Image: Miller Center

Abraham Lincoln cherished and annotated Mary G. Chandler’s popular 1854 book, The Elements of Character, which urged readers to take control of themselves and “build up a worthy Character.” Self-improvement books of this sort are an American perennial, from before even Benjamin Franklin laid out his strategies for “arriving at moral perfection” in his Autobiography (1791). Nor has their output subsided even after Reverend Rick Warren’s huge bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life (2002), which gave readers daily exercises to attain “God’s ultimate goal for your life . . . character development.” These life coaches have used different languages—pragmatism, religion, psychotherapy, etc.—but the trope is the same: you can become a more moral, more loved, more fulfilled person if you humble your pride, sternly examine your habits, and then systematically fashion a better self. David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character, fits wonderfully in this genre.

Brooks would object that The Road to Character is not a self-help book, that it is just a report on his frank self-examination, which he wrote “to save my own soul.” But his plentiful advice, the fifteen items of his “Humility Code” (for example, “the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life”), and the recommended program of steps to become a better person provided on the book’s accompanying website, all place The Road to Character squarely in the American self-help tradition. The Road to Character is also profoundly American in its central contradiction; more on that later.

In true American style, Brooks understands our lives to be the products of individual will alone.

Capsule biographies of diverse historical figures—Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, Samuel Johnson, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine among them—comprise most of The Road to Character. With each sketch, Brooks develops sub-themes of his larger argument. In essence, he claims that Americans have, since the late 1940s, become much more self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing. After generations of humility, we have entered an era of the “Big Me.” Egoism explains our shallow, unfulfilled, sad lives. We must, Brooks urges, strive to (re-)discover humility and, once properly humbled, (re-)build moral, connected, and meaningful lives.

The stress on humility is akin to the longtime emphasis in such texts on developing self-control and modesty. Young George Washington, for instance, known for some intemperance, forced himself to study maxims such as “Play not the Peacock” and “Prefer them to whom we Speak before ourselves.” Brooks’s role models largely followed a common path to character: descent into a valley of despair, a sharp turn that revealed the way, and then ascent to a moral life. This fall-and-redemption story, too, is common in American self-help literature, from testimonials by nineteenth-century evangelical converts (“I once was lost but now am found”) to twenty-first-century Twelve Step affirmations (start by admitting powerlessness, end with “spiritual awakening”).

Americans went wrong, Brooks argues, when we began to indulge the romantic, optimistic side of our culture over its realistic, dour side, the side that accepts the inevitability of fault and sin. (Perhaps to be different, Brooks blames the Greatest Generation for this self-indulgence, rather than the rebellious kids of the 1960s.) The slackening of character culminated with the self-esteem movement, which gained its greatest traction boosting the confidence of African Americans—“black is beautiful”—and women—“I am woman, hear me roar.” The understandable urge to build up the confidence of suppressed groups bloomed into a culture of everyone-is-beautiful and every-child-is-above-average. And now we are almost all Big Me’s.

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The Road to Character is an engaging book; Brooks works hard to save his soul—and ours. He is as passionate about moral improvement as a self-described “narcissistic blowhard” can be. The sections recommending that we surrender to love don’t quite attain the level of love drunkenness one finds in, say, the Song of Songs, but aspire to that bliss. Chandler’s 1854 advice book also extolled love. Lincoln marked a passage: “The motive power of man is Affection. . . . Our Character is the complex of all that we love.”

Religion is another repeated theme in The Road to Character. Many of the role models Brooks describes were or became deeply religious; others became, in today’s lingo, spiritual but not religious. He describes those who eagerly submerged their egos to the grace of God, yet he is not willing to go the full Rick Warren, who plainly states in The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you. . . . pleasing God is the first purpose of your life.” Brooks’s caution with religion is a bit puzzling because faiths that successfully dictate “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” avoid Big Me self-centeredness. The mitzvot of Brooks’s own religious tradition are commandments—to love, to give, to humble oneself—just what he seemingly wants us all to do. But he does not submit to religious injunctions as his next step on the road to virtue. He balks because he is, in American tradition, still committed to individual self-creation.

Here, then, is the core, profound, and so-American contradiction in The Road to Character: the key flaw in our characters, Brooks tells us, is the egotistical sense of our own importance; we are Big Me’s who mistakenly believe that we are captains of our own fates. We should be more humble, virtuous selves. How shall we do that? By force of individual will. We must “struggle against” ourselves, fight our “innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence,” and will ourselves to “become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control.” In other words, we overcome our excessive sense of individual willpower by a yet greater exercise of individual willpower.

What leads Brooks into this trap is his deep Americanness, which understands our lives to be the products of individual will and which neglects the structural and institutional contexts that shape character. That Brooks falls for the trap is surprising, given that he reads widely in the social sciences. (In 2011 the American Sociological Association gave Brooks its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues. Some ASA members objected because of his right-of-center politics; not I.) Brooks knows better. He knows that Tocqueville described Americans’ “habits of the heart” as rooted in the circumstances of the New World and the institutions of American society. Tocqueville, for example, described nineteenth-century Americans’ “restlessness” and “envy” as the “natural” products of a relatively equal society, but also declared that American society had successfully counteracted the evil impulses it had spawned with laws that restrained “the restless ambition of the citizens . . . and [turned] those same passions . . . to the good” of the community.

If American youth today are more concerned about money than were those of fifty years ago, perhaps that has something to do with wage stagnation and rapidly widening economic inequality. If civic alienation has increased, perhaps that has something to do with the corruption and paralysis of the political system. If people are cheating more, perhaps they see how our financial institutions plentifully reward scheming wheeler-dealers. And if Americans seem more callous to one another, maybe that has something to do with learning from a society that, in its health and employment and policing institutions, routinely treats its unfortunate callously.

Had Brooks explored this direction, and he has the tools to do so, he would have emphasized much less individualistic—indeed, narcissistic—self-obsession as the road to character and emphasized much more the collective building of institutions that, by the material conditions they create and the moral lessons they convey, promote virtuous habits of the heart.