The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks

Summary: A flawed but worth-reading argument for pursuing meaning and rejecting hyper-individualism.

I was reluctant to pick The Second Mountain up. I watched several interviews with him, and many of those interviews were interesting, but they seemed to be talking about a couple of different books, ranging from a personal self-help book to an extended graduation speech to a version of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Having finished the book, I understand all those descriptions, but none were quite right. And while I am glad I read the book, that is part of the problem of the book.

I was also reluctant because while I generally liked his last book, Road to Character, I thought there were significant weaknesses with the book, and I did not want to relive a “do better” encouragement book. Once I decided to pick up The Second Mountain, I was pleased that he offered an apology for the weaknesses of The Road to Character that roughly addressed my issues.

There are many great quotes in The Second Mountain. They are often even better in full context than as stand-alone quotes. “Happiness can be tasted alone, but permanent joy requires an enmeshed and embedded life.” He riffs off CS Lewis’ and others’ distinction between happiness and joy. The book is about pursuing joy and the other deeper things in life, not just happiness and the other fleeting things in life. It is not that the fleeting things are unimportant, but that they are not fulfilling.

The book is really in two parts. The first part is making his argument for this concept of the Second Mountain. The first mountain is success in life, while the second mountain is the pursuit of meaning. If you have read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, it is a similar, but not exactly similar, point.

The second part is the four commitments that lead to the Second Mountain, but also those things that fight against the hyper-individualism that is really the book’s underlying theme. The four commitments are to Vocation, Marriage, Faith (or philosophy), and Community.

Throughout the book, Brooks uses his own story as an example, certainly not the only example, but an example both of why the pursuit of the second mountain is needed and of how he has done it. This isn’t a memoir and isn’t intended to be a memoir. But many of the book’s problems are that it isn’t a memoir.

The section on the commitment to faith is an explicit testimony of his conversion to Christianity. This is a book written for a secular audience primarily. And he hits on this section exactly right. It is his story of coming to Christianity, not an apologetic argument (really an argument against the way that apologetics is often used), but a story similar to Francis Spufford’s take on faith in Unapologetic. Brooks is really making an argument not for Christianity in particular but for the role of faith, or a philosophy of living, in general, as a means to pull people into a community. So, this will not make everyone who wants him to give a full-throated argument for Christianity happy. His point here is to show that in his life, Christianity has been what has pulled him toward the second mountain. (He also explicitly says he is not leaving his Judaism behind; in some ways, he feels more Jewish now because that is also part of his faith commitment that pulls him toward the second mountain.)

The problem with The Second Mountain is that it is trying to do way too much. Parts of it really do read like an extended commencement address. Other parts read like a book you give to someone who is facing a midlife crisis. And there are other parts that are straight self-help and verge on the ethereal ‘do better’ advice. And while much of the advice in the marriage section is very good, it is marriage advice from a recently divorced and remarried man.

Part of my problem with the book is that it feels like a ‘recent convert’ book. Not just the parts about Christianity (in fact, the Christianity parts are where he sounds least like a new convert). The book as a whole focuses on helping people focus on maturity. I am all for focusing on maturity. But the focus on maturity is what he sounds like he has recently converted to. The book as a whole is a response to a personal breakdown about five years ago and his struggle back to health. While there is much good here, and there really is much good here, it feels to me like he wrote this 5-10 years too soon.

I know that we all are impatient. We want to learn quickly, skip steps, and get the silver bullet. Brooks is arguing that we can’t skip the important parts. We must invest in community, family, faith, and work for the long haul. It is in the long haul that maturity comes. The good of the book affirms that long term, slow, don’t skip steps, invest deeply, not widely, focus. But the book is also written only a few years after he had this insight, and it feels too soon in violation of his own advice.

At the end of the book, when he is trying to distill the whole book down to a short manifesto, it is interesting that in more than a couple of ways, Brooks was saying very similar things to what Jonathan Walton was saying in 12 Lies That Hold America Captive, including the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Our society is currently focused on the conditional. I will not recount how they go together, but the two books about fundamentally different issues have remarkably similar conclusions.

This doesn’t really fit anywhere else, but In an interview with Collin Hansen on The Gospel Coalition podcast, Brooks makes a distinction between community and tribalism that I think is helpful, although not part of the common definition. He said that community is built around loving something in common, and he contrasted that with tribalism, which is built around hatred or opposition to a thing, person, or idea.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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