There's one problem - this section is pretty much the same thing over and over, with only the occasional flicker of something novel. I pondered a few ways to address this while keeping to a reasonable word could and finally settled upon a system based on an alphabetic code. My arguments are below; I will enter the letter(s) under each of Brooks' point, followed by novel content where appropriate.
- A. Most of what Brooks says is very generic and anodyne. This is part and parcel of the "Why not plant a tree?" argument used by Sensible Centrist pundits to downplay the importance of political activism and the role of disagreement in a democratic society. The problem is not that this advice is bad, it's that it has little relevance in context. "People should be nicer and not chase after possessions" is good advice in the same sense as "People should exercise more" and "People should save their money" are good advice - sure, in some general sense, but those may not be the solutions to your audience's problems. It doesn't help that "Don't be a materialist" is a line that's been a staple of every self-help guru and newspaper columnist going back a good fifty years, and yet everyone (Brooks included) treats it like a bold declaration.
- B. Brooks' more specific advice is only truly relevant to the economic and cultural elites. This wouldn't be a problem except that Brooks seems to think that his audience consists of all Americans, not merely the affluent and connected. For example, his advice to seek a meaningful career rather than a high-status one isn't going to mean much for my friends who have to take whatever job is available just to survive, and his cautioning against marrying for status is irrelevant to the vast majority of Americans for whom this is not an option at all. Basically, Brooks is a upper crust lifestyle columnist who thinks he's a man of the people because he's been to Pennsylvania a few times.
1. The relationalist is not trying to dominate life by sheer willpower. He is not gripping the steering wheel and trying to strategize his life. He has made himself available. He has opened himself up so that he can hear a call and respond to a summons. He is asking, What is my responsibility here? When a person finds his high calling in life, it doesn’t feel like he has taken control; it feels like he has surrendered control. The most creative actions are those made in response to a summons.This is straight out of The Road to Character - from the beginning, in fact, Chapter 2. It's probably meant as a rejoinder to people who lead carefully planned lives (so B goes here), but if you take it literally it turns into an argument for doing nothing but sit around until some external force acts upon you - like a jellyfish. This is the fun of bad writing, you can read it however you want and it's still fair.
2. The summons often comes in the form of love. A person falls in love with her child, her husband, her neighborhood, her people, her calling, or her God. And with that love comes an urge to make promises–to say, I will always love you. I will always serve you and be there for you. Life is a vale of promise making.A.
3. Or a summons may come in the form of a need. There is some injustice, some societal wrong, that needs to be fixed. A person assumes responsibility—makes a promise to fight that fight and right that wrong.A funny sentiment, given Brooks' apprehension over activists and activism. He has to say this because there have been some political figures among his Great Men. It seems that in his philosophy, there is bad activism that is just a "moral patch" used by shallow people and good activism which is...well...Dave?
4. When a summons has been felt and a promise has been made, a commitment has been sealed. The life of a relationalist is defined by its commitments. The quality and fulfillment of her life will be defined by what she commits to and how she fulfills those commitments.A. As opposed to other people who are constantly betraying each other, I suppose.
5. A commitment is a promise made from love. A commitment is a promise made without expecting any return (though there will be returns aplenty). A committed relationship is a two-way promise. It is you throwing yourself wholeheartedly for another and another throwing himself wholeheartedly for you."Returns aplenty" - I guess true sacrifice is only for the poor and the old. Also, how can his writing be both excessively flowery and stultifyingly stiff at the same time?
6. The person makes his commitments maximal commitments. He doesn’t just have a career; he has a vocation. He doesn’t just have a contract marriage (What’s in it for me?). He has a covenantal marriage (I live and die for you). He doesn’t just have opinions. He submits to a creed. He doesn’t just live in a place. He helps build a community. Furthermore, he is not just committed to this abstract notion of “community.” He is committed to a specific community, to a specific person, to a specific creed—things grounded in particular times and places.B. This was obligatory. Note how hard he's hitting on that "community" aspect, which he never quite defines (yet, anyway).
7. By committing and living up to the daily obligations of his commitments, the person integrates himself into a coherent whole. Commitments organize the hours and the days of a life. A committed person achieves consistency across time. His character is built through the habitual acts of service to the people he loves. His character is built by being the humble recipient of other people’s gifts and thus acknowledging his own dependency. A contract gets you benefits, but a commitment transforms who you are.Organization and consistency, huh? Really breaking away from that structured upper class life, I see.
8. Relationalists prioritize those actions that deepen commitment, build relationships and enhance human dignity: giving, storytelling, dance, singing, common projects, gathering, dining, ritual, deep conversation, common prayer, forgiveness, creating beauty, mutual comfort in times of sadness and threat, mutual labor for the common good.A. B. Apparently Brooks thinks he needs to tell his target audience to enjoy music, conversation and food. This is where we are, apparently, a man getting lots of money to write a book where he advises people on how fun dancing is. But do the members of the upper crust really need to know this? I thought all those folks ever did was go to dinner parties and chat.
9. The relational life is an open adventure. There are always ups and down, the forces of impersonalization warring against the forces of personalization. What matters is how you serve relationships through the ups and downs. It’s in the how. The profundity is in the adverbs.I genuinely have no idea what this paragraph is about, although "the profundity is in the adverbs" is one of the worst sentences I have ever read. It scans clumsily, sits in the paragraph awkwardly, and really should have been deleted hastily had the editor not approached her work so glumly and been in a hurry to drink aggressively.
10. A committed life involves some common struggles.A one sentence topic paragraph. Bravo.
11. It is, for example, a constant struggle to see people at their full depths. In the business of daily life there is the constant temptation to see the other person as an object and not a whole. There is the constant temptation to label and generalize. There is the constant temptation to reduce people to data and to see them as data points. You can count apples with data. You can track human behavior in the mass. But there is something that is unique and irreplaceable about each person that data cannot see. The relationalist tries to see each individual as a whole person—as a body, mind, heart, and soul.A. Something of a funny sentiment from a man who has given speeches on behaviorism as recently as 2016, but there I go, attacking Brooks again. As to the argument...Brooks really seems to believe that most Americans are literally sociopaths. If people are scrutinizing each other as sets of data points, then they aren't shallow, they're robots. If this is how Brooks sees the world, then it would explain a whole lot.
12. There is the constant struggle to communicate well. At every moment there is either a depth of communication or a shallowness of communication. The relationalist seeks conditions that will make communication deep and pure. This is hard because there’s something in ourselves that eludes our ability to communicate it. There is something proper about modesty and the slow unveiling of one’s self. To achieve I–Thou communication, even to glimpse it, the relationalist sits patiently as vulnerabilities are gradually revealed. She offers safety and respect. Sometimes what is deepest is related in the form of myth, story, and music. When communication fails or is corrupted, the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier says, I suffer a loss of myself.My first thought was "a writer and pundit who thinks it's hard to communicate? Wow, you sure picked the right vocation." My second thought was a question - does The Second Mountain have a guide to communicating? Really? With all that "calling" talk, I assumed that Brooks was trying to get his readers to break out of a structured life, but it seems like his ideal life is still highly regimented.
13. There is the constant struggle to live as an effective giver and receiver of gifts. There are millions of people around us whose lives are defined by generosity and service. Personal being, Mounier continues, is essentially generous. But our society does not teach us how to be an effective giver of gifts. The schools don’t emphasize it. The popular culture is confused about it.So...I'm guessing that "giving gifts" is more in that Christian sense of sharing one's talents than it is about literal present giving. I'm going to assume that, anyway. How is the "popular culture is confused about it", exactly? To Brooks, it seems, there is a wrong way to be generous, much like there is a wrong way to be an activist. My guess is that there's a paragraph to explain that, probably with frequent use of the word "institution" and at least one Burke quote.
14. It is a constant struggle to see life through a moral lens. The practical workaday world primes the utilitarian lens. Consumerism calls forth a self that is oriented around material pleasure. Money has an anonymous power and tends to render the person on the other side of a transaction invisible. Workplace rivalries and modern politics require armored individuals—human tanks with no exposure. The effort to fight the utilitarian lens and see daily life through a moral lens is a hard and never-ending struggle.B (I guess?). He really does think that the average person is a sociopath, doesn't he? This is, in part, the de rigeur "Partisanship is out of control" bit that's in every unreadable centrist book, but it mostly takes off of Brooks' assumption that we are all "hyper-individiualistic" actors slitting each other's throats in a winner-take-all scramble for promotions at work. Maybe the members of the American overclass really are that monstrous, but I assure you that most people do not approach every interaction with the intent of maximizing utility. Many of us aren't even in a position to be that cynically calculated, and rivalries? Really? This mindset that assumes that all Americans are in an unceasing competition to destroy each other is the same one that tells you that Americans need to be told that music and dancing are fun.
15. These struggles are not against other people. The line between ego and soul runs down the middle of every person. Most of us, from time to time, buy into a workaholic ethos that leaves us with little time for relationship. Most of us, from time to time, hue to a code of privacy that prevents us from actually knowing the people who live right nearby. Most of us live with technology that aims to reduce friction and maximize efficiency. Relationship, though, is inherently sticky and inefficient. Most of us, daily, slip back into self-absorption, succumb to the hunger for status, and have to recognize that and dive back into relation.B. And again with the assumption that everyone is so status-obsessed that we neglect to...hold on, what's that in the fourth sentence? "hue to a code of privacy"? "Hue to"?
You slack-ass motherfucker, never talk about "vocation" again! EVER! You want to know what commitment to something looks like? Huh? It's editing the first five pages of a manuscript twenty times because one tiny error and everyone will reject it. It's running it through word analysis because you're afraid you might be a bit repetitive (yes, Dave, for most writers that's a bad thing). It's sweating over sentences, dialogue, character description, not just for errors but for writing that's too blunt or too trite or too flowery. And it's doing this even after someone has the good grace to request to see it because it's never good enough for you.
...Sorry, I seem to have lost focus there. Are we almost done?
16. The relationalist life is an evolving conversation between self and society. It’s always balancing tensions and trying to live life in graceful balance."Balance." Meaning that once again, Dave has found the center and claimed it for his own.
17. The relational life is a challenging life but ultimately it’s a joyful life, because it is enmeshed in affection and crowned with moral joy.I promised I wouldn't, but he's inviting me in - how do you know it's so joyful, Dave? You're not following it. You never have.
I wanted to analyze this from a purely philosophical standpoint, but there's just not that much to say. This might be good advice in another time and place...I don't know, Japan in the 80s, or maybe even the U.S. during the same period, but what's the relevance now? It's really easy to mock that "music is fun and food is good" bit, but it's there because Brooks assumes that the average person is so dedicated to building status that he ignores those things. These days, if someone is working such long hours that he doesn't have time to enjoy life, it's less likely that he's gunning for that big promotion and more likely that he's trying to pay his rent or cover someone's medical bills.
That's the thing - Dave keeps discovering these "great" pieces of advice that are common sense to most people. How many people need to be told that it's good to have close friends? Or to love your spouse? Or to help out your neighbors if they need it? I can think of a few explanations. Either David Brooks genuinely believes that we are a nation of Patrick Batemans and we're just fortunate that we're not tripping over the bodies when we walk down the sidewalk; or the upper class really is like that and Brooks knows something we don't; or Brooks has found out that he can get money and accolades for absolutely anything.
The most generous read I can give is that Brooks is trying to address those people who've led highly planned and structured lives, telling them that there's more to life than work and brown-nosing, and the rest of us just got pulled along for the ride. Even then, though, his advice is not that they shed the structure, but merely tweak it a bit. It's places like this where you can really see how Rod Dreher has influenced Brooks as of late.
Next time: "The Good Society."