“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” says the hero of Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo. Increasingly, this sounds a jarring note: we are more conscious than we were a couple of decades ago that we have alarmingly few resources for thinking about what a good human life looks like in terms other than material prosperity. There are more and more books, research projects and worried op-ed pieces about the need to recover the language of virtue or honour – just as there are more discussions about the nature of human happiness. In sharp contrast to most earlier societies (and to most non-Western societies today), we in the north Atlantic world apparently don’t know how to boil an egg, as far as defining the good life is concerned. Brecht’s dictum could be read a little differently: our sense of a lack of “heroes” points up just what an unhappy or unfortunate society we are.
One way of responding is to do what the New York Times’s in-house conservative David Brooks does in this brisk and readable book, received with enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 2015. Now out in paperback, The Road to Character feels particularly pertinent to some immediate issues right now: the level of public cynicism about politicians and “experts”, witnessed in the catastrophic EU referendum, or the bland managerialism that is replacing discussion about the core values of our educational system. He identifies the fundamental problem as the erosion of “character”, understood as the capacity to draw on inner reserves of strength to deal with conflict, failure and frustration.
Brooks sets up a contrast between what he calls “Adam I” and “Adam II” – the self that is preoccupied with the stock exchange of reputation, approval and material success, and the self that is focused on “moral joys”, putting moral growth and stability above prestige, laying down a firm foundation of self-scrutiny as the only basis for self-respect. The book offers a series of appropriately old-fashioned stories about heroes – “Great Lives” ranging from St Augustine to Dr Johnson, from the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to the soldier and strategist George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame) and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day. Each chapter takes one or two central figures and outlines their story, examining what conditions and habits enabled them to survive the struggles they faced in living out their calling, and picking out a central characteristic (“Self-Mastery”, “Ordered Love”) that they exemplify.
A final chapter elaborates on the development of what Brooks calls the “Big Me” culture that has grown up, not just (as is often supposed) in the baby-boomer generation, but ever since the Second World War. The origin of the problem, he argues, is in the great exhalation and the release of tension that the end of war brought about, with its expectations of ease and lack of challenge, so successfully exploited through an explosion in availability of consumer goods.
Fifteen principles or guidelines are listed to help us recover the perspectives we have lost. We need humility, for example; we also need the sense that we are moulded and strengthened by struggle and so should not avoid it. We need help from outside – the prosaic human outside of communities and institutions and the larger outside of “grace”, the unexpected arrival of strength from unknown sources. We need to know (that is to say, we need to acknowledge) what we don’t know. We need to learn the grain of human nature so that what we do has a chance of surviving for the long term. We need to think of ourselves as made for “holiness” not happiness, for a settled and comprehensive integrity.
Brooks is not unaware of the irony of writing a book that offers this sort of tabulated advice while railing against the self-help culture that tells us all how wonderful we really are. But the irony is still mordant: it is as if, in order to recover the unselfconscious moral or spiritual nourishment of an older culture, we have to deploy just the type of fussy self-probing that sets us most clearly apart from that environment.
The trouble with the principles he so painstakingly lists is that neither any one of them nor the ensemble will work if we are thinking about them. The lives he narrates are what they are because someone has been unselfconsciously possessed by a vision of life that compels and draws the focus away from the self. People become “holy” (a word to which I shall come back) as a by-product of attending to something drastically other than themselves. It is no use looking for a philosophy of life that will make you holy; that would be to instrumentalise the vision rather than surrender to it. The humility, the “moral realism”, the sense of limitation, the willingness to be surprised by grace or joy – these are various ways of describing the decentring of the self that results from being overtaken by a consciousness of what is demanded of you, either by a vision of the world or by a wholly trusted institution.
And there lies the problem for contemporary culture. We have learned to be wary of comprehensive visions and grand narratives, and we have developed an unprecedentedly corrosive scepticism about institutions. David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, observed about forty years ago that we were entering a “dark night of our institutions” – a period in which the integrity and meaningfulness of organised corporate work within a carefully conserved tradition of behaviour was no longer taken for granted. That institutions become self-serving and defensive is beyond question; but the situation was undoubtedly made more intense by the cultural climate of the 1980s and afterwards, in which a narrow definition of “value for money”, cynicism about public service and a deep and resentful assumption that all professional bodies would automatically be closed shops combined to subject many old institutions to externally imposed norms and expectations.
Brooks specifically writes about the importance of institutions for his version of the good life, but does not provide much analysis of why this kind of support is so much weaker than it was. An obsessively close focus on performance and profit or economy in the short term will not generate the sense of mutual expectation and long-term fidelity that can inspire selflessness. And, as has been remarked frequently since the 2008 financial crisis, institutions that are encouraged to be ruthless or cavalier in their relations with employees should not be surprised if there is a deficit in corporate morale and corporate morality, let alone ordinary professional loyalty.
But this is not quite all. The institutions Brooks cites as producing “character” are very diverse, from the Catholic Church to the armed forces, and even the more nebulous “institution” of old-style journalism. The diversity poses its own question. Not all such institutions are manifestly working with inner integrity or justice. It is possible for basically unhealthy institutions to produce “character” simply by providing clear structure and discipline; but do we then say that the SS is a school for character? Not easy to answer: an institution of this sort might produce a kind of selflessness, a sense of meaning detached from the individual’s agenda. But we should also – surely – want to say that it was serving a deformed and corrupt idea of human identity, and thus a deformed and corrupt idea of the self. To abandon the self to an institutional identity of this kind is not to be delivered from the ambivalence of self-will but to identify with a poisonous self-will of another kind: the corporate egotism of racial violence and mass terror directed against the Other.
Which suggests that we need to fill out the notion of character a bit more fully. The language of character usually has a great deal to do with what we could call the “formal” requirements of good behaviour – habits of self-questioning, devotion to something more than one’s gratification, the sense of limit and mortality, and so on. But we need to add substantive elements: habits of mind and heart that tend to the well-being of others without reserve, an openness to feel or at least register the weight of another’s (any other’s) pain, an acceptance of solidarity.
Several of Brooks’s figures certainly exemplify this – as in the cases of Frances Perkins (an architect of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal), Dorothy Day (who founded a Catholic anarchist network ministering to the homeless and destitute) and Bayard Rustin (whose leading role in the civil rights struggle prompted controversy) – but the distinctiveness of their work is slightly obscured by placing them next to others such as George Marshall, or even George Eliot. The ambitious word “holiness” feels awkward applied to Marshall and Eliot, whatever we might say about their wholly admirable lives. There is a passion to let something else “come through” that characterises Day and Perkins; a level of radicality in serving a vision that goes beyond plain integrity and courage. It is not a matter of confessional religiousness (Rustin’s religious identity was a complex affair), but it is definitely to do with a belief that things (and people) are the way they are, that their sheer existence makes uncompromising moral demands on us, and that no transient system of worldly power can redefine these demands.
A good institution builds some of the habits we need to resist that institution when it is tempted to complacent or self-serving behaviour. It doesn’t just create institutional virtues or disciplines, but does something to embody the kind of “humility” Brooks commends: the sceptical but also generous realism that keeps our individual and collective self-satisfaction under scrutiny.
What do we have to learn from a book like this? One obvious lesson relates to what we think about institutions. There are some sorts of political radicalism that are slow or reluctant to think through what healthy, middle-level institutions look and feel like, and so have yielded the field to an easy cynicism about public service and corporate loyalty. It would not hurt the left to give more attention to the Good Institution. What makes a well-functioning business, a company that people are proud to belong to, a school or hospital or professional body that provides a solid orientation towards the wider well-being of the community? Even in an age of fragmenting work patterns, these questions are not empty; indeed, they become all the more urgent when fluidity and insecurity in the job market allow some employers and organisations to get away with unjust practices. Some critics of Brooks have accused him of “smugness” because he fails to spell out the negative impact on “character” of sheer economic instability and social inequality. This is not wholly fair; yet all he says needs supplementing with some harder thinking in these areas.
Moreover, as has already been said, it is essential to keep the focus on character not so much as a style of living that accepts limits and deferrals, as on the kind of vision that makes sense of limits and deferrals, that would make struggle and frustration worthwhile. This entails a hard look at a public educational philosophy that has become largely functionalist and reductive, and has lost sight of any idea that a good education is properly aimed at kindling the imagination with a sense of what might be worth suffering and struggling for. I read Brooks’s book at the same time as wrestling with the Dalek-inflected prose of the latest UK white paper on higher education (incomprehensibly subtitled Success as a Knowledge Economy), looking in vain for any mention of intelligence, enjoyment or inspiration as connected in any way with quality of teaching. It should not be surprising that there is a deficit in all the areas Brooks notes if the ethos of institutions of education at every level is dominated by the language of “performance” and marketable outcomes, rather than evoking the possibility of generating joy in a vision of the world.
Simone Weil famously said that most of our human ills needed cure by the imagination rather than the will. Brooks seems to see this; but the register of his discussion slips back irresistibly to an individual and private framing of the problem. “Character” without solidarity, and so without compassion and a principled universal perspective on human dignity, can be yet another stalking horse for self-regard and self-protection. If we need heroes – and I think Brooks is right that we do, and that most of his chosen subjects should be among them – they should have more to them than this.
The Road to Character by David Brooks is published by Penguin (320pp, £9.99)