David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character was our latest book club selection. The main thrust of the book is the exploration of what Brooks calls “eulogy” virtues: kindness, generosity, patience, love, self-control, understanding, compassion. Brooks believes that most of us would rate those virtues higher than the “resume virtues” (ambition, hard-work, intelligence, self-sufficiency, success, power) but that the way we live our lives does not reflect that. Brooks says that each of us has an Adam I and Adam II side. Adam I is the driven, worldly, ambitious, career-oriented side. Adam II is the side interested in cultivating the eulogy virtues. This book is supposed to be about
celebrating those virtues and finding out how to become more of an Adam II in an Adam I world.
To that end, Brooks uses character studies of famous and not-so-famous people in history to highlight different virtues. The character studies are all interesting to read. The strongest made me want to learn more about that person (Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall). Others were interesting but didn’t always seem to go with the overall flow of the book. An overall strength is that Brooks doesn’t hold these people up as icons. They are all flawed in some way and sometimes the very character trait that is their strongest point is also their weakest point. I found that refreshing in a culture that tends to idolize celebrities or see them as completely fallen. It was good to see these individuals treated as whole human beings.
Even more refreshing is that Brooks isn’t afraid to use the “s” word. That would be sin. It is virtually unheard of to read a non-Christian book and hear that word. Even more refreshing is how much he talks about the idea of grace. Much has been written in the media lately about Brooks’ religious faith and whether or not he has undergone a conversion. I won’t speculate here but I will say that as a Christian, there is a lot that resonates with my faith, in particular in the chapter on Augustine.
As a Christian, I found the biggest weakness in the book to be that Brooks seems to get so much of the concept of sin and grace but still seems to miss an essential part. He presents the idea that we are all made from “crooked timber” (sinners) and that we need grace in order to find our way to cultivating those eulogy virtues. But then he seems to fall back on the idea that somehow we can do it ourselves: try a little harder, be a little better, work more at being good. One of the women in my book club commented that in the end this was a very Adam I way of becoming an Adam II. I think that hit the nail on the head. He even has a “moral bucket list” form on his website for this book.
Now there is nothing wrong with trying to be better or trying to replace virtues like pride with humility. However, as a Christian, I believe that I can’t ever succeed on my own. Far from being depressing or hopeless, that is the thing that gives me hope. I struggle every day with countless small petty sins. Anger. Frustration. Impatience. Laziness. Selfishness. Every single resolution I have ever made to be better and tried to follow through on my own gets broken or twisted. It is only when I completely realize my need for grace that I can begin to be conformed by God into who I am meant to be.
So, a good book. One I’m glad I read. But one that ultimately left the most important part of the story missing.