“We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate…we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.” – David Brooks
“That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in flight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” – Cicero
In 1950, a Gallup poll found that 12% of American high school seniors considered themselves a very important person. In 2005, it was 80%. The median narcissism score has increased by 30% in the last two decades, while the number of people who say they are lonely has doubled. Our very culture can feel dominated by the message that you are special, unique, and irreplaceable. In some ways this is good, of course: self-esteem and confidence are important virtues. In others, David Brooks argues, it reflects a failure of society understand what matters, and a focus on resume virtues – what you talk about in a job interview – instead of eulogy virtues – what you’d like said at your funeral.
David Brooks himself, as he points out, is “paid to be narcissistic blowhard” as a pundit and columnist. He worries that though he may have vague moral aspirations, he lacks the concrete vocabulary and understanding of how to live a rich inner life to achieve them. To try to improve the situation, in The Road to Character he tells the lives of some men and women he believes showed true character, from American General George Marshall to the first woman appointed to a U.S. cabinet post, Frances Perkins.
Character is an interesting issue, and I have some sympathy with Brooks’ concern over a somewhat self-centered modern culture. Unfortunately, many of his stories didn’t particularly speak to me: not because the people weren’t impressive, but perhaps because it is difficult to show a critically reflective and wise individual from the outside. A catch-22 I don’t know how to resolve, unfortunately: I’m not sure the Buddha is likely to write a biography. I think Brooks is right the developed world could do a little more to reflect on virtue and morality, but I’m not sure this book quite gets us there. Still, in order to prompt your own reflections, potentially worth a read.