Character Counts

BOOK PICK: The Road to Character


By David Brooks                             

Penguin Random House, 2015

320 pages, $28

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In The Road to Character, David Brooks delivers an engaging read that documents and laments the half-century slide toward a relativistic, self-oriented and meritocratic worldview.

Brooks uses two archetypes — Adam I and Adam II — to make his point. Adam I would be characterized as your present-day selfie-obsessed striver, focused on racking up achievements, experiences and worldly treasures, living life according to how he wants to and according to his truths. Adam II, however, would be more reticent, humble and willing to supplant his own urgings to accomplish a greater good.

While not presented as an outright faith-oriented book, many of those profiled relied on their faith to forge their character, and references to such themes are plentiful. Adam I has fallen victim to the dictatorship of relativism, to a world that has largely lost the concept of sin and has become a throwaway culture that rewards the strong at the expense of the weak. Adam II, meanwhile, exemplifies those who die to self and put the needs of others above their own, without tweeting or posting on Facebook every good deed.

In describing the two types, Brooks is not criticizing setting goals and achieving successes. Rather, he is critical of a society that has, over the past half-century, shifted its emphasis to near deification of Adam I qualities.

“If you are only Adam I, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game,” he writes before producing a litany of Adam I traits. “You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not. You foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth. You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces.”

To help make his point more concrete, Brooks uses much of the book to explore 10 diverse lives — selected not because of what the subjects achieved, but because of how they lived their lives. His eclectic subjects include St. Augustine and Dorothy Day, as well as Gens. Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, authors Samuel Johnson and George Eliot and civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin.

In each profile in character, New York Times columnist Brooks focuses on specific challenges or flaws each strove to overcome. For Perkins, this meant responding to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed nearly 150 low-wage and largely immigrant workers by jumping into the tough and at-times seedy world of politics. For Marshall, it meant a long slog toward career advancement and ultimately supplanting his own ambition to command the D-Day invasion and instead remain in Washington as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, an action driven by Marshall’s respect for the institution of the military.

“Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die,” Brooks writes. “ ... In the process of subordinating ourselves to the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. The customs of the institution structure the soul, making it easier to be good. They guide behavior gently along certain time-tested lines. By practicing the customs of an institution, we are not alone; we are admitted into a community that transcends time.”

While Brooks does not blame new communications tools for these woes, he does — rightfully, in my view — note how they have driven or exacerbated Adam I traits. When everyone can be his own performer, producer, publisher or promoter, this can increase the focus on self, while dimming the connectivity to the larger community.

Readers may not find each story as compelling as the next. In fact, some subjects lived lives engaged, at least in part, in morally questionable activities, while others minimized or even walked away from their faith. But, overall, the book contains a desperately needed message.

Like each of our faith journeys, the road to character is a lifelong trek, one with mostly modest-sized steps that go forward and backward.

For most of us, this road will not be paved by parachuting behind enemy lines or selling all we have to live among the poorest of the poor. Rather, it will be traveled over countless small steps and opportunities to commit acts of giving: the 3am feedings, the parish-volunteer job no one wants to fill and being present and patient for the challenging co-worker or family member.

Brooks reminds us how to walk such a well-lived journey, and I highly recommend this book.


Nick Manetto writes from Herndon, Virginia.