The Road to Character
by Francis Phillips
When this book was published earlier this year it caused something of a stir. I suspect this was because of the unusual combination it presented: a “famed columnist for the New York Times (as the author is described on the book’s jacket) had written a book about old-fashioned morality. It is even a paradox: is it even possible to write a credible book about the virtue of humility when your newspaper columns “reach over 800,000 readers across the globe”? Some of David Brooks’ more waspish critics think not. I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, living in a world of instant knowledge, expertise and communication, it is stimulating to discover a book that is much more than the traditional type of “self-help” manual, with its mandatory exhortations and advice. What David Brooks has done is to reflect on the ancient recognition (central to the world’s great religious texts) that man is divided, between the outer persona who is influenced by the shallow values of society, and the inner person who searches for meaning to life that transcends merely transitory and worldly goals and ambitions.
Understanding this permanent conflict between self-interest and self-sacrifice and confessing that he himself was “born with a natural disposition towards shallowness”, Brooks’ book examines the lives of certain people who, in his view, have shown exceptional moral strength: humility, restraint, temperance and self-discipline. Essentially, he is asking: what is the secret of their success in becoming people of “character” and how can we emulate them?
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