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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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In order to switch between pages of Part  I. A Summary of the Key Ideas and Facts in Brooks’s The Road to Character, please use tabs located beneath this message.

I.1. Résumé Virtues and Eulogy Virtues

Inside Brooks’s Book

Brooks believes that American culture is too focused on attaining happiness, and it pays no attention to “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.” According to Brooks, people’s obsession with happiness is one of the problems with modern American culture. He argues that another problem is that Americans dedicate their time and life energy to accumulating power, professional achievement and material wealth, and they do not make an effort to find a path to “inner depth.”

In order to investigates these problems, Brooks introduces the notion that people have two separate sets of virtues. Brooks calls them the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the virtues people bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the virtues and qualities that describe the person at a deeper level. For example, Brooks qualifies honesty, compassion, courage and ability to love as the eulogy virtues. People can mention these virtues when they describe a person who is already dead, which is why Brooks refers to these virtues as the eulogy virtues.

Brooks argues that our culture encourages people to spend much more time thinking about résumé virtues than eulogy virtues, even though the eulogy virtues are more important. This is why his book concentrates on people who developed the eulogy virtues and investigates how they were able to accomplish that.

Brooks brings certain elements of theology into his book, including the word sin. For example, he considers that it is a sin to think more about what you say than what the other person has to say in a conversation.

Beyond Brooks’s Book

A virtue is a positive trait or quality of human character that is considered to be morally good. The idea of virtue and its role in human behavior originates in Greek philosophy. Plato, a Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived in the fourth century B.C., recognized four virtues that are also known as the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. He described these virtues in the “The Republic,” a Socratic dialogue concerning justice, order and character. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher and scientist who was a student of Plato, expanded the list of virtues. Here, I summarize the 10 essential virtues recognized by the ancient Greeks.

The ancient Greeks believed that wisdom is the principal virtue that guides all the other virtues. They understood wisdom as good judgment that allows us to make rational decisions, which are good for us and for other people. Wisdom also tells us how we can use other virtues in our lives and helps us define our priorities. According to the ancient Greeks, the second virtue is justice. Justice encompasses respect for our own rights and the rights of other people.

The third virtue is fortitude, which enables us to do the right thing even when it is difficult. Fortitude manifests itself as resilience, courage, determination and endurance. For example, the rise in teen suicide over the past three decades might be partly due to the fact that many teenagers are not prepared to cope with life’s hardships.

The fourth virtue identified by the Ancient Greeks is temperance (i.e., self-control), which enables us to resist temptation and control our temper, sensual desires and passions. Temperance empowers us to delay pleasures in order to pursue higher and longer-term goals.

The Ancient Greeks considered love to be the fifth essential virtue. Love implies one’s readiness to care about other people and act in the interests of other people. The sixth essential virtue is a positive attitude and hard work is the seventh. Integrity is the eighth fundamental virtue; whereas honesty means telling the truth to other people, integrity means telling the truth to ourselves. Integrity requires following moral principle and being faithful to moral conscience.

Gratitude, the ninth essential virtue, allows us to appreciate whatever good we have in our lives. Humility, the tenth essential virtue, is the foundation of our moral life. It makes us aware of our flaws and limitations, and it encourages us to become a better person.

Even though modern American culture seems to devalue these classical virtues, of which Brooks’s eulogy virtues form a part, it does not mean that modern thinkers and educators uniformly disregard the importance of such virtues. In fact, they actively discuss the necessity of teaching eulogy virtues to children.

For example, in his book, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues, Thomas Lickona, psychologist and educator, offers more than a hundred real-world strategies that parents and educators can use to help children build strong personal character and develop the 10 essential Greek virtues listed previously. Lickona points out in his book that people who lack these virtues often act in selfish and destructive ways.

I.2. Adam I and Adam II

Inside Brooks’s Book

In his book, Brooks contrasts résumé virtues with eulogy virtues, indicating that they illustrate two sides of human nature. His classification of human virtues is based on a dichotomy proposed by the 20th-century American rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik in his 1965 essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.” In this essay, Soloveitchik divided humanity between the external “Adam I,” and internal, moral “Adam II.”

Brooks explains in his book that Adam I, the external Adam, represents the virtues of a successful career, and Adam II, the internal Adam, represents the virtues of a rewarding inner life. He further agrees with Soloveitchik that the virtues of Adam II are more important because Adam II strives to have certain moral qualities and good character. While Adam I devotes life to conquering the world, Adam II obeys a greater calling and serves the world. While Adam I asks how world works, Adam II wants to know why our world exists and what the ultimate goal of our existence is.

Brooks points out in his book that we live in a culture that cultivates Adam I. He does not think, though, that Adam I and Adam II cannot co-exist. It’s just that we have to find a balance between our Adam I and Adam II characteristics.

Beyond Brooks’s Book

In The Road to Character, Brooks does not tell readers that Soloveitchik proposed the concept of Adam I and Adam II as a way to address the fact that Genesis has two versions of how God created man. Soloveitchik was an Orthodox Jew and believed in the “divine character” of the Bible. This is why he disagreed with the notion, espoused by many biblical scholars, that the stories came from different authors. He believed that the stories were intended to exemplify “dual man.” In the first version of Genesis, Adam is created “in the image of God” and he has to “fill” and “subdue” the earth. In the second version of Genesis, God created Adam out of dust and God’s breath so that Adam would “serve” and “keep” the Garden of Eden.

According to Soloveitchik, both Adam I and Adam II are gifts of God and are inherent to human nature. Neither is expendable, let alone sinful. Soloveitchik also wrote that the balance between Adam I and Adam II has been lost in the modern Western world because modern culture values and praises only the pursuits of Adam I and diminishes the pursuits of Adam II.

I.3. Humility

Inside Brooks’s Book

Brooks emphasizes in his book that the modern “Big Me” culture makes us self-centered, forcing us to broadcast our personal brand at the expense of consideration for others. Brooks argues that this trend goes against such an important eulogy virtue as humility. He defines humility as great self-awareness that comes with an ability to see yourself and your problems from a distance. Brooks points out that external success can be earned by being better at something than other people. However, character is built by confronting your own flaws and sins, transforming yourself inside and making yourself a better person than you used to be.

He refers to the philosopher John Stuart Mill who said that we all have a moral responsibility to become better every day. Brooks observes that people who appear to be most at peace are also the most humble. The people who appear to be most self-confident tend to be narcissists.

Brooks emphasizes the important role of culture in encouraging humility. He argues that culture shifts do happen and that the recent culture shift encourages us to lose the concept of humility.

Beyond Brooks’s Book

Brooks’s observation of the importance of humility and his acknowledgment of the devaluation of humility in modern culture are well aligned with conventional views of our times. For example, David Isaacs writes in Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers: “Humility is recognizing both our inadequacies and abilities and pressing our abilities into service without attracting attention or expecting applause.”

Louis Tartaglia, a psychiatrist and author, writes in Flawless! The Ten Most Common Character Flaws and What You Can Do About Them, that 20 years of his experience as a therapist has taught him that the most common character flaw is “addiction to being right.” He concludes that the humble willingness to change is uppermost in importance for the development of one’s character.

Wilfred M. McClay offers an in-depth discussion of humility as a virtue in his article, “Humility: Vice or Virtue,” published by the online Journal of Everyday Virtues. In his article, McClay notes that humility has not been equally esteemed in all times and places. Humility was valued by the ancient Greeks because they were afraid that excessive pride could enrage their gods. Christians believe that humility is characteristic of the very nature of God. McClay makes an interesting observation in his article (considering that Aristotle goes against other Greek philosophers on this point) when he writes:

Humility is generally seen to be a virtue, then. But it is a peculiar kind of virtue. For one thing, it requires for its realization that we constantly do battle with, and insistently defeat, some of our strongest and deepest inclinations. This requirement would appear to run athwart the usual assumption that human virtues are forms of excellence which express the fullest flourishing of human nature… Humility…sets itself against many of our most fundamental impulses, clips our wings, and negates our desires – working, in a sense, against nature itself. Which may be precisely why Aristotle declined to regard humility as a virtue, and instead exalted “greatness of soul” (megalopsychia) as the convergence of the moral virtues.

I.4. People with Character

Inside Brooks’s Book

In his book, Brooks examines the lives of those people whom he considers exemplary in certain ways. Whereas these people are famous for their outward achievements, Brooks looks into how they transformed themselves inside. He finds that humility is one important feature that all these people had in common.

Brooks’s list of famous people who recognized their inner weaknesses (sins) and found the way to overcome them includes such leaders as President Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. George Marshall, as well as theologian St. Augustine, Catholic social worker Dorothy Day, civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and writers George Eliot, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne.

Brooks believes that an analysis of these exemplary people’s lives can help readers find the road to their own good character. Consequently, he describes their lives in his book, paying particular attention to how these people confronted their weaknesses (their core sins) and found ways to change themselves for the better.

According to Brooks’s research, some of the core sins of the real-life characters depicted in his book can be described as follows: Bayard Rustin, who was a civil rights leader, had a huge ego; Dorothy Day, who was women’s rights activist, had her life fragmented; George Eliot, the novelist, was very needy for intimacy; Dwight Eisenhower had a bad temper.

All these people confronted their core sins and found a way to overcome them. Brooks explores in The Road to Character how these people developed a strong character through internal struggles and a realization of their own sins and limitations:

  • Labor activist Frances Perkins realized the necessity of suppressing her personal interests in order to become an instrument in a greater cause.
  • Dwight Eisenhower curbed his impulsive behavior and learned how to restrain his temper.
  • Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert and an advocate of the poor, mastered the notion of surrender and simplicity.
  • Civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned self-discipline.

Brooks points out that people with character are able to commit to tasks and goals that can be achieved over time periods greater than one person’s lifetime. For example, Frances Perkins was committed to the improving worker safety. Her commitment grew stronger and made her truly dedicate herself to this cause after she witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in which hundreds of people died. She willingly put aside her personal ambitions to devote her life to a greater cause.

Beyond Brooks’s Book

In his article, “Pride and Humility,” Thomas A. Tarrants III considers how improving economic and political conditions undermine humility and encourage the growing pride of today’s politicians. He writes:

History shows at every point how easy it is for pride to increase as we become stronger, more successful, more prosperous, and more recognized in our endeavors….This is evident today in the dangerous pride in some political and business leaders in the West. We have only to look around us at the current state of political life in America to see examples. Pride and arrogance are obvious in many political leaders, whether liberal or conservative, making matters much worse than they need to be. Or consider the business and financial catastrophes we have experienced in recent years. A thoughtful article in the Wall Street Journal after the WorldCom and Enron debacles attributed them to “pride, greed and lack of accountability.” The recent financial crisis in America is yet another example of the same thing. Clearly pride is very dangerous and can produce widespread suffering in society when people in leadership and power are corrupted by it.

Brooks also considers pride and lack of humility as real obstacles on one’s way to good character. Whereas he tells us about politicians and activists who confronted these obstacles internally, he does not educate us about modern leaders and thinkers who have embraced this sort of pride with the assertion that the United States is qualitatively better than other nations.

I.5. Today’s Youth and Our Culture of the “Big Me”

Inside Brooks’s Book

When Brooks addresses our modern culture, he expresses his concern about the rise of selfishness and the obsession with self-promotion. Brooks points out that these traits are typically used to describe Millennials (the generation generally ranging in birth years from the early 1980s to early 2000s). He supports his argument with the data from various studies. For example, he refers to the studies conducted by the Gallup organization. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be very important. Only 12 percent of respondents answered positively. In 2005, 80 percent of respondents answered the same question positively. Brooks argues that this is a worrying trend for society and that people should learn to be humble in order to find and develop inner goodness.

He observes in his book that we live in a culture of the “Big Me,” where people are encouraged to think of themselves as people of greatness and to promote themselves via personal interactions and social media as such people. Brook argues that in our culture, which lacks a moral vocabulary, people can easily slip into selfish ways of living reinforced by a self-assured moral mediocrity. Consequently, people judge their actions using less morally demanding and more forgiving criteria.

While Brooks criticizes today’s generation for their self-absorption, he also expresses his concern that today’s young people lack a real character, have difficulty complying with moral standards and become more self-obsessed as their parents, teachers and media keep telling them that they are special. Brooks argues that this was different for previous generations, supporting his argument with stories about some famous people from the past and implying that previous generations had been less egotistical and more successful in character-building.

Brooks draws a conclusion from his analysis that people are not born enlightened and with strong character. Instead, they persistently work on themselves in order to build their character and develop their inner virtues. This kind of work necessitates certain moral and spiritual accomplishments. Consequently, Brooks encourages people to get out of their shells and build their real character by making deep connections to something beyond themselves. He points out that people with character are able to commit to tasks and goals that can be achieved over time periods that are greater than one person’s lifetime.

Brooks also tells us how politicians have become preoccupied with self-promotion when he provides the following example: only one out of the 23 members of Eisenhower’s cabinet wrote and published a memoir; in contrast 12 out of 30 in the Reagan administration published a memoir.

Beyond Brooks’s Book

In one study, researchers at the National Institutes of Health conducted face-to-face interviews with 34,653 adult Americans. The interviews revealed that 9.4 percent of Americans in their 20s but only 3.2 percent of people over 65 had been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder at some point in their lives. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, analyzed data from 85 different studies conducted between 1982 and 2006 and determined that college students’ narcissism scores are rising.

Psychologists propose a few reasons for this rise of narcissism among young Americans. For example, Twenge thinks that the internet encourages people to promote themselves, broadcasting all the little details of their lives via social media, as well as in blogs. Parents also inflate their children’s self-esteem in various ways. For example, Twenge and Joshua Foster, a psychology professor at the University of South Alabama, analyzed data from the Social Security Administration’s baby name database. They discovered that parents increasingly choose uncommon names for their children. In the late 1880s, about 40 percent of boys were given one of the 10 most common names. Today, less than 10 percent of boys are given one of the most common names.

H. Konrath and colleagues argue in their article “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-analysis,” published in Personality and Social Psychology Review that narcissism can arise because parents more and more encourage and pressure children and teenagers into achieving external success and building “résumé skills.” By “achievement” parents understand winning individual sporting competitions, getting the best grades in school, being admitted into the best college, etc. When children and teenagers are continuously involved in such kinds of competition, they more and more focus on themselves and perceive other people as obstacles to their success.

Peter Gray also points out in his article “Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?” that the decline in play is related to an increased pressure to achieve. He observes that, over the past several decades, children have been given fewer and fewer opportunities to play with other children without adult guidance. He writes:

Free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their own lives, solve their own problems, and deal effectively with fear and anger—and thereby protect themselves from prolonged anxiety and depression. Free play is also the primary means by which children maintain and expand upon their creative potentials. Now, I suggest, free social play—that is, play with other kids, undirected by adults–is also the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.

Christopher Barry, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, once described a narcissistic society as a society where people strive to gain power, status and attractive physical appearance; praise materialism above all else; have a bloated sense of their own importance and abilities; manipulate others for personal gain; take anything they believe they are entitled to; experience high rates of anxiety and depression; and have difficulty keeping friends despite the fact that they can easily make friends. Barry pointed out that “A narcissistic society would be a deeply lonely place.” Are we heading toward such a society?

I.6. The Humility Code and the Moral Bucket List

Inside Brooks’s Book

In the final chapter of The Road to Character, Brooks formulates a “Humility Code” as a path to holiness. In the Code, he expresses his believe that deep down, people want to live for “purpose, righteousness, and virtue,” as well as for the increasing excellence of the soul. Consequently, life is considered as a moral drama, not a hedonistic one. He also reiterates that character is built through inner confrontation with one’s own weaknesses. He proposes that you can improve your character by continuously making conscious choices in your life.

Brooks believes that people are not born being enlightened and with strong character. Instead, he says they persistently work on themselves in order to build their character and develop their inner virtues. This kind of work necessitates certain moral and spiritual accomplishments. Brooks refers to the list of these accomplishments as The Moral Bucket List. (Brooks described the Moral Bucket List in his essay published by The New York Times.) The list includes the humility shift, self-defeat, the dependency leap, energizing love, the call within the call and the conscience leap.

The Humility Shift

Brooks describes our culture as the culture of the “Big Me” that encourages people to promote themselves and broadcast their lives. But people with character make a conscious effort to recognize their core sins, such as egotism, the need for approval, etc. Furthermore, they develop a strong sense of humility, which is required for deep self-awareness.


You have to confront your own weaknesses in order to build character. For example, Dwight Eisenhower had fought his bad temper, which was his core sin, for many years. He used different tricks to pacify his anger. For example, he would write down on paper the names of the people he could not stand and then tear the paper into pieces and throw them in the garbage (I would say that in the Middle Ages, many people would likely have viewed his habit as some kind of witchcraft).

The Dependency Leap

You have to build profound connections with others that will help you defeat your pride and selfishness. The road to character requires making intellectual and emotional commitments that encourage you to pursue goals that are bigger than your own life.

Energizing Love

Love helps us “de-center the self.” It can be love for a great cause, love for another person, or love for God. For example, Dorothy Day’s character transformed after she gave birth to her daughter. She embraced Catholicism, published a radical newspaper, opened houses for the poor and lived among them.

The Call within the Call

Money, financial security and status are among many reasons that persuade people to choose their professions. Yet, some people’s life experiences help them turn their career into a calling. For example, Frances Perkins was an activist who witnessed how the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory caused the deaths of dozens of factory workers. This experience motivated her to find her calling in defending workers’ rights. She became one of the prominent civic activists of the 20th century.

The Conscience Leap

People with character have the strength to disregard the branding and status symbols of their lives and overcome their own fears in order to make drastic changes in their lives. They also learn more about themselves from their own suffering.

In Brooks’s opinion, people need to match their talents and abilities with the world’s profound needs. Then they can feel satisfaction and joy from their morally good actions. People with character do not dedicate their lives to becoming better than other people. They learn to balance their inner and outer ambitions and strive to be better than they themselves used to be.


Beyond Brooks’s Book

Brooks encourages us to look inside ourselves and use our inner resources to develop eulogy virtues. Interestingly, studies of nonhuman primates show that among chimpanzees, social power is based less on strong-arming and proclamation of self-interest, and more on the primates’ ability to negotiate conflicts, to distribute resources fairly, and to facilitate group norms. Those chimpanzees who try to dominate others and serve only their own interests are challenged and overthrown. Is it possible that the answer to our search for our eulogy virtues can be partly found in our genes?

Why are humans so different from nonhuman primates when it comes to promoting self-interest and competing with and dominating others? Does someone want to convince us that we can prosper only by using our résumé virtues and neglecting our eulogy virtues?

In his article, “Political Primates,” anthropologist Christopher Boehm writes:

Discoveries in the fields of anthropology and primatology suggest that though we may have a deeply rooted instinct to exert power over others, we also have what may be an equally strong aversion to abuses of power, along with some natural tendencies to punish people who commit those abuses. Consider this fact: Before 10,000 years ago, only egalitarian societies existed on our planet—tiny societies with no strong leaders at all. Keeping in mind that gene-selection requires at least a thousand generations to change our nature significantly, we must assume that most of our genes have evolved from the genetic makeup of people living in these small Paleolithic bands.

Boehm’s argument provides an interesting insight into human nature. It tells us that if we want to understand who we really are, then we have to remember about our genetic predisposition to fairness and collaboration. And we have not even begun to (or don’t want to) realize how strongly the modern system is in conflict with our human nature.

Go to Part II A Critical Analysis

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