Discoveries on the Road to Character
Jan 13, 2016
What is it about people who have great moral depth and exemplary character, and how did they get there? New York Times columnist and author David Brooks wrote a book exploring The Road to Character, and at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, he spoke with Yahoo News global anchor Katie Couric about what he found out in the process.
The book is basically about humility, said Brooks, who defines the word as radical self-awareness from a distance, the ability to step outside yourself and see yourself as part of a broader landscape.
Brooks related a couple encounters that got him to thinking about the concept. Both involved meeting people — from the Dalai Lama to ordinary, unknown people — who radiated kindness, joy, and an inner light that couldn’t be attributed to any externally defined success.
“My reaction was, I’ve achieved more career success than I ever imagined, but I certainly haven’t achieved that. And we all want to achieve that. So how does that happen?”
In writing The Road to Character, Brooks examined the personal journeys of ten people — including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Eliot — all of whom he described as starting out “broken inside.” But then they went through a series of life experiences that gave them a “moral education” and led to developing their internal character, which in turn influenced the world around them.
Brooks is clear that the concept of having good character doesn’t mean someone is perfect, and in fact, that’s a notion that has shifted over time. He cited the traditional idea of moral ecology that “we are splendidly endowed, but we’re also deeply broken. We have both good and evil in us.”
But the last few generations — since the baby boomers, Brooks said — have been raised to think “we’re the golden figure inside; we just have to love ourselves. And the sin is social.”
“I think the earlier moral ecology is truer,” Brooks added.
Brooks deliberately uses the word sin, because he says it’s important for people to recognize their own weaknesses, and that understanding one’s core sin is the first step to a moral education.
Suffering is also very often a component of the road to character, Brooks said, describing it like this:
“Suffering takes you beneath the everydayness of life … It carves into the floor of the basement of your soul, then it carves through that, revealing a cavity below. Then it teaches you empathy. Then it launches you up to transcendence.”
Couric asked Brooks whether he really believes that people of great moral character were made rather than born that way, as many might assume.
Brooks responded that while some behavioral characteristics, like risk-taking, are genetically related, genes can be activated by one’s environment, and can be improved or changed. “Genetic disposition doesn’t act in isolation,” he said. “So we’re malleable.”
He pointed out that all of the people in his book “were messes at age 20, and magnificent at 70. So they did something with themselves.”
Character building is also not simply an internal process, Brooks discovered.
“None of us are strong enough to defeat our sins by ourselves,” Brooks said. “People of great character, what they have is an ability to make deep commitment to things outside themselves. So the ability to make really strong commitments is to me the essence of character-building.”
In this clip, Brooks explains the difference between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues” and why they are often in opposition.
Watch the full session here to learn more about Brooks’ thoughts on how personal virtue has changed since the 1940s, why our modern-day moral ecology is different, who some present-day moral exemplars are, how good character could improve our broken political system, and what Brooks would like his own eulogy to say.
By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger