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David Brooks' 'The Road to Character': Building up the soul

David Brooks, author of

David Brooks, author of "The Road to Character" (Random House, April 2015) Credit: David Burnett

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER, by David Brooks. Random House, 300 pp., $28.

"It is the part of a gentleman," John Dewey cautioned, "not to obtrude virtues noticeably upon others."

Sensible advice from a pragmatic philosopher. Yet how can we be sure the virtues will thrive if no one has the temerity to exhort us to them? Is it really in such poor taste to urge people to live up to their better angels?

David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and author, doesn't seem to think so. In his new book, "The Road to Character," he's willing to risk sounding sanctimonious in service to the greater cause of character, something you don't hear much about anymore.

Brooks argues that most of us live with two versions of ourselves, the "resume" self and the "eulogy" self. The rise of the modern meritocracy has meant that the resume self -- the one busy with self-promotion and networking -- consumes all our time and energy. But the author wants us to focus a lot more on our eulogy self -- the one that tries to figure out why we are on this earth, and how we can comport ourselves in a way worthy of the gift of life.

To Brooks, character is about living for something larger than yourself. The author may be right, but his approach isn't very precise or rigorous. If Bill Gates has ultimately done more good than Mother Teresa, for example, can we avoid concluding that he has more character? Or should we prefer a tobacco salesman with a rich inner life? And times have changed. Some of the signs of character he cites -- formal ways of speaking, for instance -- today would come across as pretentious or stiff.

Yet this learned and engaging work brims with pleasures. Like predecessors from Plutarch to John F. Kennedy, Brooks makes his case for character through the stories of people who seemed to have it, including public servants Frances Perkins and Gen. George Marshall and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. These little biographies are enlightening, and they demonstrate that character comes in all kinds of people, in a variety of manifestations.

Brooks acknowledges that, in the past, there was probably too much self-abnegation, particularly on the part of women, minorities and gay people. But he believes that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. "To live a decent life," he writes, "to build up the soul, it's probably necessary to declare that the forces that encourage the Big Me, while necessary and liberating in many ways, have gone too far."

He won't get an argument from me.

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