David Brooks’ book The Social Animal was fascinating as we saw a Conservative commentator engaging well with social science. The Road to Character is a rather different book. It is a collection of biographies designed to encourage more moral behaviour. Although I would not be Brooks’ typical target reader (I’m not a Conservative, the book has religious undertones etc…) I found it relatively interesting. The stories and characters are well chosen — there are some worthwhile characters. Who knows, some people might even be motivated to try to be better people after reading the book.
There are broader observations I think that are worth drawing out though. The first is about character itself. Basically I just didn’t get his point about character — the people illustrated clearly (mostly) had massive glaring flaws. I get the point that no one is perfect — we know we aren’t perfect so I guess are more likely to be inspired that we can achieve things if we see that Eisenhower wasn’t perfect either. (What was going on between Eisenhower and his assistant? How could he drop her so quickly? This seems a very troubling way to treat a woman.) Yet I still wondered why focus on the good bits and completely gloss over bad bits?
Selective attention seemed to the theme of the book. Looking at the 1940s “..it did occur to me that there was a strain of humility that was more common then than now” (Brooks, 2015). There were a bunch of terrible things in the 1940s but are we supposed to conclude from Brooks that the 1940s was better? It seems that you can choose any set of facts you want and make any case you want in this sort of work. I honestly worry about any work (including at business schools) mentioning character — it is usually ridiculously selective. One might argue that Churchill had great character, and he obviously had strong points, but what about the racism etc… For some reason some major data points don’t count, people with “good character” get passes whenever they violate good character. It seems almost anti-science.
I’d also note that when you read a book etc… changes your perception. In 2018 this book seemed to me like a retirement piece by a Roman statesman sent to the country. (Think Cicero whiling away a few years before someone decided to send a hit squad to finish him off). The statesman would launch subtle barbs at the new establishment hoping to get credit for being the opposition while not doing enough really o annoy the people in charge. Brooks’ book seems an anti-Trump Conservative suggesting that the right shouldn’t succumb to Trump temptations. Unfortunately the book was pre-Trump’s nomination success so it made less sense to me the more information I had, (although I guess Trump was on the horizon in 2014). Given the selective attention perhaps in a few generations time a future Brooks will be writing a book on how much character Trump had (if only we ignore the racism, treatment of women, Russia etc…).
We need to develop a more consistent way of judging character if it is to be a meaningful concept. Character can’t just be something we say that people we like have.
Read: David Brooks (2015) The Road to Character, Random House