By Debie Thomas
David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York, Random House, 2015) 320 pp.
In The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks sets out to recover a moral vocabulary — a vocabulary that includes words considered obsolete and even distasteful in popular culture. “Sin.” “Renunciation.” “Holiness.” “Grace.” He contrasts what he calls “resumé virtues” — the virtues of academic and professional accomplishment we prize in the marketplace — with “eulogy virtues” — the virtues of kindness, humility, courage, and fortitude we hope others will remember us for after we die.
Brooks argues that we live in a culture and a time so obsessed with resumé virtues, we’ve forgotten how to engage in the most important struggle of the human life — the moral struggle against sin. Brooks usefully defines sin as “disordered love” — love prioritized in ways that harm and defeat us. If we love attention and popularity, for example, over loyalty and trustworthiness, we might spill a friend’s secret at a party, and do irreparable harm both to the friend and the friendship.
But how do we engage in the struggle for virtue? How do we walk the road to character? Brooks believes we learn best by example, so he offers brief but compelling bios of historical figures who illustrate the eulogy virtues. Among them are St. Augustine, Frances Perkins, George Eliot, and Dwight Eisenhower. As he examines the lives and legacies of these people, he stresses that they were far from perfect; they are exemplary not for their sinlessness, but for their serious commitment to moral struggle. We can learn from them because they were willing to both face and fight their core sins.
In contrast, Brooks notes, we live in “The Age of the Selfie” — an age that does little to encourage personal renunciation or struggle. Indeed, he admits that he’s prone to shallowness and “smug superficiality” himself. Though Brooks is careful not to align himself publicly to any faith tradition, what he does with this book is recover a religious vocabulary for a secular world. The Road to Character is an antidote — grounded in deeply religious language — for the spiritual disease the author diagnoses first of all in himself. “I wrote this book,” he confesses, “to save my soul.”
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