Summary insights from David Brooks, The Road to Character. (Random House 2015). Read the stories in the book as well. They are well researched, inspiring and beautiful.
1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek our pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some sort of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the centre of the universe, as if everything revolves around us.We resolve to do one thing but end up doing its opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we will pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desire even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.
3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have a capacity to recognize sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of inner victory.
4. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your place in the cosmos. Humility is the awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness. Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe, but you serve a larger order.
5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Prod blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.
6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success. The struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd. It is possible to fight the battle well or badly, humourlessly or with cheerful spirit. Contending with weakness often means choosing what parts of yourself to develop and what parts not to develop. The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. It doesn’t matter if you work at a hedge fund or a charity serving the poor. There are heroes and schmucks in both worlds. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in this struggle.
7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions. If you make selfish cruel and disorganized choices, then you are slowly turning the core thing inside yourself into something that is degraded, inconstant, or fragmented. You can do harm to this core thing with nothing more than ignoble thoughts, even if you are not harming anyone else. You can elevate the core thing with an act of restraint nobody sees. If you don’t develop a core character in this way, life will fall to pieces sooner or later. You will become a slave to your passions. But if you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.
8. The things that lead us astray are short term–lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we call character endure over the long term–courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin. People with character also have scope. They are not infinitely flexible, free-floating, and solitary. They are anchored by permanent attachments to important things. In the realm of the intellect, they have a set of permanent convictions about fundamental truths. In the realm of emotion, they are enmeshed in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, they have a permanent commitment to tasks that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.
9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside–from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars. If you are to prosper in this confrontation with yourself, you will have to put yourself in a state of affection. You have to draw on something outside yourself to cope with the forces inside yourself. You have to draw from a cultural tradition that educates the heart, that encourages certain values, that teaches what to feel in certain circumstances. We wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs, and the boundaries between us are distinct.
10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course–either by an overwhelming love, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit you need help and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of a unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.
11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self can you be open to external sources of strengths you will need. Only by stilling the sensitive ego can you react with equipoise to the ups and downs of the campaign. The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement–reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing–and capacity for reverence and admiration.
12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We are generally not capable of understanding the complex web of of causes that drive events. We are not even capable of grasping the unconscious depths of our own minds. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts. But over the centuries, our ancestors built up a general bank of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices. She is the grateful inheritor of the tacit wisdom of her kind, the grammar of conduct and the store of untaught feelings that are ready for use in case of emergency, that offer of practical tips if how to behave in different situations, and that encourage habits to cohere into virtues. The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.
13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder whether people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?
14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. He realizes that he, like the people he leads, is likely to be sometimes selfish, narrow-minded, and self-deceiving. Therefore he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests. The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understands that in politics and in business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk of bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.
15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. Maturity is not based on talent or any of the mental and physical gifts that can help you ace an IQ test or run fast or move gracefully. It is not comparative. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of testing. Maturity does not glitter. It is not built on the traits than make people celebrities. A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the purpose and meaning of life is calmed. The mature can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions of admirers or detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right. That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses.
Further Thoughts: Camelot fell apart when Arthur asked ‘Does the king serve the kingdom?’ or ‘Does the kingdom exist for the king?’
Virtue comes at the point of crisis, in how we respond to crisis. Crisis often gives an opportunity to understand certain things about yourself and the world–a chance to prove one’s character.
The Capital Virtues are Courage, Temperance, Justice and Wisdom. Theological Virtues are Faith, Hope and Love: try raising children without a good supply.
What sound does grace make? It is silent until it hits something, until it connects with us at the point of our brokenness.
Subjectivism or self-referentiality which justify vice, is a poison that can eat away at a whole life. Acrasia (moral laziness) is one of the great problems of our day. It is a state of loss of charge of one’s moral life, not fruitful freedom and creativity.
See also on character development Angela Duckworth, Grit: the power of passion and perseverance.
Gordon E. Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity. (Infocus, 2016)
Parker Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, p. 32) says it well:
The people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision. They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out—and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others.