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Soul's Yearning

Developing Character

In my graduate studies of ethics, I embraced virtue theory.  When I began reading more theology, I was deeply influenced by theologians who also worked within a similar paradigm.  My ministry and my teaching have often focused on the development of the virtues.

Last year I ordered David Brooks' most recent book The Road to Character.  Brooks has long been one of the conservative commentators I find most compelling to read, and I read a handful of them.  Today I finally began reading this book, which seems timely as we've entered an age when the leading citizen of the Republic flaunts his vices and treats the virtues as something only snobbish elites are interested in.

In the introduction, Brooks describes one day listening to a radio program from the week following the end of the Second World War in which the prominent celebrities of the day performed.  The overwhelming one of the broadcast was humility and gratitude, far different from how our contemporary culture treats such things.  Listening to this broadcast sent him upon a deeper study of the character traits of that earlier period in our history.

He writes that "Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character."  Only pursuing the former can turn you into "a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game."  One of the results is that "You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow." (No great leap of imagination to picture who this brought to mind.)

He wants to defend an older tradition "that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we  build character."

He describes the person of character:

Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion.  They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives.  They have achieved inner integration.  They are calm, settled, and rooted.  They are not blown off course by storms.  They don't crumble in adversity.  Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable.  Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. . . . They radiate a sort of moral joy.


He discusses the virtue of humility which we arrive at through a process of self-confrontation.  He writes, "Truly humble people are engaged in a great effort to magnify what is best in themselves and defeat what is worst, to become strong in the weak places."

He adds that we cannot engage in this struggle alone, but require "redemptive assistance from outside."

Brooks writes that the humble person has self-respect, which is not the same as self-esteem or self-confidence.  The difference--self-respect is "earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.  It emerges in one who is morally dependable.  Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones."

He concludes his first chapter by saying we aren't worse than our forebears, in fact we've advanced on significant fronts.  Instead, he believes "we are morally inarticulate."

The next nine chapters of the book each focus on a particular person from which we can learn about character.  First up is Frances Perkins.


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