The Inverse Logic of Life
Plenary session featuring David Brooks.
Speakers: David Brooks
The Inverse Logic of Life
THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL 2013
PLENARY SESSION -- AMERICA: ONE NATION, DIVISIBLE
THE INVERSE LOGIC OF LIFE
Paepcke Center Auditorium
Thursday, June 27, 2013
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS:
Columnist, The New York Times
Commentator, PBS NewsHour
MR. BROOKS: (In progress) -- noon. So I'm getting in touch with the real America.
MR. BROOKS: It's good. I don't see what people are complaining about. It seems pretty nice. So I'm going to tell you a -- I use these talks -- these are the only talks I give only once a year, like, this is the only time I'm going to give this talk. And it -- I use the Ideas Festival as the occasion to sort of summarize what I've been thinking about just for my own use over the past year, and I'm going to try to do that again. And this talk originated -- I taught a course at Yale because I only teach at colleges I couldn't have gone into myself.
MR. BROOKS: And before I get into the talk, I want to emphasize that Yale is a great place, that is, if not the best university in the world, certainly one of the best. And two great things happened to me this year and one of them was teaching at Yale. But students at lead universities do have -- do live in a certain situation. And if you have students at these universities, you know them, and you know they have a certain background.
They're raised by a creature I call über moms or highly successful career women who take time off to make sure all their kids can get into Yale. And you can usually tell the über moms because they actually weigh less than their own children even in infancy.
MR. BROOKS: They take these -- you know, their butt exercises at the moment of conception so they can be fit and thin, taking soy -- so many soy-based nutritional formula during pregnancy the babies come out -- these 10 pound BMRs, these toothless defensive alignment plopping out in delivery room, the über mom is cutting the umbilical cord herself, flashing little Mandarin flashcards at the things to get it ready to --
MR. BROOKS: -- buying it socially enlightened baby formula and ice cream from Ben & Jerry's and places like that. And then sending the kids off to third grade with these 80-pound backpacks on their back filled with calculus textbooks so if the wind blows them over, they're like beetles sort of stuck there on the ground.
MR. BROOKS: And then by the time they finished high school and are applying for college, they've usually started four companies, cured two formerly fatal diseases, participated in three obscure sports like fencing, Frisbee golf, and snow volleyball. And they get into Yale and if you ask them what are you doing spring break and they'll say, like, I'm unicycling across Thailand while reading poetry to lepers.
MR. BROOKS: And then they go off in the summertime and they intern at a congressional office offering their bosses policy advice and sexual tension.
MR. BROOKS: And it was actually great teaching them. They master impressive skills. They can dominate classroom discussion, though they've done none of the reading.
MR. BROOKS: And they also -- I noticed this in lectures -- they have the ability to look at you like with rapt, adoring attention even while they're fast asleep. And so the -- I love being around them and it was just an enormous pleasure to be around them. But on the final day of the class -- and most of my kids were seniors and so this was the final class session they would have at Yale -- I read them a quote which I actually put in a column about a week or two ago from a University of Chicago professor named Karl Weintraub.
And I'll just read a bit of the quote. He's spending his life teaching the great books to college students and he's not sure they get it. And so he writes -- and he wrote this to a friend of mine named Carol Quillen who's now at Davidson -- "I feel like screaming suddenly: 'Oh, God, dear student, why CANNOT you see that this is a matter, a real, real matter, often the matter of very being for the person, the historical man and woman you are reading about or are supposed to be reading about!'
"I hear answers from" -- "statements from students that sound like mere words. These disembodied words come forth and make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe the open wounds and behind the text makes me increasingly furious. Sometimes I spend an hour or more pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them. I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”
And so this is a teacher's lament -- is it getting across. And so I read them this passage. And it was the last class for many of them at Yale, so I said, what book were you assigned that left a big impact on you; what book changed your life in the last 4 years -- not only from my class, but from any class. And there was a long pause and then one of the students finally said, you got to understand we don't really read that way. We're really busy and we want to read to get through the class. And there was general assent to this.
And then another student said, there were some books that I think could really -- be really important to me, so I set them aside for reading after college. And I felt like saying, if you didn't read in college, you're not reading it after college.
MR. BROOKS: And this surprised me and I didn't say you wasted 4 years, I don't believe that. And these are remarkably spiritually deep students. But they're caught in a certain culture which I started thinking about the soul of man under meritocracy. And there's so much pressure -- even at Yale I was really struck by the insecurity for outward achievement. The competition is so fierce to get into Yale, to get a job at Goldman Sachs, to get a job at Teach for America, that all the pressure is about outward achievement -- from their parents, from themselves, from the peers, from every question they're asked in a cocktail party.
And so they conceive of life as a journey and the primary contact with the -- is with the outer world, not with the inner world. And I had a brilliant student -- among my brilliant students was one named Victoria Buhler, and I -- she wrote a great paper which I turned into a column. And she wrote in that paper "Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage compared to others who maintained the priority of self."
So if everyone's competing to get this few really good jobs, it's tough to have a rich internal life because they're ahead of you. And we also, in addition, live in an era where data and science and neuroscience speaks with incredible self-confidence. And the sciences really seem to be explaining everything, and I've written about that, and I think they explain a lot. But it's made these students magnetically attached to the science and to data and to empiricism. They're suspicious of abstractions, they're suspicious of moralism, they believe in wankery.
It's no accident that probably the two most brilliant young journalists in America is a guy named Ezra Klein and Nate Silver -- I think Nate is here -- and they're very data-heavy -- of that generation. Buhler wrote in her essay, "We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; we require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before we commit to any course of action."
There's something admirable about that realism, but it has its downsides, which as they understand, they have no vocabulary to talk about inner life. They haven't been given to them, and they're not quite sure how to get it. It leads to a demoralized life if all you're doing is focusing on the outside. And I don't want to say this is just about their generation. I think it's about all of us who live in a competitive meritocracy.
And so one of the things -- and it's certainly true about me -- and one of the things I try to do in the class is give them examples of people who led rich inner lives just to show them what it looks like. And I did this all through history. And one of the guys I talked about was a man who probably led one of the richest lives -- inner lives if anybody -- or at least expressed it in history, which was Augustine. Augustine was born in 354 in what's now Algeria.
His mother was born a Christian. She's wise, earthy, devout, unlettered, but really controlling -- a very tiger mom-ish woman. And Augustine grows up very smart, obviously, and like my students, very ambitious and very wants to demonstrate his brilliance to everybody around the world. He goes to Carthage, he becomes -- hangs around with these graduate students, and he leads a sort of wild life. He is involved with what we would call the hookup culture.
And -- but he's -- such inner life, the raw material for such rich inner life is already there, and it's turmoil. So he writes of his -- that period when he's socializing and getting drunk and hanging around women, "I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love. And from the depths of my need I hated myself. What I needed most was to love and be loved. But most of all when I obtained the enjoyment of the body, I rushed headlong into love, eager to be caught.
"Happily I wrapt those painful bonds around me and sure enough, I would be lashed with the red-hot iron rods of jealousy, by suspicion and fear, by bursts of anger and quarrels." So he was a high-maintenance boyfriend.
MR. BROOKS: But he had a lot going on even in the turmoil. And then he goes on and marries a common woman in life, someone who's from a social class below him, as was normal in those days. But when his mother found him a wife of his own social class -- with whom he'd had a child, he had to dump her and send her back home. He writes, "She was an obstacle to my marriage. The woman I lived with for so long" -- they lived together for 15 years -- "The woman I lived with for so long was torn out of my side. My heart, to which she had been grafted, was lacerated, wounded, shedding blood."
So he could feel pain. And that guilt, I think over that and over life and the turmoil of life, cost him to investigate his own sinfulness and his own cruelty. And he turns in his great book, The Confessions, to one seemingly minor incident. He's hanging around as a teenager with a bunch of his rowdy friends. They go into an orchard and steal some pears. And they were not particularly good pears. He wasn't hungry for pears, he didn't eat the pears. He just took them because it felt good to steal -- it was sort of fun -- and because of the peer pressure.
And he reflected on this passage, which obviously stealing fruit from a tree has a biblical parallel -- he reflected on his own nature -- I want one thing, but I do another. I want to be a good person, but I do bad things, I'm drawn to the bad. As he wrote, "For the good that I would do, I do not, but the evil which I should not do, that I do." And he realizes he's imprisoned by his own desires to do bad both with women, for his ambition, and even in something as small as stealing a pear.
He writes, "I was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else, but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me prisoner. The consequences of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion habit is formed, and habit which you don't resist becomes necessity. By these links connected to another, a harsh bondage held me under restraint." He's imprisoned by his own selfishness and his own passion.
And it should be emphasized, he's not leading a debauch life. He's leading the sort of life all of us lead, with some selfishness wrapped in the middle. And he has this view of human nature that we're fallen -- Murphy's law sort of view -- that if something can go wrong, it probably will. He goes off and becomes a teacher. His mom joins him, lives with him -- as tiger moms are wont to do with their adult children.
MR. BROOKS: And he becomes a teacher. And he's in a garden one day and somebody is talking about some other people who are sacrificing for religion. And he wonders, you know, they are sacrificing, I'm just enjoying pleasure, what's wrong with me. And he becomes fair klempt -- I'm not sure that's an Augustinian word -- he starts crying.
MR. BROOKS: And he feels a controversy and he wants to be alone. He goes off in the garden to be alone. And he hears a voice which sounds like a child's voice coming from a neighboring house. And the voice says, take up and read, take up and read. So he goes back in the garden, finds a bible, opens it at random and reads this passage, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh."
He stops reading, says he instantly feels a light infusing upon him. It's one of the most famous conversion scenes in world history. And he tells God in his confessions in this book that -- and then he goes and of course what's the first thing you're going to do when you see God's presence -- you're going to tell mom. And so he goes to Monica and he tells her of his epiphany, of his religious experience. And he writes to God, "Thou didst convert her mourning into joy, much more plentiful than she had desired, more precious and purer than she required, by having made grandchildren of my body."
And so his epiphany is you're raised to be ambitious to sort of go out and conquer the world. But if you want to have inner peace, you have to -- you can't be -- you can't conquer God the way you would conquer a job opportunity. You have to be receptive and be passive; you have to hold up the white flag. And so he discovers it's not about conquering and being ambitious and being intent. It's about being receptive and vulnerable. And this is what he discovers at that moment.
And it's -- that's an impulse -- it's very difficult for us who are raised to be ambitious and to work hard, to realize the key to actual happiness is not about movement and ambition, it's about receptivity and self-renunciation. So he has this conversion, it changes his life. He goes off to a town called Ostia. His mom, on the way, says she's going to die. She's clearly very ill. And they have a final conversation and they stood together.
And he describes this conversation that he's staying -- sitting with his dying mom at a window overlooking a garden. And he remembers the conversation this way, "Alone, very sweetly forgetting these things which are behind, reaching forward unto those things which are before" -- life after death -- "the very highest delight of earthly senses in the very purest material light in respect of the sweetness of that life -- we came to our minds and went beyond them, into the realm of pure spirit."
And then in The Confessions he has one sentence which I can't read because it's about 3,000 words. But it surrounds a certain word -- the word in some translations is "silence," in some translation it's "hush." And he talks about hush coming over their world, their together world, the way lights would shut out in a city. He talks about how the tumult of the flesh was hushed the water and the air was hushed, the world was hushed, the self was hushed, even the mind was hushed.
And because those things were hushed, they both entered a realm of pure joy. And that's really the perfect vision of the self-renunciation -- everything is quieted and hushed. And 5 days later Monica fell ill and died. And so I tried to describe this experience of Augustine to the classroom. And I have to tell you, it was -- we had a lot of good sessions, this was by far the worst session we had.
MR. BROOKS: And partly because I didn't really express what Augustine was all about. I'd gone to debate generalities about love and the power of love -- part because I think it was tough for them. There are some authors they truly got immediately -- Machiavelli.
MR. BROOKS: That sounds worse than I meant. They got Danny Kahneman immediately -- speaking fast and slow. This was a tougher one. And so you got the sense of this two overlapping worlds -- the inner world of Augustine and then our current culture. And again, it's not about the students who were great. It's about the pressure that they are in and worrying. And these two overlapping worlds reminded me of a book which I have to recommend to everybody, which was written by a guy named Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
And he wrote a book in 1965, a very famous book, a very short but very profound book called The Lonely Man of Faith. And in that book he argues that there are two accounts of genesis in -- two accounts to the creation of the world in genesis. In the first one man is given dominion over nature and his goal -- to go out and run the world, basically. The other one man is made out of ashes and is just told to tend the Garden of Eden. So one is very ambitious, one is very humble, or what Soloveitchik puts it, one is majestic and one is humble.
And he says these two accounts describe the two sides of our nature that Adam I -- what he calls Adam I which is majestic Adam -- that's the worldly, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, discover things, have a great career, win victories. Adam I is aggressive, independent, wants to impress the world. But then there's a second Adam which he calls humble Adam, and this is Adam II. Adam II wants to be enveloped by love, by security, by meaning.
Adam II wants to fall back on the hush to surrender to God. So Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I savors accomplishments, Adam II savors time spent with the family. Adam I wants to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to roots. Adam I wants to ask how things work, Adam II wants to ask how things -- why things exist. And Soloveitchik's point is that these two sides of our nature are perpetually in contradiction, that we live in the self-confrontation between these two sides of our nature.
And there's no ultimate reconciliation between these two. And the complexity of what he describes, or the conflict between Adam I and Adam II is that not only are they different sides of our nature, but they operate by entirely different logics. Adam I has an economic logic and a very direct one that input leads to output, investment leads to return, practice makes perfect, you work at something you get results. That's direct.
Adam II, the inner and more spiritual Adam, has an inverse logic. You have to give to receive, you have to surrender to something outside yourself to give you strength within yourself, you have to conquer your desire to get what you want, in order to fulfill yourself you have to forget yourself, the greatest success leads to the greatest failure which is pride, failure leads to the greatest success which is learning.
And so we today I think -- reminded this of Yale, but I'm reminded of this every day at The New York Times and elsewhere. We live in a culture which nurtures Adam I and sort of forgets about Adam II. And this is, I think, one of the challenges of our day. In the 1950s people were challenged by conformity. In the 1960s they were challenged by excess, in the 1980s maybe materialism. I think today we're challenged by the competitiveness of global economy.
And Adam I wants to have a monopoly. He wants to be the only Adam, and the world sort of encourages that. And the problem is if you are only Adam I you turn into a shrewd animal. You're sort of a crafty, self-preserving creature who turns everything into a game, and you lose a certain inner joy and an inner peace. And so one of the things I was trying to express to the students and trying to understand for myself was how do you achieve a balance of Adam I and II.
And for us, most of us anyway, that means bulking up Adam II. How do you do that? How do you bulk up this other side of our nature? And over the years I've talked from this podium and elsewhere at Aspen about certain people -- here are some I know I think do balance that. I've talked about Dorothy Day and Frances Perkins and David -- and Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, all of whom had deep internal lives at the same time they achieved a lot in the world.
One more I'll just throw on is an older example of somebody who achieved the inner and outer life, and that's Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born in 1709. He was silent after emerging from his mother's womb. They thought he was dead. His aunt told him he was so misshapen she wouldn't have picked him up if she saw him on the street. There was more damage done by his nursemaid who had tuberculosis, which infected him. He went deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, nearly blind in the other.
He quickly as an infant got small pox which scarred up his face. Doctors did an operation on his thyroid gland which left deep scaring on his jaws and cheeks. He was still a sickly child and so they opened up a wound in his arm which they kept open for 6 years, opening it every week to allegedly let the bad vapors out. He was a large, misshapen child and he could barely see and hear. A teacher followed him home -- from school he was walking down the street, he couldn't see the curve. So he'd get down on all fours and crawl up to the curve so he'd know when to step over it.
Later in life, by the way, these disabilities made him very strong. He had, what one biographer called, the defiant disregard of physical liabilities. He -- it made him suspicious to self-indulgence. Johnson wrote that disease produces selfishness; it's very hard for a sick man not to be a scoundrel. And he wanted to fight against that. And so -- but that was later in his life when he had this self-demand.
Throughout the early part of his life, he was pretty much a basket case. He was very smart, but he was lazy. And so he went -- he got off to Oxford, was completely prepared, but just couldn't bother to attend classes. The money ran out after a year, and he went home in shame and disgrace, went through a period of 5 years in his early 20s when he had a series of complete mental breakdowns, suicide attempts which left him forever after terrified of going insane. He had a paralyzing indolence, sort of a depression.
He developed a lot of habits which a lot doctors now think was Tourette's syndrome. So he would twist his hands, he would rock back and forth, he would roll his head wildly, he made these weird whistling sounds, convulsive movements, tapping his cane a certain way, entering a room a certain way, sort of OCD behavior. He was extremely poorly dressed. He was apparently disgusting to eat with because he would spew food in all directions. And so by 27 his life had been pretty much a steady calamity.
He tried to become a teacher, but someone with those mannerisms is not going to be in a classroom and not be teased by the students. And so he failed as a teacher, he failed as a school operator, he was a social disaster, his life went badly. He walks off to London with his one pupil, a guy named David Garrick who then became a famous actor. He arrives in London and begins writing. And this is sort of when the male Cinderella story begins. He began writing with brutal honesty.
He had this desperate fear of losing control of his own mind, his own body, and so he decided he was going to ground himself in the truth. And one biographer, Paul Fussell, wrote, he wrote as an act of religious consecration, as an act of penance. He conceived of writing as a way to give himself discipline and grounding and order. And it was all about seeing the world accurately, seeing himself accurately. And many of his most famous sayings are about piercing through vanity and appearances to get at the real grounding of life.
So his -- some of his famous maxims include "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," "No man but a blockhead would ever wrote (sic) for money," "A man of genius has seldom been ruined but by himself," "Read over your composition, take the passage you're proudest of and cross it out," "No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library" -- because all these people have written books thinking it's going to make a difference.
And he did this work for 10 years -- 10 or 15 years, all of it completely anonymous. He was 35, writing up a storm, he'd never had a byline. He was in poverty often. He had to lend his clothing away for money, hawk his clothing, he wrote naked under the sheets, handed it out. But he achieved a certain amount of success. And then his second great achievement as a writer was to fight against the disorders of the imagination. We think of imagination as this sort of wonderful thing. He thought of it as a very menacing thing.
He really distrusted his imagination. He wrote about what he called the diseases of the imagination. He thought imagination was always racing out in front of you, making invidious comparisons, making you feel jealous, making you hypocritical, making you feel worthless. And so he was -- he wanted to police his imagination with tremendous self-control and self-control in his writing. And so he did a series of writings which were about taking his own weaknesses, his own imagination, his own jealousy, his own vanity and dissecting them.
One biographer called it a desperate effort to turn his aggressions against himself, rather than against others. And he did a tremendous amount of writing about vanity because he suffered from vanity. Finally he sought balance -- his writing style was always a little this, a little that -- trying to achieve a balance and a stability. And through this, really decades of hard writing, he achieved a couple things.
He became a famous conversationalist because he thought through everything and he had a maxim for everything. He also, after his early laziness, became an incredibly hard worker. In 1746 he signed a contract to write a dictionary of the English language. In France they had 40 scholars taking 55 years to do a dictionary of the French language -- 40 scholars, 55 years. Johnson did it basically alone in 8 years. He defined 42,000 words -- amazing piece of writing.
Meanwhile he was also writing essays, he was also doing favors for friends -- a friend who's got a job at a law school, but didn't know anything about the law. So Johnson said, okay, I'll write your lectures for you. The lectures Johnson wrote for him amount to 1,600 pages of lectures. So he was -- just became this discipline machine. And then -- and later in his life he started talking about moral exemplars.
He wrote about the great figures in history a bit like Plutarch, and they became sort of moral sermons. And so through his writing, which was a worldly really low profession, journalism, he really built himself up into something that people recognized as a great moral presence. One biographer wrote, the iron had entered his soul, he approached questions of human conduct in the light of terrible experience which enabled him to penetrate into human motives with sureness and understanding.
He developed a great talent for friendship. He was part of one of the most famous clubs in certainly English history. The members of this small dining club included Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, and Oliver Goldsmith. At home he did not traffic with the great. He collected strays, basically, people who were oddballs.
There were some former prostitutes he lived with, there were escaped slaves he lived with, there were some -- there was a moneyless doctor who ministered to the poor -- a fractious group of people all of whom relied upon him, which he could scarcely afford. He walked the streets handing out pennies to orphans, putting it in their hands while they were asleep, imagining how they would feel when they would get up. And he really stood as a literary and moral giant which people acknowledged at the time, and later was famously biographied by Boswell.
Boswell gets the conversationalist, doesn't really get the moral depth. At the end of his life, still feeling about his own weakness, he went back to a spot where one of the shameful moments of his life had occurred, which was his father, who sold books for a living, went to a market, asked him to mind the stall for a couple hours while his father went and did something. Johnson refused when he was a young man. He didn't feel like doing it.
So at the end of his life he went back to the market square in this town of Uttoxeter and stood on that spot where he'd refused his father. And he wrote, "Pride was the source of that refusal and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain. In contrition I stood, and I hope that the penance was expiatory."
And so one of the things I want to emphasize with Johnson is that when we think about the inner life, it's not just honeys and cream, it's not spirituality, it's not (inaudible). It's a very tough-minded attack on your own sinfulness. And if you take the people I've described here in the past years and Johnson, Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower and you add up lives like that, lives where people have a rich outer life but also have a rich inner life, you come up with a series of themes that recur in the lives.
And I've put numbers by them -- series of beliefs which people like that of different centuries, different beliefs, different religions tend to have. First, that human beings are divided creatures. We are a problem to ourselves, we want things we should not want, we want to do one thing but we end up doing another, we're sinful -- these are religious words. Second to the central theme of our weakness is that we're self-centered.
As David Foster Wallace put in a very famous commencement address at -- I think at Kenyon -- everything you experience, you experience that's in front of me, that's behind me, that's beside me, it's all revolving around me. We have a tendency to rationalize our own weaknesses, we have a tendency to be self-seeking and narcissistic, self-flattery. Third, that pride is the central vice. Pride blinds us to the reality of our own divided nature, pride blinds us to our own weakness.
Fourth, humility is the central virtue. Humility is an awareness that you're an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness. Humility is an awareness that you're ill-equipped to do the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility is the ability to see yourself honestly. Fifth, the struggle, the internal struggle against any weakness, this internal war really, is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential, as dramatic as that.
And the battle gives meaning to life, the battle is the daily drama of life filled with joys and terrors and errors and tragedies and triumphs, that the definition of character is your strategy in waging this campaign. The word "character" has no real meaning if you take it out of the context of this internal conflict. It's the set of tools and the set of strengths and the set of weapons you have in struggling against your own weakness. Seventh, that no person can achieve self-mastery or win these battles on your own.
Individual will, individual reason, individual compassion, individual character are not strong enough to defeat selfishness, sin, pride, and self-deception. Everybody needs assistance from outside, whether it's from God, from family, from rules, traditions, customs, great writers or great figures. Eighth, that defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self can you tap into external strengths you need to wage your campaign.
Only by quieting the self can you see the world relatively calmly. Only by quieting the self can you see other people clearly and accept what they're offering for you. Ninth, defeating weakness means answering the call and serving a social function. This is Viktor Frankl's point that we don't get to choose what we want to do in life, circumstances tell us what to do. Some problem is in front of us and we have to deal with that problem. So don't ask what you want from life, find out what life is asking for you.
And finally, that the best social arrangements take account of this broken aspect of our nature and they're built on the crooked timber of humanity. Capitalism depends on our self-interest; democracy depends on our tendency to be competitive. And so this is what some call a dark view of human nature -- weakness first. But it's about triumph. It's -- Randhold Nebor (phonetic), one of my heroes, had the belief that we're splendidly endowed and splendidly broken at the same time. And it's all about that internal conflict.
And the question becomes -- and to me the question for Soloveitchik is can you actually reconcile Adam I and II. The means of developing Adam II is to fight this internal campaign to which you have to be attentive, he would say. And the means of Adam I is to fight an external campaign against the regular challenges of the world. And so how do you end that? Do you always live in the tension? And sometimes I think you do. Sometimes you see glimmers of people who've -- seem to have exited the tension.
One of my heroes, who I keep mentioning, is this woman, Dorothy Day. She built a great life. She was a writer. She wrote a great book called The Long Loneliness. She built a string of soup kitchens, a string of homeless shelters, a newspaper called The Catholic Worker, and really led a very consequential life. And she sat down and she gave an interview to Robert Coles at the end of her life in which she said, I sat down at the end of my life to write a autobiography.
I'm a writer, I've led a consequential life, I thought I should write a memoir. So she wrote on the top page "Memoir" and she sat there and she sat there and she sat there, and she didn't feel like writing anything. And she then said, you know, I decided I really didn't need to write anymore and that I just sat there thinking about God and his visit to us. And I was just so glad over the course of my life that I had him on my mind so much. And that's a nice image of Adam I bowing down to Adam II. And that's one resolution.
Another is just to continue the fight. And I'd written this column where I mentioned the Karl Weintraub quote that I read in the beginning here and how tough it is for students these days to really enter that world, to understand the world that Weintraub was trying to convince them of. And I got an e-mail from a guy named Dave Jolly (phonetic), who I think is a veterinarian somewhere in Washington or Oregon State. And it was sort of a powerful e-mail. And I'm going to read you part of it.
He wrote, "The heart cannot be taught in a classroom intellectually to students mechanically taking notes and preoccupied with relationships, getting into grad school, mid-school, furious about the latest political atrocity, and so on.
"Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort -- to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars. You can't teach it or e-mail it or tweet it. It has to be discovered within the depths of one's own heart when a person is finally ready to go looking for it, and not before. The job of the wise person is to swallow the frustration and just go on setting an example of caring and digging and diligence in their own lives. What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give.
"The totality of their life, the way they go about it, in the smallest detail is what gets transmitted. Never forget that." He wrote to me. "The message is the person perfected over lifetimes of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipients by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think. Cause and effect intertwine in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, to become better even when we dwell in the most painful, confused darkness.
"There is always some bored student in the class at some point whose tuning fork is just waiting to be struck by an exquisitely true note that will hit at the perfect moment. That note can only come from a teacher who's truly found an inner guiding presence, whose life is about sticking to that presence." Realistically at 20 it's hard to know what Jolly is talking about, about that presence. But as you get older you become aware of the presence and what he's talking about. And in adulthood it all becomes more clear and you turn to those things. So thank you very much.
MR. BROOKS: So we -- I have -- we have, like, 10 or 15 minutes. Anybody want to ask about Sarah Palin or health care reform?
MR. BROOKS: Yeah. I don't know if this is appropriate for questions, but if there are any I'll take some. And I think there's a mic to go around.
SPEAKER: Thank you. Hi. my name is Yuki (phonetic). And I run a small nonprofit in Washington, D.C., dedicated to promote U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea student exchange at the college level. So I get to and interact with many very bright, young leaders and students. And I think Japan and then Korea does (inaudible) similar situation as the U.S., the prime that is kind of paid on the Adam I type and success and achievement and recognition in society.
Do you have a practical suggestion as to what we can do to instill the values of having a inner -- you know, enriched inner life for students? Because I think you mentioned that having, you know, having a great teacher inspire them, or you know, waiting for the students to awaken themselves is -- are one of the two ways. But is there any practical ways we can instill these -- what you just talked about in the younger generation? Thank you.
MR. BROOKS: I don't think it's necessary to reinvent the wheel here. People have known about how to instill character for a long time and there are really two methods, or maybe three. The first is through habits. And this would be the Alcoholics Anonymous method which is the fake it till you make it method. You don't do inner change first, according to this method, and then wait for outer change. You do the outer change and the outer change helps you outward in.
And that would be one method and for the shorter -- for the sake of shorthand or theological shorthand frankly in our context, in the Western context, that's more or less the Jewish method. We follow the rules and then the rules hopefully build the person. Then there's another method which is the inward-out method, which is you experience what Augustine experienced, an inner transformation which then pervades your whole life. And we'll call that the Christian method.
And so I think that's powerful. I was talking to Arianna last night. We -- I was at a village in Mozambique where there were no adults -- just kids and grandparents. The adults had all been killed by AIDS. And so the grandparents were raising the kids and we asked the grandparents, are the kids replicating the behavior that caused their parents to die even after watching their parents die. And the grandparents told us, yes, they're doing exactly the same things.
And so Western aide agencies come in and try to get them to change their behavior and without much success. They give them the risk analysis statistics -- doesn't seem to work. But the thing they told us that work was a church we went to, which was under open sky in a sort of a rough wood building where -- run by the grandmothers essentially -- where they said we're not going to focus on AIDS, we're going to give you something to transform your whole life and give you eternal life. And AIDS -- behaving responsibly would be a byproduct of that. And that's a big lever.
So that would be the -- I'm crudely -- I'm oversimplifying here. But then there's the third method which would be the more academic method, which is the exemplar method. We are great at imitating. And from Plutarch on we've understood if we're around people that are admirable, we mimic them and we try to be like them. And so that's why I talk about Augustine, that's why I talk about Samuel Johnson, that's why I talk about Dorothy Day.
From just seeing how great people live -- they hold up a standard -- there's this phrase, I think a Greek phrase -- most bad behavior is not caused by evil, it's caused by the lack of a proper standard. And so I do think we've sort of lost that propriety of standards. And so I think these are the three ways you build character. And before -- one final thing I've said -- because I've set this in Yale, I said an academic environment.
I don't want to leave the impression you have to study your way to good character. If you look at -- somebody did a study of moral philosophers -- they behaved no better than anybody else. And usually it's life more than what you're reading in a book. But the book can fill in the life you've led. And is there anymore? I think with my sermonizing I've --
MS. BOONE: I have one.
MR. BROOKS: Kitty has a question.
MS. BOONE: We all have kids or no kids that are in this age group, and we all know about the pressures to succeed, and I think the -- what -- whether it's an SAT score or grade point average or varsity team or your very important résumé when you're 16 years old. What is success?
MR. BROOKS: Well, that's a good question. This is the subject Arianna and I talked about. Is it -- you know, it's easy to sort of piously say, oh, we should forget about worldly success. I don't know too many people in this town who live that way. And so I do think it's the balance. I don't think -- it's wrong to renounce Adam I. That is creation. And Soloveitchik didn't mean us to. He wants you to go out and have that aggressive, ambitious life. He just wants you to be complemented and balanced.
And so I do think it is the balance of those two things. The question is if you know when you've achieved it. And one of the things I mentioned last night, I was mentored by two great men. One was William F. Buckley, and one was Milton Friedman. And both of them achieved amazing amounts of change in their life. They had profound influence on the country and the world.
And so separately, before they died, though they were getting close at this point, I asked each of them, you know, you've achieved so much in your life, you've had such great influence. Do you feel like just complete satisfaction, like, you can just relax, it's all done, you did it. And Friedman said no and he was pushing until the day he died. And Buckley didn't even understand the question.
MR. BROOKS: And so, you know, I -- you mentioned that I had this fantasy of writing a book that I would be able to say, okay, I wrote that, I can relax. But I've never -- I know a lot of people who've written great books, I've never known any of them to relax afterwards. And so that doesn't come. I think the only time you can get that satisfaction, that sense of peace and tranquility is through -- and -- through a spiritual guise, through God really, through religion.
And I think only through Dorothy Day can you say there's a larger purpose here and I've surrendered myself to God. And you're never at peace, but you know all the -- all little magnetic compasses inside are pointing in the right direction. And I think it's -- that's the only way, an internal way you can achieve a final peace. Well, I'm getting -- sermonizing here.
SPEAKER: David, I wanted to ask you -- you talking about success and to follow up on kitty's question. In our common vocabulary we use the word "success" to mean financial success. If someone is described as "successful," most people assume that to mean that they've made a lot of money.
So on the one hand our culture is telling us what it means to be successful in a subtle way, and on the other hand we live in times when for so many people existence is such a challenge that the idea or concept of success may not even be on the radar screen. And my question for you is, given -- if you accept those two statements, what do we do as a society to help get it back on track?
MR. BROOKS: Well, the first thing to be said is "success" is a word we use reasonably unproblematically now. But it used to be -- it's -- remember 30 or 40 years ago "success" was a nasty word. In the 19th century they had the phrase the "bitch-goddess Success." Success was one you did not want. Success was corrupted. And I told in a recent story -- a recent column the story of this guy who was a doctor -- who wanted to become a doctor. His mom and dad paid for his sisters to go to college, but they weren't sure about his character.
So they said, you can go to college, we will not pay you a dime. You have to work your way through college washing dishes because we're worried about your character. But if you work your way through college washing dishes, that working class job will ennoble your character. And there was a presumption that the jobs of the white collar were corrupting because if you take those jobs you don't really face responsibility, you can get away with stuff. But the jobs of the blue collar were ennobling.
And so success was really suspicious, was seen as morally corrupting, as money was seen as morally corrupting. And if you read the Bible, you know that the status system of the world is held to be backwards and that the real status system is reverse -- the poor are more noble, the rich have trouble or these are challenged by more things. And so for the most of American history that success has been something people really worried about. I think we now live in a culture where people just flat-out admire success.
And one big shift that happened was the lack of awareness of sin. When Eisenhower was growing up, when George Marshall, or God know, Dorothy Day, the word "sin" was a very powerful word. And it changed and the culture changed, not when I expected. I thought it shift -- changed in the '60s. The evaporation of sin from our popular culture went away in the late '40s. People had just been through the war, they'd just seen the Holocaust, and instead of dealing with it, they just said, we're going to put all that behind us.
And so there was a book in 1946, a bestseller by a guy named Rabbi Joshua Lerner (phonetic) that said that the Ten Commandments is too much of a downer. It's telling us what not to do. So we should have Ten Commandments that tell us, lift up the inner joy in yourself. And he had a new Ten Commandments -- you are wonderful. And this book was number one on the bestseller list, New York Times bestseller list for 56 weeks.
Another book came along called The Mature Mind which said, this Augustinian view of human nature that you're broken, that's wrong. You are healed, you are perfect. That book sat on the bestseller list for 30 weeks. Then came the Power of Positive Thinking, sat on the bestseller list for 98 weeks -- number one 98 weeks -- the record, all-time record. Then came Dr. Spock. And among his advice, when your kids steal something, don't punish him or her, give them a present of what they stole and tell them just to ask for it next time. And I would say that's a reasonably upbeat view of human nature.
MR. BROOKS: And then Carl Rogers comes along in the early '50s -- humanistic psychology -- says believe in yourself. And then out of that self-belief comes an evaporation of the sense of sin. It's all good in here, the God is in me. And if you -- that carries on to today. If you've read Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's book -- and I am the only man on the face of the earth who's finished that whole book --
MR. BROOKS: She writes what's the definition of God. God is you speaking in your own true voice. Well, that's not what Augustine thought. And so that's a shift toward I'm pretty great. And so it's a shift from Augustine, Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson -- just trust myself, trust things outside myself, to a shift to trust myself, distrust things outside myself. And I think that was a very significant shift. And it made us trust everything we desire instead of distrusting what we desire. And so it made success less problematic.
And it did a disfavor to people not at the top of the social scale, because it erased what really was a noble working class ethic that we don't have all the money, but we are the common salt of the earth, we are the good people in the society. And if you read -- you know, see a Frank Capra movie, the common man or The Grapes of Wrath, that's where the goodness in society lies. And that sort of inverted status system has been taken away.
And so now if you're not at the top of society, you should have no excuses. And so it's a much deeper indictment, and so cooler in that way. And so I think that's -- you know, I don't want to say we want to go back to the '50s by the way. I was at -- one of the things you read, when you read these biographies, these people -- you read it, you read a number of things. One, you learn how the importance of the death of children affected society.
When people lose their kids at infancy, it has this really devastating effect on them and it changes their whole perspective so they see the world in a more vulnerable way. Second, you -- when you go back to those days you see how emotionally cold a lot of dads were. There were a lot of men pre-'60s who just did not know how to express their emotions. There's one scene they've left out in Jane Fonda's biography -- autobiography which I recommend is a very good book.
And she's talking -- she goes to the circus with her brother, Peter Fonda and her with her dad, Henry Fonda. And Henry Fonda sits with them, he doesn't say a word to them the whole circus, doesn't say a word going in, doesn't say a word going out, doesn't buy them anything, and that's like the nature of their relationship. And there were a lot of dads who just didn't know how to express emotion. So we should never want to go back to those days. But they did have some things right, so. Okay. Let me -- maybe one more.
SPEAKER: David, part of what you've done here is you advanced the thesis that religion plays a key role in character formation. So right now we're at an all-time high in the United States -- 20 percent of the American population says they're religious nones or they're unaffiliated. A third of people in my generation, 18- to 35-year-olds say they're religious nones or unaffiliated.
So just for fun, extrapolate out 10 or 20 years, what happens to civic institutions in America if this trend continues, what happens to American moral character. And this is, of course, going on the premise of your controversial thesis that only religion can, kind of in the long run, play this role.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah. And I don't want to say that religious people are better than atheists. I don't think the data bears that out and I don't believe that myself. But I'll just say as someone who has spent most of his life not particularly religious and you begin looking for people who describe the inner life for you -- the religious theologians have been doing it well for a long time. And they just have a better vocabulary for it.
So whether it's Rabbi Soloveitchik or Augustine or a Dorothy Day, they're used to it. They have a language for it and they have a structure for it. They have concepts like sin, they have concepts like virtue, redemption, forgiveness, they have concepts like grace which is being open and receptive to the unmerited love of God, they have a lot of concepts. And it's like trying to do physics without concepts like gravity, neutron. You really can't do without the concepts. And they've spent 5,000 years working on these concepts.
And I've gone around the country talking about some of these subjects, mostly talking academics for a book I'm doing. And I went to a college called Wheaton College outside of Chicago which is a Christian school. And the faulty -- and I've gone to divinity schools and places -- the faculty at Wheaton, which is a -- explicitly a Christian school, was just more relaxed in talking about these. They grew -- sort of the normal day-to-day thing, how do we improve ourselves.
Some of the faculties at other places, it's more an academic thing or they become really pompous. It's not like an everyday thing. And so I've become much more appreciative of the language of theologians whether I'm part of that faith or part of -- or not part of the faith. They just have a language. Now, as -- I don't want to say as atheism gets bigger -- what I would say is we live in this great age of science and data. And believe me, I appreciate it. I wrote a book on neuroscience, I appreciate it. I use data in my columns all the time.
My problem is, like Adam I, the scientists and the data people want a monopoly. They want to think they can explain everything. They can look at the neurons in the brain and understand Macbeth. I don't think that's possible. I want there to be a realm left for the humanities and a realm left for Adam II. And so my fear is that will be -- the hegemony of the sciences and the data people will try to swamp Adam II -- which is what's happened, which is why people are not majoring in the liberal arts because they just don't seem as gripping.
And the liberal arts people, the humanities people are not as confident as the scientists. And I understand the scientists with confidence -- they're doing great things. But it shouldn't be everything. And so my fear is that you'll get a lot of people who totally commit to lives of science, they commit to lives of -- data-oriented lives, and then they realize it only gets you so far. It doesn't really get you all the way to where you want if -- your internal development, and it doesn't give you the language of internal conflict which is the key language.
So you know, that's just the challenge for each of us. It's not a -- I don't think there's anything -- no legislation we can pass. But it's just something -- I talked about this today just to get my sense that this is a problem we should be aware of. And there are smart people and great people who've thought about it in the centuries past and really worked up a means to do internal development, to have a rich inner life, and we should just copy them. So thank you very much.
* * * * *
Watch and Listen: Society
For years, Adam Gopnik’s writing has delighted with charming and nostalgic observations of our behavior within the... See more
In an industry so central to American culture — and one so publicly rocked by #MeToo — how do women in media move... See more
Based on the novel by Emily Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she is... See more
The Tale probes one woman's memory as she is forced to reexamine her own experience of sexual abuse and exposes... See more