Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On Character

A dear friend recommended to me David Brooks' book The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), and she commended it with such strength that I put it on my short list.

Brooks takes up the centuries-old question of how to cultivate strong character. In the introduction he quickly gives up on the idea of teaching character, relying instead on the exemplar, the hero, as the font of maturity and goodness at which the rest of us may drink. In making this decision, Brooks destines The Road to be both intriguing and unsatisfying.

The book intrigues with its explorations of historical figures of deep character. Brooks offers brief but intense biographies of eight famous persons. The way he highlights the peaks and valleys of their lives reveals the vast amount of research and thinking he has done about these figures. His scope spans from the fifth century (Augustin of Hippo) to Bayard Rustin of the mid-1900s. (One could hope that Brooks had increased his geographic scope. He stays in the Western European stream, though examples of character like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi present themselves readily from other parts of the globe.) Brooks reflects in great depth on experiences that shaped these heroes, whitewashing nothing but asserting that all parts of a person's life contribute to their character. Even without the goal of finding a path to character, The Road is worth a read for the fascinating discussion of these eight personalities.

His good-bad-ugly approach arises from Brooks' "crooked-timber" model of human nature. Throughout the book, he laments the loss of past generations' understanding of the self as deeply flawed, sinful, and in need of control. Though Brooks dodges a simplistic definition of "character," every chapter directly or indirectly shows that struggle with one's darkness gives birth to character. And without the struggle--as his critique of author Michel de Montaigne suggests--real character never comes to life. Beneath his writing is Brook's anchor-hold on "moral realism": Humans are complex creatures because there is, in fact, a right and wrong and we live between those sides. The struggle--within and without--to find the right in the midst of the wrong creates character.

The tone of The Road teeters dangerously close to nostalgia at many points. In the final chapter Brooks attempts to soften the charge against our present generation by saying that the cultural swing of 1950s America went too far. Self-esteem and affirmation are all right, he asserts, but too much has been forgotten. Whether The Road is a condemnation of or corrective to our current culture must be left to the reader to decide. Perhaps the struggle of that judgment will be character-building in itself.

The Road leaves the reader unsatisfied. One might expect from any book entitled "The Road to . . ." to provide some sort of map. And in the final chapter Brooks offers "the Humility Code": 15 things that attempt to summarize what the book has been getting at. The list is however bulky and awkward, perhaps because of its attempt to be inclusive, and offers none of the helpful "shall/shall not"s that we expect from a "code." This weakness in the text serves, on the other hand, to illustrate Brook's point.

There exists no code for the development of character. The stories of those who show good character--as famous as Frances Perkins and Nelson Mandela, or as unknown as my grandmother--are the instruction books for wisdom and maturity. And we ought not to neglect the great silent player, unmentioned in much of Brooks' book: the cause of suffering. Suffering itself comes up many times as the agent of character-building struggle, but the cause of suffering seems so often beyond summoning or control. Catastrophe, abuse, illnesses mental and physical, economic hardship--these all serve as crucibles in which character takes shape.

Perhaps great hope for Brooks' beleaguered generation comes from some impending suffering, some revelation of its own darkness, that will call forth the kind of struggle that brought character in the past. All is not lost: If we are indeed made from "crooked timber," then this hull of cultural positivism will soon breach and we will be cast into the tide of hardship to sink or swim. And in the swimming many more exemplars of good character will be born.

Thanks, Phyllis, for recommending this book!

~ emrys