Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Road to Character: Introduction (Adam II)

Brooks says that he wrote The Road to Character in order to save his own soul. What he's actually done, it seems to me, is to mistake his own politics for eternal virtues and his own state of mind for the state of the cosmos. Like so many books that claim to offer a deeper insight into the human self, The Road to Character strikes me as a symptom of the very shallowness it claims to despise.
-Richard King, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 17 2015

I love that review. Shame that there aren't more like it.

First, a little credit where it's due. One of the most disappointing things about The Upside of Down was that the never-wrong McArdle teased in the jacket copy and introduction that she was going to discuss her own failures, only to cop out and admit to basically nothing. Brooks, on the other hand, wastes no time in getting to the good stuff. Here, from the top of page xiv:

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I'm paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am.

Well, Dave, I'd disagree if I could. I can only reward partial credit for this, though, as it's non-specific. It's not about his seriously skewed noble savages piece on the Midwest, or about the time he taught a guest course on humility at Yale that included his own columns in the required reading, or the fact that he cribbed off one of the students from that class for his own column, or the fact that Brooks - with expertise in neither neuroscience or behaviorism - nevertheless wrote a book and lectured on those very topics. You must remember that The Road to Character is a quasi-religious journey for Brooks and, therefore, must begin with a confession of sins. Apparently Brooks feels that his cardinal sin is shallowness, which isn't what I would have gone with but it's a promising start.

The other thing Brooks gives us that McArdle didn't is a clear thesis, and if you've read anything from Brooks in the last two years you probably know this one already:

Recently I've been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They're the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being...

He opts to describe these in terms of what Joseph Soloveitchik called "Adam I" and "Adam II":

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose.

Hey, I'm pretty sure these two were in a book I wrote.

The thesis holds that society puts far too much weight on the "resume virtues" and that way lies only misery. Beyond that, Brooks suggests that while he has not become this ideal virtuous figure, he knows how to become him and wants to help all of us achieve the same. It's a notion he's been working on at least since that notorious humility course, and now he's letting the whole world in on his wisdom (or at least the wisdom he's gleaned from his dozen or so biographies he's skimmed).

The nice thing about writing about higher-order virtues and values is that no one's going to give you much static. There aren't too many critics who are going to come out and argue that "No, materialism is awesome. Let's all buy more shit and make more money." The message, while trite, certainly seems like a valuable one for anyone seeking self-improvement. But when the book came out and the chattering class commenced to talking about it, I didn't hear a lot of inwardly directed thinking. What I heard sounded a lot more like this passage from a review in The Economist:

If you want to be reassured that you are special, you will hate this book. But if you like thoughtful polemics, it is worth logging off Facebook to read it.

Because what good is being virtuous if you don't get to look down at people and sneer?

A major part of this analysis will be Brooks' self-righteousness - where it comes from and why I think it proves that, for all the high-minded rhetoric, Brooks hasn't changed at all. From the little bit I've read thus far, I've seen plenty of Brooks engaging in that time-tested pastime of looking down his nose at the Kids These Days and judging people for focusing on material things. The latter brings to mind the old truism that the only people who say "money doesn't matter" are people who've always had it. As to the former? Well...

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