went to Episcopal school and is familiar with Christianity (and several people have hinted that he may be Christian himself, although Brooks has not clearly said that he is.) Throughout the book Brooks is calling for a return to the language of sin and grace. These are theological words and they are important to Brooks’ understanding of character, although it is not always clear how they are important because Brooks is resistant to making character a Judeo-Christian value.
In Brooks’ choice of figures to profile, he is not solely focusing on religious people, although they are heavily represented. The most interesting to me was his first profile, labor activist Frances Perkins, and the combined profiles of Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. I had vague background, but could not have really identified any of them.
The rest of the list were more traditional figures, Eisenhower (both Ike and his mother), St Augustine, Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson, George Elliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) and George Marshall.
Part of what disturbed me about the book is that these profiles seem to confirm that character is really ‘great man’ history. Brooks is careful to point out not only the strengths, but also the weaknesses of profiles. No one has perfect character. But I was not convinced that his examples were part of a broader cultural background instead of extraordinary individuals.
The final area of weakness is a lack of connection to modern life. Brooks attempted this in his summary chapter, but it did not seem to go far enough. Throughout the book he is citing examples of suffering in a way that is primarily historical. Suffering for suffering’s sake is rejected (sometimes suffering is just suffering, it is not always redemptive). But if character is developed through suffering and struggle, there is no clear picture of how we develop character today, especially without a clearer religious understanding.
NT Wright and James KA Smith write about the development of character as primarily an issue of habit and liturgy, not suffering and struggle. I think both of those authors are clearer about the end point (Christian formation and Christ-likeness) than Brooks who seems to be more utilitarian in his understanding of character.
I think that The Road to Character is worth reading for Brooks’ aspirational ideas. But I also think it needs to be paired with something that has a more traditional Christian focus on character.