Review of The Road to Character

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David Brooks, PBS commentator and New York Times op-ed columnist, is the best-selling author of Bobos In Paradise and The Social Animal. Here he vests deeply in traditional wisdom as he attempts to describe a life path that combines ambition with personal, moral and spiritual growth. In seeking to illustrate a sound moral life, he presents an updated version of the great man theory of social, moral and political history. Brooks’s prose is accessible and flows smoothly, though his thinking and writing are grounded in the familiar. Seeking examples and inspiration, he doesn’t stray into new or startling ideas in this collection of tales of the lives of historical figures who exemplify his central theme: the quest to live a life of character.

Brooks begins his discussion of the vast dissonance between the greatness of people’s accomplishments and the difficulties of their private, sexual or moral life by citing 1965’s A Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The great rabbinical scholar describes two kinds of people: Adam I is external, a maker and doer, living by a “utilitarian calculus.” In contrast, Adam II favors internal growth over external ambition; he’s driven to be morally sound and to make a difference. Using this rubric, Brooks searches for Adam II as he details the lives of various significant figures, each under a different heading, including “Self-Conquest,” “Ordered Love,” “Dignity,” “Struggle” and “Self-Examination.”

Brooks’s ideas are simultaneously timeless and regressive, best suited those who need to learn and those who are ready to reflect. Someone well read in existentialism or more contemporary philosophies that embrace the role of doubt, uncertainty and psychology in modern life may find Brooks too traditional. His cultural history and ethical examples will support readers seeking moral guidance, illuminating tales from the past and a grounding in ethical thinking. As he advocates humility, so he proceeds, saying, “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.”

About the Author

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks is a regular on PBS Newshour and Meet the Press. His best-selling books include: Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There; The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; and On Paradise Drives: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.



Personal crisis leads to moral growth.

Brooks argues that every person he offers as an avatar of moral growth had to recover from a devastating personal crisis. How they responded defined their lives – no matter how great their accomplishments. Brooks’s examples of people who grew amid interior and exterior struggles cross barriers of time and place. His diverse cast includes philosopher Saint Augustine, novelist George Eliot, President Dwight Eisenhower, US General George Marshall, gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and the author of Man’s Quest for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Brooks offers an array of folksy advice, moral truths and gentle admonitions.

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