American Gods
Camus & Sartre's break-up

Conquering Your Own Soul


Ida Stover Eisenhower was "strict in her faith but fun-loving and humane in practice" raising her boys on the difficult Kansas plains in "a harsh environment covered by a thick code of respectability and propriety."  David Brooks writes in The Road to Character that

The fragility and remorselessness of this life demanded a certain level of discipline. If a single slip could produce disaster, with little in the way of a social safety net to cushion the fall; if death, or drought, or disease, or betrayal could come crushingly at any moment; then character and discipline were paramount requirements.  This was the shape of life: an underlying condition of peril, covered by an ethos of self-restraint, reticence, temperance, and self-wariness, all designed to minimize the risks.

And so Ida Eisenhower taught her boys to conquer the worst aspects of themselves.  Brooks writes:

That concept--conquering your own soul--was a significant one in the moral ecology in which Eisenhower grew up.  It was based on the idea that deep inside we are dual in our nature.  We are fallen, but also splendidly endowed.  We have a side to our nature that is sinful--selfish, deceiving, and self-deceiving--but we have another side to our nature that is in God's image, that seeks transcendence and virtue.  The essential drama of life is the drama to construct character, which is an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good.

Brooks spends a few pages advocating for the recovery of the concept of sin, which I agree with and have made an important aspect of my ministry.  I guffawed when I read this from the pen of David Brooks "Sin is not some demonic thing.  It's just our perverse tendency to fuck things up."

He also gives a nice topography of types of sins:

Some sins, such as anger and lust, are like wild beasts.  They have to be fought through habits of restraint.  Other sins, such as mockery and disrespect, are like stains.  They can be expunged only by absolution, by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing.  Still others, such as stealing, are like a debt.  They can be rectified only by repaying what you owe to society.  Sins such as adultery, bribery, and betrayal are more like treason than like crime; they damage the social order.  Social harmony can be rewoven only by slowly recommitting to relationships and rebuilding trust.  The sins of arrogance and pride arise from a perverse desire for status and superiority.  The only remedy for them is to humble oneself before others.

Brooks believes that we've lost not only the moral vocabulary but also the "set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation" to deal with our sins.  I believe that the era of Trump is further eroding this moral order.

Dwight Eisenhower is a study in self-conquest, as Brooks writes that Eisenhower had a violent temper and other flaws in his temperament.  He was also, by middle life, one of the least successful of his brothers.  To succeed the general and future president had to develop the moral tools to overcome his flaws.  Brooks writes that Ike was "not an authentic man."  

He writes that Ike existed a world where your public self was something you worked to create because you understood your private self to be flawed.  He writes, "A personality is a product of cultivation.  The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with."

So Ike portrayed a calm, sunny, homey disposition.  Brooks wonders if our age of authenticity serves us well?

Ike's disciplined life had serious flaws.  "He was not a visionary.  He was not a creative thinker.  In war, he was not a great strategist."  He did not respond adequately to McCarthyism and Civil Rights.

In second post I will explore Ike as an exemplar of moderation.

Here's the last post in this particular series on David Brooks' book, "Collective Responsibility."


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