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A Change in Moral Culture

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The final chapter of David BrooksThe Road to Character is a rich and complex summary and an discussion of why and how our culture changed.

He opens by contrasting Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath.  Both grew up in the same area of western Pennyslvania and only a decade apart, but were fundamentally different people.  Unitas said "I always figured being a little dull was part of being pro."  Namath was anything but dull.  Brooks explains that Unitas viewed football as a job that was not fundamentally different from a factory worker or plumber.  Namath engaged in self-promotion.

Reading this section made me think of Tom Landry.  I miss his style of coaching.  Dressed in a suit like a professional, he was generally stoic in his response to the what was happening on the field.  I don't really care for the way most coaches dress and behave these days.

So, when did this change occur?  Brooks says that it wasn't the Baby Boomers and the upheavals of the late 1960's, like many people think.  No, the change occurred in what Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."  In the post-war world they promoted a new culture of self-esteem and authenticity and abandoned the tradition of moral realism.

Brooks cites a number of examples, like Norman Vincent Peale's bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.  Interesting, I read back in November that Peale was Trump's favorite minister and even performed his first wedding.

He writes that this change was a response to its time and that there were good reasons and results for the change, but I want to write about those in the next post.  But with the change "A moral vocabulary was lost and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls."

Key to the tradition of moral realism, according to Brooks, was a grasp of human limitations.  

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex.  We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.  Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.  Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.  Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures.  To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence--on others, on institutions, on the divine.  

Brooks does not believe we need to abandon the new culture and return to the old one, but that we need to find greater balance between the two in order to respond to the moral needs of our time.  But more on that in a future post, in which I'll also share some personal reflections.

The previous post in this series was about "sweet gestures of self-improvement," focusing on Montaigne.


Sweet gestures of self-improvement

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In his chapter on Samuel Johnson, David Brooks contrasts the English writer with the French essayist Michel de Montaigne explaining that the two of them represent two different styles of goodness--Johnson struggled and suffered to become good, while Montaigne had a genial nature.  Of course they were born into different strata of society.

Brooks writes, "Johnson sought to reform himself through direct assault and earnest effort.  Montaigne was more amused by himself and his foibles, and sought virtue through self-acceptance and sweet gestures of self-improvement."

Montaigne retired from public life and discovered "that his own mind would not allow tranquility.  He found his mind, fragmented, liquid, and scattershot."  So, for him, "writing was an act of self-integration."

Brooks writes, "Montaigne's theory was that much of the fanaticism and violence he saw around him was caused by the panic and uncertainty people feel because they can't grasp the elusiveness within themselves."  Essay writing, which he largely invented, was a way of exploring and integrating himself.

Throughout this book, David Brooks has been exploring a cultural tradition in which people were more humble.  He locates that attitude in Montaigne.  Brooks describes him thus--"a low but accurate view of one's own nature plus a capacity for wonder and astonishment at the bizarreness of creation equals a calming spirit of equipoise."


Practical, moral wisdom

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He was "a cross between Martin Luther and Oscar Wilde."  So writes David Brooks of Samuel Johnson.  Johnson, a "gross, disheveled, and ugly" man "more or less wrote himself to virtue."  Brooks contends that it was through "writing and mental effort [that] he constructed a coherent worldview."  Johnson himself contended that "It is always a writer's duty to make the world better."

Johnson was part of an influential circle of friends and writers--Burke, Smith, Goldsmith, etc.  Of this group Brooks claims:

These were humanists, their knowledge derived from their deep reading of the great canonical texts of Western civilization.  They were heroic, but they practiced an intellectual form of heroism, not a military one.  They tried to see the world clearly, resisting the self-deceptions caused by the vanity and perversities in their own nature.  They sought a sort of practical, moral wisdom that would give them inner integrity and purpose.

Johnson believed that most problems were moral problems, not fixed by politics or changing social conditions.  "The essential human act is the act of making strenuous moral decisions."  Literature could aide in moral improvement and broaden our experiences of moral situations.


Pride & Fear of Missing Out

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The next chapter in David Brooks' The Road to Character is surprisingly about St. Augustine.  For a book that had mostly focused on early and mid-twentieth century Americans, this seemed strange.  He never explains why he discusses Augustine, but it seems to be because he views the philosopher and saint as one of the creators of the worldview being explored in the book.

The one interesting point about Augustine which I had not quite heard this way before is that his story is a "renunciation of the whole ethos of self-cultivation."  Brooks explains, "He came to conclude that the way to inner joy is not through agency and action, it's through surrender and receptivity to God."

Brooks had been discussing the sin of pride, and guess who his paradigm example of pride is?  Donald Trump.  This book was published in 2015, and according to the acknowledgements took 4 1/2 years to write, so likely this paragraph was written well before Trump ran for president:

Pride can come in bloated form.  This is the puffed-up Donald Trump style of pride. This person wants people to see visible proof of his superiority.  He wants to be on the VIP list.  In conversation, he boasts, he brags.  He needs to see his superiority reflected in other people's eyes.  He believes that this feeling of superiority will eventually bring him peace.

Ouch.  

One of the many things that surprised me the last two years was that anyone took Trump seriously.  I had always viewed him as a buffoon.  A rich buffoon who gaudy decor, bad fashion sense, and outsized ego could be entertaining in small doses.  What a shock to discover that a large number of people thought of him as a serious businessman with insights on public policy!

Of course we really discovered that he wasn't an entertaining buffoon at all but a moral reprobate and incredibly dangerous person.

Another insight from Brooks' chapter on Augustine is this about the current fixation on the "fear of missing out."

Augustine's feeling of fragmentation has its modern corollary in the way many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of mission out.  The world has provided them with a superabundance of neat things to do.  Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience.  They want to grab all the goodies in front of them.  They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store.  They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting.  But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin.  What's worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self.  If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semicommitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose.  You lose the ability to say a hundred noes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

The previous post in this series discussed how love reorients the soul.


Utopia

Utopia: A New Translation (Norton Critical Edition)Utopia: A New Translation by Thomas More
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every reader will encounter some statement to admire. Every reader will encounter some statement to abhor.

A most intriguing work. I'm unsure how More was able to rise to such prominence in England after writing such a book, even despite the way he cautiously couched it.

I was also intrigued by the translator's note that this book "helped to make [North Americans] what we are today be determining, not our immediate institutions, but the level of our expectations."

Also intriguing were the ideas that did not fit with More's own history, including the defense of religious toleration in the book. More tortured heretics when he gained power.

View all my reviews

Reorienting the Soul

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And Brooks continues discussing the ways that love reorients in the soul, in what may be the best few pages of the book.

First, love humbles us.  "Love is like an invading army that reminds you that you are not master of your own house."  "Love is a surrender.  You expose your deepest vulnerabilities and give up your illusions of self-mastery."

Love "decenters the self."  "A person in love finds that the ultimate riches are not inside, they are out there, in the beloved and in the sharing of a destiny with the beloved."

"Love infuses people with a poetic temperament."  Love is not utilitarian.  "To be in love is to experience hundreds of small successive feelings that you never quite experienced in that way before."  "Love is submission, not decision."

"Love opens up the facility for spiritual awareness.  It is an altered state of consciousness."

"Love impels people to service."  "In no other commitment are people so likely to slip beyond the logic of self-interest and unconditional commitments that manifest themselves in daily acts of care."

 

I have always spoken of how marriage is a spiritual discipline, and I experience parenthood as such as well.  Being a dad has done more to make me a better person than anything I've ever done precisely because it is the one thing that most aggressively works against my own self-interest.


Intellectual Love

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"Love as a moral force that deepens a person, organizing human minds around other souls and lifting them so they are capable of great acts of service and devotion."  So writes David Brooks in the midst of his chapter on George Eliot during an aside.  He shares the story of one night in Leningrad in 1945 when the poet Anna Akhmatova and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin met and spent all night in conversation.  A paradigm example of the passion of intellectual love.  

About this event Brooks writes:

The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a certain sort of communication.  It's communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is found not in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity's inherited storehouse of moral, emotional, and existential wisdom.  It's a communication in which intellectual compatibility turns into emotional fusion.  Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading.  They believed you have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and how to make subtle moral and emotional judgments.  They were spiritually ambitious.

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Generous Sympathy

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In The Road to Character, David Brooks chooses to explore the virtue of love through the story of novelist George Eliot.  It seems an odd choice for two reasons--every chapter of the book up till then has been about an early or mid twentieth century American and because Eliot's lifelong spousal relationship was with George Lewes, a man married to another woman.  So, not your conventional marriage story, but that seems to have been one reason he picked her.

Also because her story is good.  She spent her youth and young adulthood falling in love with the wrong men and only came to a mature long-lasting love after much personal growth.  And once she found this kind of love is when she thrived, as her spouse was the one who encourage her novel writing.

He writes that as a young woman she was known for "an intense intellectual honesty, an arduous desire to live accordingto the strictures of her conscience, an amazing bravery in the face of social pressure, a desire to strengthen her character by making the necessary hard choices, but also a bit of egotism, a tendency to cast herself as the star of her own melodrama."

The social disgrace of her relationship with George Lewes helped to develop her ability to understand others.  Brooks writes, "He genius as a writer derives from the fact that she was capable of the deepest feeling but also of the most discerning and disciplined thought.  She had to feel and suffer through everything.  She had to transform that feeling into meticulously thought-through observation."

He continues:

Eliot herself believed that the beginning of wisdom was the faithful and attentive study of present reality, a thing itself, a person herself, unfiltered by abstract ideas, mists of feeling, leaps of imagination, or religious withdrawals into another realm.

Brooks labels Eliot a "meliorist," a term I know from William James but otherwise never see.  Brooks defines it as "She believed in the slow, steady, concrete march to make each day slightly better than the last."  And she believed she did that through literature.  "Her books were aimed to have a slow and steady effect on the internal life of her readers, to enlarge their sympathies, to refine their ability  to understand other people, to give them slightly wider experiences."

In summary of her story he writes, "She had to grow out of self-centeredness into generous sympathy."

The previous post in this series was on the dignity of A. Philip Randolph.