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 Inside and Beyond

David Brooks’s

The Road to Character:

Summary, Critique and More

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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Brooks’s book, The Road to Character, combines self-help advice with a critique of modern Western culture. Brooks advocates bringing back to life what he calls “an older moral ecology.” (He describes moral ecology as “a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands.”) His book, which is both analytical and inspirational, praises humility, hard work and commitment to a great cause.

Brooks begins his book with an explanation of how people can be divided into an “Adam I,” who looks for external success in the world, and an “Adam II,” who is dedicated to building character and understanding his own inner life. He argues that we have two sets of virtues: the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. Modern culture encourages us to use our résumé virtues only, dedicating significant amount of our time and energy to self-promotion.

Brooks encourages us to place greater emphasis on the eulogy virtues, dedicate our lives to a greater cause, and conduct ourselves in a way that is praiseworthy of the gift of life. Brooks observes that people with character live for something larger than themselves. To prove his point, Brooks studied the lives of people who struggled with their own flaws. Brooks supplements their life stories with a discussion of such important eulogy virtues as humility, love and willingness to sacrifice one’s personal interests.

When Brooks addresses our modern culture, he expresses his concern about the rise of selfishness and obsession with self-promotion—the traits that Brooks uses to describe Millennials. He supports his argument with the data from various studies. When comparing the past and the present, he admits that the culture of high self-esteem had certain benefits as it encouraged women, minorities and the disadvantaged to develop confidence in their abilities.

Brooks’s advice on how to find the road to character is less persuasive and clear than his assessment of the problems with moral issues that the society faces today. Besides, the argument in favor of the importance of struggle, self-abasement and deprivation is not convincing enough when it comes from an author who cannot provide any related stories from his own personal experience.

Brooks describes himself as follows: “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness” and “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard.” Then, he argues in his book that narcissism, which implies lack of humility, is bad for us and that we should find the ways to get rid of our narcissism. However, he does not tell us how he plans to discard his own narcissism, which, in a way, has been his own professional trademark for many years.

If Brooks has not overcome his own narcissistic traits, then he is lacking humility and therefore he has not walked the road to character himself. His desire to write a book that encourages people to be more humble and develop good character is honorable. However, studying the stories of a handful of historical characters who lived in different epochs is not sufficient for finding the road to character today. This kind of study may point us in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to get us anywhere without open and honest analysis of modern economic and political conditions that require people to be much more Adam I and much less Adam II.

In the interviews about his book, Brooks tells about his meeting with some women who were tutoring immigrants in Frederick, Maryland. He thinks that they were not particularly wealthy. Brooks recalls that he observed a certain inner light (or glow), humility and peace in these women and realized that he was missing that kind of inner humility and serenity. He points out that he has not been able to see this kind of inner serenity and humility in today’s young generation.

Consequently, he advises the young generation to stop obsessing with self-promotion and external success, and seek inner light. I wonder if Brooks is familiar with developmental psychology. Psychological studies reveal that it has been a norm (throughout the history of humankind) for young people to be most concerned with their personal ambition; introspection and contemplation typically come later starting at mid-life.

One of the problems that I see with his advice is that the comparison between these women and the younger Millennial generation may not be fair in a number of ways. Brooks does not know much about the story of the lives of these women and their financial status, and this is just one of examples of how Brooks underplays the role of socioeconomic factors when judging other people’s character or the lack of it. Who are these women? Are they financially secure? What kinds of deprivation, challenges and obstacles did they encounter and overcome in their lives?

We would need to know more about their lives before using them as role models for youth. It is quite possible, for example, that some of these women do not have a full-time job and they do not need to work for a living as their families provide their financial security. If this is true, then it would be unfair to compare a middle-aged financially secure person, who has some free time on his or her hands, to a recent college graduate, who lives with parents, has heavy student loans to repay, and is unable to find a decent job (or any job) in a tough economy.

In The Road to Character, Brooks emphasizes that we live in an age of “greater praise.” He criticizes today’s generation for their self-centeredness and self-absorption. He also criticizes modern parents and educators who keep assuring their children that they are amazing. Brooks expresses his concern that today’s young people lack a real character, have difficulty with defying morality, and become more self-obsessed as their parents, teachers and media keep telling them that they are special. Brooks proposes that previous generations had been less egotistical and more successful in character-building.

In a way, Brooks exaggerates the virtues of past generations. For example, he writes in his book that today’s “meritocracy” is about how “each acquaintance becomes an opportunity to advance your status and professional life project.” However, many past generations had very little social mobility (in some historical epochs, social mobility was severely restricted) and people socialized strictly with others of the same social and economic status as this would further help them maintain their own material status.

Brooks writes that “things once done in a poetic frame of mind, such as…meeting a potential lover…are now done in a more professional frame of mind.” He observes that you “fall in love with the person who might be of most use to you.” In very many cases, Brooks’s observations sound familiar and valid. But he relies on anecdotal evidence when he talks about the relationships of past generations. In fact, it was customary for many people of past generations to approve and seek relationships with the potential of financial and material gain in mind.

Moreover, the main purpose of marriage has changed many times throughout the history of humankind. Susan Squire, for example, shows just how contradictory the history of marriage is in her book I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage.  Squire argues in her book that marriage was designed in order to establish paternity by controlling women’s sex life. She also tells that men of Athens had courtesans to entertain them, used concubines for their daily need and used their wives to breed legitimate children. Women in ancient Rome learned how to use their power to impend male rule of society.

Brooks acknowledges that the past “was a more racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic culture.” Nevertheless, he argues that “there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common than now.” But was it sufficient for a better humankind? History that involves wars, slavery, class division and discrimination of women and minorities seems unlikely to produce a morally improved society.

Many beliefs, traditions and social and moral norms of past generations, including classism, thoughtless obedience to higher institutions of power and willingness not to “get above yourself,” as well as racism and discrimination of women, were clearly directed against democratic freedoms and social and economic justice. This makes me conclude that Brooks’s vision of past generations composed of people with real character and a keen sense of moral rectitude is not very realistic.

Yes, there have always been a few people who stood up and fought for a greater cause. But they have always been moral outliers and a minority, as compared to the overall complacent and personal interest–pre-occupied majority of the population. The fact that such outliers existed in the past does not mean that past generations were inherently morally  superior to today’s generation.

To support his idea that we can change ourselves for the better, Brooks discusses in his book how some moral outliers from the past—such as St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, President Eisenhower, Bayard Rustin, Johnny Unitas, George Marshall—succeeded in building their own characters. Actually, the majority of The Road to Character is devoted to the discussion of historical people who developed strong character.

Some readers may find it difficult to relate to these people who lived long time ago and whose lifestyle differs so much from our own. Furthermore, the lives of these people are of course full of normal human contradictions. (Brooks himself admits that they were not perfect.) Readers may also feel confused because some of the flaws of the exemplary people depicted in Brooks’s book are similar to the flaws that Brooks identifies and criticizes in the modern society. For example, he is concerned about the issues with today’s parenting. However, almost all the people that he exemplifies in his book were not-so-good parents and some of them were rather bad spouses.

For example, St. Augustine described his marriage to his wife as “a mere bargain of lustful love.” Samuel Johnson was physically abusive. Frances Perkins was a cold mother. Dorothy Day became separated from her family. Eisenhower’s children claimed that they barely knew him. Moreover, Brooks writes that Eisenhower’s behavior toward Kay Summersby, who was his lover, was revolting.

While Brooks criticizes today’s young people for broadcasting their personal lives, it turns out that Dorothy Day publicly confessed about her love affairs and abortions. While Brooks critiques today’s youth for being too sensitive to criticism, he does not see a similarity in the life story of George Marshall, who, as Brooks tells readers, was determined to become a success because his brother predicted that he would be a disgrace to their family. Then, Brooks describes how Marshall’s schoolmates subjected him to a brutal ritual, which is not better (or, maybe is worse) than a modern fraternity’s initiations.

When it comes to religion, Brooks’s take on the role of religion in character-building is not clearly defined in his book. The examples of lives of the people that he examines in his book give the impression that he regards religion and faith to be important aspects of a strong character; however, later in his book, he writes that religion is not a prerequisite for real character.

In his book, Brooks offers a number of what I consider to be valid ideas on how to build character. For example, he encourages us to find a calling that is larger than ourselves. He also tells us to confront our sins and to be more humble. Yet, some of his considerations of the impact of external success on one’s character are debatable.

For example, Brooks states, “Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride.” However, one can argue that it really depends on the experience that a person gains when working on achieving external success. When people have to study a lot, work really hard, overcome very serious obstacles on their way to success and even fail a few times before they succeed, they are very likely to become more realistic about their abilities and limitations. And this kind of realism is one of the prerequisites for humility.

Whereas searching for inner light and spirituality for oneself is important, real character can be built only when a person struggles both with internal and external obstacles. In other words, the external world’s experiences and struggles are necessary for shaping one’s character just like the internal struggles. Even if a person can confront his or her own weaknesses, it does not mean that the person will be strong enough to confront power-thirsty egotists in society who want Adam II to disappear for good from all of our lives.

Brooks doubts that government can help us live better inner lives. What is more, he urges readers to concentrate on inner self and to surrender control over external forces, at least to a certain degree. This idea worries me a lot. Where is the boundary at which we can stop surrendering this kind of control? In my opinion, Brooks is so vague about the idea of surrender that a number of questions can arise: Why would Brooks want us to give away control of our lives and our society and to whom? In my opinion, the line that Brooks draws between becoming more humble and becoming more obedient is dangerously thin.

Brooks argues in The Road to Success that people spend too much time developing their résumé virtues, which are required in order to achieve an external success, and they spend too little time developing the eulogy virtues, which define one’s character. He rightfully observes that the society at large faces this problem because modern Western culture and market economy reward people for their outer success and punish them for not being competitive. But he does not investigate in depth how and why this happens.

Brooks criticizes today’s young people for their culture of self-promotion and self-absorption. However, some people might be forced to promote themselves because they feel anxious and scared to find themselves left behind in our market-driven economy. Today’s young people, with their flaws and moral issues, are the product of the educational, economic and political systems created by the previous generations that Brooks praises so much. And, while it’s great to examine the exemplary characters of the past, Brooks does not investigate people who created the system that made today’s young people the way they are.

Brooks suggests that today’s youth have lost the moral way because previous generations have failed to teach these Millennials the virtues of humility and self-reflection. But he does not investigate what prevented the older generations from doing that. As I stated earlier, he limits his search for an answer to this question to “soul-searching,” paying little attention to economic and political conditions that manifest themselves in the current culture of scarcity, endless competition and loss of deeper long-term social connections among people.

Brooks masterfully and clearly defines and describes in his book the serious moral issues of American modern culture. However, he becomes vague when it comes to identifying the economic and political roots of these issues. Brooks hurriedly makes a comment that “the intellectual and cultural shift toward the Big Me was reinforced by economic and technological changes.” However, in the next sentence he immediately reduces “economic and technological changes” to “a technological culture” and then proceeds to a discussion of social media.

He further blames meritocracy for the shift in the culture. But what does Brooks mean by meritocracy? In his book, Brooks describes a meritocracy as a “hypercompetitive system built upon merit” that encourages people to think a lot about themselves, cultivate their own skills, and think about the world in commercial terms. In other words, a meritocratic system rewards people proportionally to their merit and contribution to the society.

However, the American economic system cannot be considered as a meritocratic system for a few reasons. First, American society is a society of excessive inequality, where a disproportionate amount of the national wealth is in profits, not in wages, and a relatively small group of people, who essentially do not produce anything, owns the majority of the capital stock (millionaire and billionaire families, as well as millionaire executives, are certainly not rewarded simply for their merit). Second, the lower-income classes have difficulty accessing the necessary resources to get ahead. For example, the chance for a high-school graduate to be accepted to an ivy-league university is directly proportional to the social and economic status of his or her parents.

In a world where medical services and education are very expensive and nothing is guaranteed, young people are taught that people are in this alone. Therefore, they are forced to act like Adam I in order to achieve at least some economic security (or an illusion of such) in their lives. Moreover, media, which are mostly owned by the wealthy, shape people’s mentality from a very young age, encouraging them to be less spiritual and much more materialistic, constantly telling them to concentrate on making money and consuming material goods.

Yet, Brooks disregards the impact of growing economic inequality in the US on the modern younger generation’s way of thinking and living. In his opinion, parents and educators have lots to do with shaping our youth’s selfish and materialistic mentality, but for him the economy with its drastic income inequality and media controlled by the wealthy play only a small role in shaping the mindset of today’s younger generation.

Brooks offers somewhat different evaluation of the roots of the problem. He argues in his book that the cultural shift, which began in the US in 1940s and made Americans act more like Adam I and less like Adam II, was the result of a gradual change in mindset thanks to all their greatest external achievements. People felt like they were ready for a better life, and humanistic psychologists started the self-esteem movement, encouraging Americans to accept, love and praise themselves rather than focusing on their character flaws.

Consequently, Brooks proposes that the shift can be reversed as soon as Americans consciously change their “moral ecology,” concentrate on their inner self-study and learn to be humble. That is, the impact of the economic system and the growing economic inequality does not need to be addressed; the only thing that is required for Americans, according to Brooks, is to start thinking differently and change their moral principles and habits of thinking and behavior.

In contrast, there are a number of thinkers who have a different interpretation of the change that took place in the 1940s. In September 2008, Jonathan Tepperman’s article, “We Got Trouble” published in The New York Times. In this article, Tepperman briefly reviews Andrew Bacevich’s point of view that was expressed in Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism:

Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University, sees himself as a modern Jeremiah, railing at a fat and self-indulgent country that’s lost its way. By his reckoning, things started going sideways at the end of World War II, when the United States first emerged as “the strongest, the richest and . . . the freest nation in all the world.” As American power expanded abroad, liberty grew at home. But the country’s expectations soon exceeded its ability to satisfy them. At that point, Americans faced a choice: “curb their appetites and learn to live within their means, or deploy . . . United States power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate” them. You can guess which one Bacevich thinks Americans went for.

Considering that there is more than one interpretation of what happened to American moral principles in 1940s, I think that readers should independently research and consider other opinions and point of views before accepting Brooks’s analysis of 20th-century American cultural history.


Overall, Brooks’s book has the potential to make a great impact on readers because it calls for a return to personal humility and brings our attention to the importance of confronting our weaknesses (or sins) and striving for a richer inner life. His analysis of modern moral ecology and the culture of the “Big Me” is thorough and enlightening.

However, Brooks’ book does not seriously addresses the economic and political forces that encourage people to be narcissistic, shallow and materialistic. Without such analysis, the recommendations and solutions that Brooks proposes in his book remain incomplete.


References and Further Reading

Bacevich, A. 2009. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Holt Paperbacks.

Barry, C.T., Kerig, P.K., Stellwagen, K.K., & Barry, T.D. (Eds.). 2011. Narcissism and Machiavellianism in youth: Implications for the development of adaptive and maladaptive behavior. Washington, D.C.: APA.

Blickle, G., Schlegel, A., Fassbender, P., & Klein, U. 2006. “Some personality correlates of white-collar crime.” Applied Psychology 55, 220-233.

Boehm, C. 2007. Political Primates. [available at l_primates/]

Brooks, D. 2001. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster.

Brooks, D. 2005. On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. Simon & Schuster.

Brooks, D. 2012. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

Brooks, David. 2015. The Road to Character. Random House

Burns, S. M., Brainerd, C. J. 1979. “Effects of constructive and dramatic play on perspective taking in very young children.” Developmental Psychology, 15, 512–521.

Connolly, J. A., Doyle, A. 1984. “Relation of social fantasy play to social competence in preschoolers.” Developmental Psychology, 20, 797–806.

Dingfelder, S. F. 2011. “Reflecting on narcissism.” [available at]

Elias, C. L., Berk, L. E. 2002. “Self-regulation in young children: Is there a role for sociodramatic play?” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 17, 216–238.

Isaacs, D. 2001. Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. Four Courts Press.

Jenkins, J. M., Astington, J. W. 1996. “Cognitive factors and family structure associated with theory of mind development in young children.” Developmental Psychology, 32, 70–78.

Judge, T. A., LePine, J. A., & Rich, B. L. 2006. “Loving yourself abundantly: Relationship of the narcissistic personality to self- and other perceptions of workplace deviance, leadership, and task and contextual performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology. 91, 762-776. //

Kennan, G.F. 1948. “Policy Planning Study 23 (PPS23),” Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)

Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. 2011. “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

Lickona, T. 2009. Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues. Touchstone

McClay, W.M. “Humility: Vice or Virtue,” The Online Journal of Everyday Virtues.

Newton, E., Jenvey, V. 2011. “Play and theory of mind: Associations with social competence in young children.” Early Child Development and Care, 181, 761–773.

Otway, L. J., Vignoles, V. L. 2006. “Narcissism and childhood recollections: A qualitative test of psychoanalytic predictions,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32,104–116.

Plato. 2000. The Republic. Dover Publications

Soloveitchik, J. 1965. “The Lonely Man of Faith.” Image, 2006 Reprint edition.

Squire, S. 2011. I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage. Bloomsbury USA

Tarrants, T.A.  “Pride and Humility.” [available at]

Tartaglia, L. 1999. Flawless! The Ten Most Common Character Flaws and What You Can Do About Them. Quill.

Thomaes, S., Bushman, B. J., DeCastro, B. O., & Stegge, H. 2009. “What makes narcissists bloom? A framework for research on the etiology and development of narissism.” Development and Psychopathology 21, 1233-1247.

Trzesniewski, K.H. & Donnellan, M.B. 2010. “Rethinking “Generation Me”: A study of cohort effects from 1976–2006.” Perspectives in Psychological Science, 5, 58–75.

Twenge, J. M., Foster, J. D. 2010. “Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982-2009,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1, 99-106.

Twenge, J.M., & Campbell, W.K. 2009. The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Free Press.

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