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David Brooks writes, 

[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome.  His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor.  It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline.  But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.

The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people.  He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution.  Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.

But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it.  He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success.  He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent.  It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."

Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army.  Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."

In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution.  His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions.  Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.

But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command.  When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.

After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense.  He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan.  Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.

The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.

A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and DarknessA Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My response to this memoir written by the great Israeli novelist is complicated. Huge sections of this very long book are five stars in quality, while other sections, not so much. 538 pages to cover mostly childhood and adolescence is simply too much. The book could have used some good editing, particularly because it often repeats a detail, sometimes more than once.

Oz's writing is rich with detail, beautiful descriptions of physical objects and scenes and compelling characters fully drawn. Here is a brief snippet:

"The bird sang with wonderment, awe, gratitude, exaltation, as though no night had ever ended before, as if this morning was the very first morning in the universe and its light was a wondrous light the like of which had never before burst forth and traversed the wide expanse of darkness."

The setting is dramatic--his childhood in Jerusalem before statehood, growing up among people who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, with cultural roots in both European peasantry and European intellectual life. He lives through the War of Independence when the family's basement apartment was filled with a dozen other people taking refuge from the shelling. His family and their friends are a who's-who of Israeli literary and political life. Included are amazing snapshots of, among others, Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, in memorable scenes. Prime Minister Ben Gurion calls an adolescent Amos into his office and lectures him on the interpretation of Spinoza. As a child, Amos bursts into laughter during a speech of Begin's, embarrassing his grandfather.

Three large themes connect the disparate stories--Amos' love of books inherited from his father (the descriptions of books and libraries are the most beautiful passages in the memoir) and how literature shapes his life, Amos' disenchantment with his family's conservative politics which leads him to join the Left, and the complex relationships of family, particularly the relationships between Amos, his depressed mother, and his frustrated father.

A few weeks ago as I wrote my church column about Our Times and how we don't get to choose them, this memoir was resonating with me.  The members of his family had good lives in Europe which they had to leave.  They suffered.  The endured war and poverty and loss of status.  The memoir was a powerful reminder of how little is in our control and how much we in America have taken for granted of the tranquility of our lives.

A compelling volume, filled with delights, which I shall enjoy and return to for years to come.

View all my reviews

Global Community

While we sadly spend the early days of 2017 battling an effort by our new national leadership to put America First and close off our society, we should be reminded that global community is nothing new (nor is the reaction against it). Reading today in The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, the British historian who is also a conservative, I encountered this description of the world in the early 19th century, which description arose out of a discussion of Western European trade relations with China:

Such cultural confrontations were inevitable as trade spread across the world and increasingly rapid and reliable forms of transport annihilated distance.  Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other.  These frictions were usually solved by debate and agreement, with both sides recognizing the mutual advantage of peaceful conduct.

He does go on to point out that war did erupt and an unfortunate East-West divide was created which persists.

But I'm drawn to this idea of the global community as "the most important single aspect of modernity." Should we then conclude that Trump is an anti-modernist?  A reversion to a more primitive pre-modern worldview?

Spiritual Adventure


Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words).  She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character.  Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood.  Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.

Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character.  He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."

How do we grow from suffering?  Brooks makes three points.  First that it "drags you deeper into yourself."  Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers.  Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control.  Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.

He concludes,

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease.  Many people don't come out healed; they come out different.  They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically.  Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them.  Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love.  They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.


Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.

First, this:

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books.  Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.

I think I read like this, or at least something similar.

Second.  He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty.  I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it.  In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry.  I was influenced by Day indirectly and others.  At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty.  But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.

I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy.  In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems.  These days I tend in the Addams direction.

Finally.  In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation.  All of his characters are dominated by restraint.  I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling.  Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom.  In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."

Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression.  Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?

And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.



"Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue," writes David Brooks in his discussion of the moral character of Dwight Eisenhower (a previous blog post explored some other elements of this discussion).  "Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there."  

"On the contrary," he writes, "moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict."  Moderates don't think the world can be fit neatly together.  Brooks adds, "If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either. . . Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together."

So, a moderate must accept "that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life," because there will always be compromises between competing values.

Brooks uses the opportunity of discussing this virtue in relationship to Ike to give a warning to political leaders.  Be careful what you do because "the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right."  Ike is often criticized for what he didn't do.  Maybe there was a good reason?

Brooks also contrasts Ike's farewell with Kennedy's inaugural.  Ike spoke with humility about finding balance, while Kennedy challenged the nation to move forward with confidence.  Brooks concludes with something that sounds like a dire warning at this particular moment,

Like the nation's founders, [Ike] built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.  He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new.

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."

Ida B. Wells


Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities.  Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).

Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings.  She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis.  She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.  

Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored.  Writes Dorrien,

On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed.  The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended.  They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings.  They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery.  White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.

Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader."  Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.  

She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities.  She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies.  "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice."  He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard.  Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells).  "Wells  was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."

The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply).  Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era.  In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.

Collective Responsibility


Finally following upon my last blog post from David Brooks' The Road to Character.  To focus his discussion of vocation, Brooks writes about Frances Perkins, one of the architects of the New Deal and the first woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet.

Perkins grew up in a New England Protestant family where she received a traditional upbringing--"parsimonious, earnest, and brutally honest."  He continues, "Yankees were reticent, self-reliant, egalitarian, and emotionally tough."

Politically, Yankees were different from what we are used to today, they "combined what you might call social conservatism with political liberalism. Traditional and stern in their private lives, they believed in communal compassion and government action.  They believed that individuals have a collective responsibility to preserve the 'good order.'"

He writes on the education she received, which emphasized the classics and "a certain style of heroism--to be courageous and unflinching in the face of the worst the world could throw at you."  Instead of building up self-esteem, as has been common in education in my lifetime, Perkins education "didn't tell her that she was awesome and qualified for heroism.  It forced her to confront her natural weaknesses.  It pushed her down.  It pushed her down and then taught her to push herself upward and outward."

Perkins spent time at Hull House and was influenced by Jane Addams, making a nice connection between this book and Amy Kittelstrom's Religion of Democracy which concluded with Addams.

Perkins believed in incremental change.  Brooks writes, "She would compromise ruthlessly if it meant making progress."  Al Smith taught her that "You have to be practical, subordinate your personal purity to the cause."  She became known as "half-a-loaf girl" for her willingness to compromise.

When she suffered attack in her political career, including an attempt to impeach her, she responded with reticence.  Perkins wrote, "I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world.  It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge . . . . It is really quite remarkable what it does for me."

On the downside, her reticence and commitment to her public duties destroyed her private life--her marriage and her relationship with her daughter.  But she achieved great successes--Social Security, a minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, laws restricting child labor, the CCC, and more.  

Near the end of the chapter I received a great shock.  One of her pallbearers was Paul Wolfowitz.  He was a college student at Cornell where she ended her career as a teacher and something of a dorm mother.  The strangest historical connection I've ever encountered--the architect of the New Deal and the most influential of Neo-Conservative hawks.

The Summoned Self

In the second chapter of David Brooks's The Road to Character, he writes about how the traditional concept of vocation is different from what many experience today:

In this scheme of things we don't create our lives; we are summoned by life.  The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside.  This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded.  This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the  brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.  Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole?  What is it that needs repair?  What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?  

This paragraph made me think of Gandalf's conversation with Frodo in the Mines of Moriah when Frodo laments the dark and dangerous path his life has taken.  Gandalf tells Frodo that he cannot choose the times in which he lives, but only what he does with those times.  

Sobering advice for those of us lamenting this week.  We had expected to live in radically better world than the one that has fallen upon us, yet our test will be what we do in this moment.


Brooks then explores some of the key ideas in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  Frankl wrote about his effort to survive and find meaning while he was in Auschwitz.  Frankl understood that a moral and intellectual task was before him, and the task was to suffer well.  If you've not read Frankl's classic, I encourage you to. I usually use it as an illustration in my intro to philosophy classes.  Frankl quotes Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

Brooks writes that this notion of vocation as a summons or call means that "a person becomes an instrument for the performance of a job that has been put before her. She molds herself to the task at hand."  

The focal subject of this chapter is Frances Perkins, of whom I will write in a later blog post, at this chapter had material I wanted to respond to in more than one post.  After his discussion of her life, he returns to this notion of vocation:

Perkins didn't so much choose her life.  She responded to the call of a felt necessity.  A person who embraces a calling doesn't take a direct route to self-fulfillment.  She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself.  Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime.  They almost always involve throwing yourself into a historical process. They involve compensating for the brevity of life by finding membership in a historic commitment.