“The road to character” – David Brooks

Just finished reading David Brooks’s latest book. Three cheers (or if you prefer, five stars) for both the crystal writing and the theme. His book and mine share a concern about the loss of focus on what broadly I call values and he calls character in modern culture, not only as to substance but even as to the ability to discuss matters of “morality” because the anchors of meaning have been lost (a point Alisdair Macintyre was making forty years ago, mind).

You could be fascinated by this book even without interest in its crucial theme just for the biographical sketches of the subjects Brooks chooses. I particularly liked Samuel Johnson (and I suspect Brooks did too) though in my case partly because I knew woefully little of his life. Holiday reading sorted!

This biographical/anecdotal method has its drawbacks, however, though it is the default method for tackling serious subjects for popular consumption since Malcolm Gladwell’s first impact. The strands of Brooks’s main theme are sometimes obscured, even contradicted, because inevitably no two of his subjects embody exactly the same traits or follow the same path. Also, it is inevitable that he can choose only relatively famous, well documented lives, which means both that the examples he chooses are not necessarily typical and even that some of the traits he admires may be artefacts, more to do with the individuals’ success and fame than their character or values – or in Brooks’s terms, more Adam 1 than Adam 2.

There is throughout the book a justifiable disdain for simplistic ethical theorising, a theme that life and the world are too complex for simple maxims. True enough, but in the end we all need some touchstone by which to make our most difficult and even our everyday choices. Brooks acknowledges this in the final chapter by stating a series of lessons he feels emerge from his biographies. I can’t help feeling – but of course I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – that by condemning theory the hard philosophical work has been shirked a bit. You could for example seek to model your life on George Marshall or Samuel Johnson or one of the others, much as religious believers often seek to imitate their founder. But the life you chose would never quite fit the conditions you faced and you would have to rely on a simplified version of the exemplar’s life anyway, which might mislead. And that ignores the philosophical heart of the matter – why choose that particular life?

But all that said, this is a fine book which because of Brooks’s justifiably high reputation will do more than I ever could to bring an important – crucial – theme back into public debate. Three cheers.