The Road to Character: A book review by Bob Morris

Road to CharacterThe Road to Character
David Brooks
Random House (2015)

Here is a thoughtful and heartfelt affirmation of a “moral ecology” that can help all of us to cultivate stronger character

I have read and then reviewed most of David Brooks’ previously published books and think this one is his most important, at least thus far, because it will have wider and deeper impact on the lives of more people than any of those previous books could.

He selected several dozen persons throughout mostly recent history who underwent a “journey of character development.” He establishes a frame of reference within which to examine a tradition of moral realism, the “crooked timber” school of humanity, that began in biblical times. “This tradition, or worldview, put tremendous emphasis on sin and human weakness. This view was captured in the figure of Moses, the meekest of men who nonetheless led a people, and by biblical figures like David, who were great heroes, but deeply flawed.”

Brooks makes brilliant use of two thematic metaphors: Adam I is wholly self-absorbed and self-serving, obsessed with gaining wealth, power, prestige, influence, etc.; Adam II experiences life as a moral drama who exemplifies Greenleaf’s concept of a “servant leader,” dedicated to making the world a better place by helping others.

In the Introduction, Brooks indicates that The Road to Character is about Adam II: “It’s about how some people have cultivated strong character. It’s about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart.” He then provides an arresting disclosure: I wrote it, to be honest, to save my soul.”

For Bill George, Adam IIs follow their “True North,” what Jim O’Toole characterizes as a “moral compass.”

These are among the “journeys” that were of special interest and value to me:

o Frances Perkins (Pages) 33-43
o Dwight D. Eisenhower (48-73)
o Dorothy Day (74-104)
o George C. Marshall (105-129)
o A. Philip Randolph (130-152)
o Bayard Rustin (138-151)
o George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) 153-185
o Augustine of Hippo (Pages 203-206)
o Samuel Johnson (213-239)
o Miguel de Montaigne (228-234)

There are among the people “who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. After a life of seeking balance, Adam I bows down before Adam II. These are the people we are looking for.”

And these are the people we should become. To those who share my high regard for this book, I recommend three others: David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, and Clayton M. Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?

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