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The Road to Character Book Summary by David Brooks

What you will learn from reading The Road to Character:

– How the moral ecology has changed over time and how we’ve lost our moral language.

– How to think about sinning and how the big sins can cause disastrous effects.

– The 15 point humility code that David Brooks proposes on what to live for and how to live.

The Road to Character Book Summary:

The culture we live in emphasizes individual success and self-promotion, leading to a focus on achieving goals and becoming a “superstar.” However, this emphasis on wealth and status can negatively impact the development of meaningful inner lives. David Brooks suggests that humility is key to finding fulfillment and success, as these individuals understand that one must let go of self-centeredness in order to truly fulfill oneself.

This books explains why we should care about cultivating character and how we can do that.



The difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues:

The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.

The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too—the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.


The dual sides of our nature Adam 1 and 2:

Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.

Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honours creation and one’s own possibilities.

While Adam I’s motto is “Success,” Adam II experiences life as a moral drama. His motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.” Soloveitchik argued that we live in the contradiction between these two Adams. The outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not fully reconcilable. We are forever caught in self-confrontation.

The hard part of this confrontation, is that Adams I and II live by different logics.

Adam I—the creating, building, and discovering Adam—lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic. It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximise your utility. Impress the world.

Adam II lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character. Without this, you never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow.

Fairlie writes, “At least if we recognise that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.” Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others. But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself.


Vague moral aspirations:

Like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration—vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved.

It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped.


Moral examples are the best teachers:

You can’t build rich Adam II lives simply by reading sermons or following abstract rules. Example is the best teacher. Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.

Never forget that. The message is the person, perfected over lifetimes of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, become better, even when we dwell in the most painful confused darkness.


The changing Moral Ecology:

Our old moral ecology was a cultural and intellectual tradition, David brooks calls the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasised our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character.

In the past people were more likely to assume that we are all deeply divided selves, both splendidly endowed and deeply flawed—that we each have certain talents but also certain weaknesses. And if we habitually fall for those temptations and do not struggle against the weaknesses in ourselves, then we will gradually spoil some core piece of ourselves. We will not be as good, internally, as we want to be. We will fail in some profound way. For people of this sort, the external drama up the ladder of success is important, but the inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is the central drama of life.

Since then there has been a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self-promotion that says “Recognise my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.” That contrast, while nothing much in itself, was like a doorway into the different ways it is possible to live in this world.

Along with this apparent rise in self-esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.

Self-centeredness leads in several unfortunate directions. It leads to selfishness, the desire to use other people as means to get things for yourself. It also leads to pride, the desire to see yourself as superior to everybody else. It leads to a capacity to ignore and rationalise your own imperfections and inflate your virtues. As we go through life, most of us are constantly comparing and constantly finding ourselves slightly better than other people—more virtuous, with better judgment, with better taste.


The Virtue of Humility:

The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.”

Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong. This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.


Moral Realism

People who are humble about their own nature are moral realists. Moral realists are aware that we are all built from “crooked timber”—from Immanuel Kant’s famous line,“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” People in this “crooked-timber” school of humanity have an acute awareness of their own flaws and believe that character is built in the struggle against their own weaknesses.

As the British writer Henry Fairlie put it, “If we acknowledge that our inclination to sin is part of our natures, and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd.”


Building Character:

People who live with a philosophy of moral realism believe that character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core. If you don’t have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends upon Adam II.

But character is built not only through austerity and hardship. It is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and then absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and earn their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions. Through devotion to some cause, you elevate your desires and organise your energies.


The common pattern of Character Formation:

There is one pattern that recurs across all exemplars of character in this book: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.

The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. The everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed.

As Kierkegaard put it, “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”

Before long, people who have entered the valley of humility feel themselves back in the uplands of joy and commitment. They’ve thrown themselves into work, made new friends, and cultivated new loves. They turn around and see how much ground they have left behind. Such people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They find a vocation or calling. They commit themselves to some long obedience and dedicate themselves to some desperate lark that gives life purpose.


What is Self respect:

Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.

Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”


Correcting errors and recognising small flaws:

Every day it’s possible to recognise small flaws, to reach out to others, to try to correct errors. Character is built both through drama and through the everyday.

The “crooked timber” moral tradition—based on the awareness of sin and the confrontation with sin—was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation. It gave people a clearer sense of how to cultivate the eulogy virtues, how to develop the Adam II side of their nature. Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.


CHAPTER 2 – The Summoned Self

Frances Perkins found her purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?

In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded.

Victor Frankl wrote “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.” Frankl concluded that fate had put a moral task and an intellectual task before him. It had given him an assignment.

Unlike Frankl, few people are put in circumstances that horrific and extreme, but all of us are given gifts, aptitudes, capacities, talents, and traits that we did not strictly earn. And all of us are put in circumstances that call out for action, whether they involve poverty, suffering, the needs of a family, or the opportunity to communicate some message. These circumstances give us the great chance to justify our gifts.


Finding a vocation / calling:

A person does not choose a vocation. A vocation is a calling. People generally feel they have no choice in the matter. Their life would be unrecognisable unless they pursued this line of activity.

It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic. A vocation is not about fulfilling your desires or wants, the way modern economists expect us to do. A vocation is not about the pursuit of happiness, if by “happiness” you mean being in a good mood, having pleasant experiences, or avoiding struggle and pain. Such a person becomes an instrument for the performance of the job that has been put before her. She molds herself to the task at hand.


How the modern age teaches character:

David asked the head of a prestigious prep school how her institution teaches its students about character. She answered by telling me how many hours of community service the students do. 

That is to say, when he asked her about something internal, she answered by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself. We tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I have impact? Or, worst of all: How can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I?

We should be suspicious of the self-regarding taint of the emotion, which allows the rich to feel good about themselves because they were doing community service. “Benevolence is the twin of pride,”Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote.  We should also be deeply suspicious of compassion. Be suspicious of its shapelessness, the way compassionate people tended to ooze out sentiment on the poor to no practical effect.


CHAPTER 3 – Self-Conquest

Of the two hundred children who entered first grade with Dwight Eisenhower in 1897, only thirty-one graduated with him from high school. Academics were less important because you could get a decent job without a degree. What mattered more to long-term stability and success was having steady habits, the ability to work, the ability to sense and ward off sloth and self-indulgence. In that environment, a disciplined work ethic really was more important than a brilliant mind.

That concept—conquering your own soul—was a significant one in the moral ecology in which Eisenhower grew up. It was based on the idea that deep inside we are dual in our nature. We are fallen, but also splendidly endowed. We have a side to our nature that is sinful—selfish, deceiving, and self-deceiving—but we have another side to our nature that is in God’s image, that seeks transcendence and virtue.

The essential drama of life is the drama to construct character, which is an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good.


Understanding Sin:

Today, the word “sin” has lost its power and awesome intensity. It’s used most frequently in the context of fattening desserts. Most people in daily conversation don’t talk much about individual sin.

If they talk about human evil at all, that evil is most often located in the structures of society—in inequality, oppression, racism, and so on—not in the human breast.

We’ve abandoned the concept of sin, first, because we’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature. In the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century, many people really did embrace the dark self-estimation expressed in the old Puritan prayer “Yet I Sin”:

Second, in many times and many places, the word “sin” was used to declare war on pleasure, even on the healthy pleasures of sex and entertainment. Sin was used as a pretext to live joylessly and censoriously. “Sin” was a word invoked to suppress the pleasures of the body, to terrify teenagers about the perils of masturbation.

The word “sin” was abused by people who embraced a harsh and authoritarian style of parenting, who felt they had to beat the depravity out of their children. It was abused by those who, for whatever reason, fetishise suffering, who believe that only through dour self-mortification can you really become superior and good.

Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry, no matter how hard we try to reduce behaviour to the sort of herd instinct that is captured in big data, no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like “mistake” or “error” or “weakness,” the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal.

When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language.

Furthermore, the concept of sin is necessary because it is radically true. To say you are a sinner is not to say that you have some black depraved stain on your heart. It is to say that, like the rest of us, you have some perversity in your nature. We want to do one thing, but we end up doing another. We want what we should not want. None of us wants to be hard-hearted, but sometimes we are. No one wants to self-deceive, but we rationalise all the time.


The danger of sin:

The danger of sin, in other words, is that it feeds on itself. Small moral compromises on Monday make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday. A person lies to himself and soon can no longer distinguish when he is lying to himself and when he isn’t. Another person is consumed by the sin of self-pity, a passion to be a righteous victim that devours everything around it as surely as anger or greed.

People rarely commit the big sins out of the blue. They walk through a series of doors. They have an unchecked problem with anger. They have an unchecked problem with drinking or drugs. They have an unchecked problem of sympathy. Corruption breeds corruption. Sin is the punishment of sin.

From time immemorial, people have achieved glory by achieving great external things, but they have built character by struggling against their internal sins. People become solid, stable, and worthy of self-respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons. If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against.

The person involved in the struggle against sin understands that each day is filled with moral occasions.


The Big Sins:

The big sins, left unchallenged, would have had very practical and disastrous effects.

Sloth could lead to a failure of a farm; gluttony and inebriation to the destruction of a family; lust to the ruination of a young woman; vanity to excessive spending, debt, and bankruptcy.

Some sins, such as anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint.

Other sins, such as mockery and disrespect, are like stains. They can be expunged only by absolution, by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing.

Still others, such as stealing, are like a debt. They can be rectified only by repaying what you owe to society.

Sins such as adultery, bribery, and betrayal are more like treason than like crime; they damage the social order. Social harmony can be rewoven only by slowly recommitting to relationships and rebuilding trust.

The sins of arrogance and pride arise from a perverse desire for status and superiority. The only remedy for them is to humble oneself before others.

People in earlier times inherited a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation. This was a practical inheritance, like learning how to speak a certain language, which people could use to engage their own moral struggles.

Since self-control is a muscle that tires easily, it is much better to avoid temptation in the first place rather than try to resist it once it arises.


Repression and self expression:

Today, when we say that somebody is repressed, we tend to mean it as a criticism. It means they are uptight, stiff, or unaware of their true emotional selves. That’s because we live in a self-expressive culture.  We tend to trust the impulses inside the self and distrust the forces outside the self that seek to push down those impulses.

Eisenhower devised stratagems for dismissing his true passions. For example, in his diaries he made lists of people who offended him as a way of sealing off his anger toward them. When he felt a surge of hatred, he refused to let it rule him. “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly,” he noted in his diary.

Other times he would write an offender’s name on a piece of paper and then drop it into the wastebasket, another symbolic purging of emotion. Eisenhower was not an authentic man. He was a passionate man who lived, as much as his mother did, under a system of artificial restraints.

Eisenhower hewed to a philosophy that artifice is man’s nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, moulded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation.


Moderation and Self-Restraint:

Moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict. If you think that the world can fit neatly together, then you don’t need to be moderate. If you think all your personal qualities can be brought together into simple harmony, you don’t need to hold back, you can just go whole hog for self-actualisation and growth.

Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together. Politics is likely to be a competition between legitimate opposing interests. Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths.

Moderate person can start out with these divisions and rival tendencies, but to live a coherent life, the moderate must find a series of balances and proportions.

The moderate knows there is no ultimate resolution to these tensions. Great matters cannot be settled by taking into account just one principle or one viewpoint. Governing is more like sailing in a storm: shift your weight one way when the boat tilts to starboard, shift your weight the other way when it tilts to port—adjust and adjust and adjust to circumstances to keep the semblance and equanimity of an even keel.

The moderate can only hope to have a regulated character, stepping back to understand opposing perspectives and appreciating the merits of each. The moderate understands that political cultures are traditions of conflict. There are never-ending tensions that pit equality against achievement, centraliSation against decentraliSation, order and community against liberty and individualism.

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate can only hope to achieve a balance that is consistent with the needs of the moment.


Eisenhower’s warnings:

Eisenhower warned the country against belief in quick fixes. Americans, he said, should never believe that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”

He warned, most famously, about the undue concentration of power, and the way unchecked power could lead to national ruin. He warned first about the military-industrial complex—“a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” He also warned against “a scientific-technological elite,” a powerful network of government-funded experts who might be tempted to take power away from the citizenry.

It was the speech of a man who had seen what human beings are capable of, who had felt in his bones that man is a problem to himself. It was the speech of a man who used to tell his advisers “Let’s make our mistakes slowly,” because it was better to proceed to a decision gradually than to rush into anything before its time. This is the lesson that his mother and his upbringing had imparted to him decades before. This was a life organised not around self-expression, but self-restraint.


CHAPTER 4 – Struggle

Fewer people today see artists as oracles and novels as a form of revelation. The cognitive sciences have replaced literature as the way many people attempt to understand their own minds.

When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don’t usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant. Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.


The Value of Suffering:

For most of us, there is nothing intrinsically noble about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs), suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited or medicated as quickly as possible. When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people. When it is not understood as a piece of a larger process, it leads to doubt, nihilism, and despair.

But some people can connect their suffering to some greater design. They place their suffering in solidarity with all the others who have suffered. These people are clearly ennobled by it.

The first big thing suffering does is it drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routine busyness of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The pain involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through a floor they thought was the bottom floor of their soul, revealing a cavity below, and then it smashes through that floor, revealing another cavity, and so on and so on. The person in pain descends to unknown ground.

Suffering opens up ancient places of pain that had been hidden. It exposes frightening experiences that had been repressed, shameful wrongs that had been committed. It spurs some people to painfully and carefully examine the basement of their own soul. But it also presents the pleasurable sensation that one is getting closer to the truth. The pleasure in suffering is that you feel you are getting beneath the superficial and approaching the fundamental.

It creates what modern psychologists call “depressive realism,” an ability to see things exactly the way they are. It shatters the comforting rationalisations and pat narratives we tell about ourselves as part of our way of simplifying ourselves for the world.

Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery. Those who suffer can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where that relief comes from.

Suffering, oddly, also teaches gratitude. In normal times we treat the love we receive as a reason for self-satisfaction (I deserve to be loved), but in seasons of suffering we realise how undeserved this love is and how it should in fact be a cause for thanks.

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t mean that in a purely religious sense. I mean seeing the pain as part of a moral narrative and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred, some act of sacrificial service that will put oneself in fraternity with the wider community and with eternal moral demands.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.


CHAPTER 5 – Self-Mastery

This is a common trait among modest people who achieve extraordinary success. It’s not that they were particularly brilliant or talented. The average collegiate GPA for a self-made millionaire is somewhere in the low B range. But at some crucial point in their lives, somebody told them they were too stupid to do something and they set out to prove the bastards wrong.


We need ideals:

The work of the Roman biographer Plutarch is based on the premise that the tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.”

By cultivating the habit of reverence—for ancient heroes, for the elderly, for leaders in one’s own life—teachers were not only offering knowledge of what greatness looks like, they were trying to nurture a talent for admiration. Proper behaviour is not just knowing what is right; it is having the motivation to do what is right, an emotion that propels you to do good things.


An Institutional mindset:

In the era of the Big Me, we put the individual first. We tend to prize the freedom to navigate as we wish, to run our lives as we choose, and never to submerge our own individual identities in conformity to some bureaucracy or organisation.

We tend to assume that the purpose is to lead the richest and fullest individual life, jumping from one organisation to the next as it suits our needs. Meaning is found in these acts of self-creation, in the things we make and contribute to, in our endless choices. Nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disruptors, and rebels.

People who possess an institutional mindset, as Marshall did, have a very different mentality, which begins with a different historical consciousness.

In this mindset, the primary reality is society, which is a collection of institutions that have existed over time and transcend generations. A person is not born into an open field and a blank social slate. A person is born into a collection of permanent institutions, including the army, the priesthood, the fields of science, or any of the professions, like being a farmer, a builder, a cop, or a professor.

Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. Each institution comes with certain rules, obligations, and standards of excellence.

A person’s social function defines who he or she is. The commitment between a person and an institution is more like a covenant. It is an inheritance to be passed on and a debt to be repaid.

We live in a society that places great emphasis on personal happiness, defined as not being frustrated in the realisation of your wants. But old moral traditions do not die. They waft down the centuries and re-inspire new people in new conditions.


CHAPTER 6  – Dignity

I took no notes for this chapter.


CHAPTER 7 – Love

All love is narrowing. It is the renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of one choice.

Getting married means becoming truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols.


CHAPTER 8 – Ordered Love

Many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of missing out. The world has provided them with a superabundance of neat things to do. Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience. They want to grab all the goodies in front of them. They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store. They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting. But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin.

What’s worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self. If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semi commitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose.


Saint Augustine’s Confessions:

Saint Augustine was plagued with a similar problem, he found himself feeling increasingly isolated. If you organise your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires. Everything is coldly instrumental. So Augustine decided to seek internally for answers.

At least two great conclusions arose from this internal expedition.

First, Augustine came to realise that though people are born with magnificent qualities, original sin had perverted their desires. Up until this point in his life Augustine had fervently desired certain things, like fame and status. These things didn’t make him happy. And yet he kept on desiring them. Left to ourselves, we often desire the wrong things.

This led to the conclusion that people are a problem to themselves. We should regard ourselves with distrust: “I greatly fear my hidden parts,” he wrote.

His larger point is that the tropism toward wrong love, toward sin, is at the centre of the human personality. People not only sin, we have a weird fascination with sin. If we hear that some celebrity has committed some outrageous scandal, we’re kind of disappointed when it turns out the rumour isn’t really true. If you leave sweet children to their own devices with nothing to do, before long they will find a way to get into trouble.

It is the desire for camaraderie, for mutual admiration, that egg people on into doing what they shouldn’t. We so fear exclusion from the group that we are willing to do things that we would find unconscionable in other circumstances. When unattached to the right ends, communities can be more barbarous than individuals.


Saint Augustines reformation:

Augustine began to reform his life. His first step was to quit the Manichees. It no longer seemed true to him that the world was neatly divided into forces of pure good and pure evil. Instead, each virtue comes with its own vice—self-confidence with pride, honesty with brutality, courage with recklessness, and so on.

Augustine also came to believe that the Manichees were infected with pride. Having a closed, all-explaining model of reality appealed to their vanity; it gave them the illusion that they had intellectually mastered all things. But it made them cold to mystery and unable to humble themselves before the complexities and emotions that, as Augustine put it, “make the heart deep.” They possessed reason, but no wisdom.

The problem, Augustine came to believe, is that if you think you can organise your own salvation you are magnifying the very sin that keeps you from it. To believe that you can be captain of your own life is to suffer the sin of pride.


The sin of Pride:

What is pride? These days the word “pride” has positive connotations. It means feeling good about yourself and the things associated with you. When we use it negatively, we think of the arrogant person, someone who is puffed up and egotistical, boasting and strutting about. But that is not really the core of pride. That is just one way the disease of pride presents itself.

By another definition, pride is building your happiness around your accomplishments, using your work as the measure of your worth. It is believing that you can arrive at fulfillment on your own, driven by your own individual efforts. Pride can come in bloated form.

One key paradox of pride is that it often combines extreme self-confidence with extreme anxiety. The proud person often appears self-sufficient and egotistical but is really touchy and unstable. The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity.

Humility comes with daily reminders of your own brokenness. Humility relieves you of the awful stress of trying to be superior all the time. It inverts your attention and elevates the things we tend to look down on.

Only love impels action. We don’t become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves. We don’t become what we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love.


CHAPTER 9 – Self-Examination

This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.”

When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.

To move from a fragmentary life to a cohesive one, from an opportunistic life to a committed life, it is necessary to close off certain possibilities.


What is imagination?

The imagination, in Samuel Johnson’s darker view, offers up ideal visions of experiences like marriage, which then leave us disappointed when the visions don’t come true. It is responsible for hypochondria and the other anxieties that exist only in our heads. It invites us to make envious comparisons, imagining scenes in which we triumph over our rivals.

The imagination simplifies our endless desires and causes us to fantasise that they can be fulfilled. It robs us of much of the enjoyment of our achievements by compelling us to think upon the things left undone. It distracts us from the pleasures of the moment by leaping forward to unattained future possibilities.


Samuel Johnsons worldview:

Samuel Johnson was a fervent dualist, believing that only tensions, paradoxes, and ironies could capture the complexity of real life. He was not a theorist, so he was comfortable with antitheses, things that didn’t seem to go together but in fact do.

He liked science but thought it a secondary concern. He discounted those who led lives of pedantic research surrounded by “learned dust,” and he had a deep distrust of intellectual systems that tried to explain all existence in one logical structure.

He was not mystical. He built his philosophy low to the ground, from reading history and literature and from direct observation—focusing relentlessly on what he would call “the living world.” As Paul Fussell observed, he confuted all determinism. He rejected the notion that behaviour is shaped by impersonal iron forces. He always focused with his searing eye on the particularity of each individual. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later observe that “Souls are not saved in bundles.” Johnson fervently believed in each individual’s mysterious complexity and inherent dignity.


Johnsons Humanism:

He was, through it all, a moralist, in the best sense of that term. He believed that most problems are moral problems. “The happiness of society depends on virtue,” he would write. For him, like other humanists of that age, the essential human act is the act of making strenuous moral decisions.

He, like other humanists, believed that literature could be a serious force for moral improvement. Literature gives not only new information but new experiences. It can broaden the range of awareness and be an occasion for evaluation. Literature can also instruct through pleasure.

Johnson also had a great awareness of permanent struggle which made him sympathetic to others’ failings.

Johnson’s redeeming intellectual virtue was clarity of mind. It gave him his great facility for crystallising quotable observations. Most of these reveal a psychological shrewdness about human fallibility:

Man of genius is but seldom ruined but by himself.

Man’s chief merit consists in resisting the impulses of his nature.

Every man naturally persuades himself he can keep his resolutions; nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.


Johnsons Strategy for dealing with Envy:

He devised a strategy to defeat the envy in his heart. He said that in general he did not believe that one vice should be cured by another. But envy is such a malignant state of mind that the dominance of almost any other quality is to be preferred. So he chose pride. He told himself that to envy another is to admit one’s inferiority, and that it is better to insist on one’s superior merit than to succumb to envy. When tempted to envy another, he persuaded himself of his own superior position.

Everything was a moral contest for Johnson, a chance to improve, to degrade or repent. His conversation, even when uproarious, was meant to be improving.


CHAPTER 10 – The Big Me

How we got here…

Cultures change in ways that are both superficial and profound. When the essayist Joseph Epstein was young, he observed that when you went into the drugstore the cigarettes were in the open shelves and the condoms were behind the counter. But now when you go to the drugstore, the condoms are in the open shelves and the cigarettes are behind the counter.

The conventional story of the current culture change goes something like this. First there was the Greatest Generation, whose members were self-sacrificing, self-effacing, and community-minded. Then along came the 1960s and the Baby Boomers, who were narcissistic, self-expressive, selfish, and morally lax.

But this story doesn’t fit the facts. What really happened goes like this: Starting in biblical times there was a tradition of moral realism, the “crooked-timber” school of humanity. This tradition, or worldview, put tremendous emphasis on sin and human weakness.

This moral realism then found expression in humanists like Samuel Johnson, Michel de Montaigne, and George Eliot, who emphasised how little we can know, how hard it is to know ourselves, and how hard we have to work on the long road to virtue.

All of these thinkers take a limited view of our individual powers of reason. They are suspicious of abstract thinking and pride. They emphasise the limitations in our individual natures.

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex. We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.

Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.

Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognised by ourselves.

Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures. To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence—on others, on institutions, on the divine. The place that limitation occupies in the “crooked timber” school is immense.


Moral realists vs romantics:

While moral realists placed emphasis on inner weakness, moral romantics like Jean-Jacques Rousseau placed emphasis on our inner goodness. The realists distrusted the self and trusted institutions and customs outside the self; the romantics trusted the self and distrusted the conventions of the outer world.

But then moral realism collapsed. Its vocabulary and ways of thinking were forgotten or shoved off into the margins of society. Realism and romanticism slipped out of balance. A moral vocabulary was lost, and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls.

Then came humanistic psychology led by people like Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century.

The humanistic psychologists shifted away from Freud’s darker conception of the unconscious and promoted a sky-high estimation of human nature. The primary psychological problem, he argued, is that people don’t love themselves enough, and so therapists unleashed a great wave of self-loving.

Self-love, self-praise, and self-acceptance are the paths to happiness. To the extent that a person “can be freely in touch with his valuing process in himself, he will behave in ways that are self-enhancing.”

The self-esteem movement was born. Our modern conversation lives in this romantic vision.



The underlying assumptions about human nature and the shape of human life were altered by this shift to the Big Me.

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.”

This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with.

Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.

In this ethos, the self is to be trusted, not doubted. Your desires are like inner oracles for what is right and true. You know you are doing the right thing when you feel good inside. The valid rules of life are those you make or accept for yourself and that feel right to you.

From an older tradition of self-combat we move to self-liberation and self-expression.

In this ethos, sin is not found in your individual self; it is found in the external structures of society—in racism, inequality, and oppression.


The effect of information technology

Information technology has had three effects on the moral ecology that have inflated the Big Me Adam I side of our natures and diminished the humbler Adam II.

First, communications have become faster and busier. It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths. Throughout human history, people have found that they are most aware of their depths when they are on retreats, during moments of separation and stillness, during moments of quiet communion.

Second, social media allow a more self-referential information environment. People have more tools and occasions to construct a culture, a mental environment tailored specifically for themselves. Modern information technology allows families to sit together in a room, each absorbed in a different show, movie, or game in the privacy of their own screen.

Third, social media encourages a broadcasting personality. Our natural bent is to seek social approval and fear exclusion. Social networking technology allows us to spend our time engaged in a hyper-competitive struggle for attention, for victories in the currency of “likes.” People are given more occasions to be self-promoters, to embrace the characteristics of celebrity, to manage their own image,

This technology creates a culture in which people turn into little brand managers, using Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and Instagram to create a falsely upbeat, slightly over exuberant, external self that can be famous first in a small sphere and then, with luck, in a large one.

The purification of the meritocracy has also reinforced the idea that each of us is wonderful inside. It has also encouraged self-aggrandising tendencies.


A competitive meritocracy

If you have lived through the last sixty or seventy years, you are the product of a more competitive meritocracy. You have, like David, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world. That’s meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement—doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

If you are born into a high-pressure meritocracy are more likely to see the self as a resource base to be cultivated. The self is less likely to be seen as the seat of the soul, or as the repository of some transcendent spirit. Instead, the self is a vessel of human capital. It is a series of talents to be cultivated efficiently and prudently. The self is defined by its tasks and accomplishments. The self is about talent, not character.

The meritocracy liberates enormous energies, and ranks people in ways good and bad. But it also has a subtle effect on character, culture, and values. Any hyper competitive system built upon merit is going to encourage people to think a lot about themselves and the cultivation of their own skills. Work becomes the defining feature of a life, especially as you begin to get social invitations because you happen to inhabit a certain job. Subtly, softly, but pervasively, this system instills a certain utilitarian calculus in us all.


The change in ‘character’

The meritocracy subtly encourages an instrumental ethos in which each occasion—a party, a dinner—and each acquaintance becomes an opportunity to advance your status and professional life project.

The meaning of the word “character” changes. It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely.

The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority—if with a thousand little gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged in, and fashion-forward than the people around you.

This tradition tells you how to do the things that will propel you to the top, but it doesn’t encourage you to ask yourself why you are doing them. It offers little guidance on how to choose among different career paths and different vocations, how to determine which will be morally highest and best.

It encourages people to make the most of their capacities, but it leads to the shriveling of the moral faculties that are necessary if you are going to figure out how to point your life in a meaningful direction.


Praising and honing kids

These two great trends—greater praise and greater honing—combine in interesting ways. Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is not simple affection, it is meritocratic affection—it is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college, or joins the honor society (in today’s schools, the word “honor” means earning top grades). Parental love becomes merit-based.

It is not simply “I love you.” It is “I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam.”

Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here.


A change in language

Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like “self” and “personalised,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself,” and a sharp decline in community words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.”

The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline. Usage of words like “character,” “conscience,” and “virtue” all declined over the course of the twentieth century.

This dwindling of the Adam II lexicon has further contributed to moral inarticulateness. In this age of moral autonomy, each individual is told to come up with his or her own worldview.


A moral dilemma?

For his 2011 book Lost in Transition, Christian Smith of Notre Dame studied the moral lives of American college students. He asked them to describe a moral dilemma they had recently faced. Two thirds of the young people either couldn’t describe a moral problem or described problems that are not moral at all.

They didn’t understand that a moral dilemma arises when two legitimate moral values clash. Their default position was that moral choices are just a question of what feels right inside, whether it arouses a comfortable emotion.

The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied by the struggle to achieve. Morality has been displaced by utility. Adam II has been displaced by Adam I.


The Humility Code

Each society creates its own moral ecology. A moral ecology is a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behaviour and an institutionalised set of moral demands that emerge organically.

Our moral ecology encourages us to be a certain sort of person. When you behave consistently with your society’s moral ecology, people smile at you, and you are encouraged to continue acting in that way. The moral ecology of a given moment is never unanimous; there are always rebels, critics, and outsiders.

Over the past several decades we have built a moral ecology around the Big Me, around the belief in a golden figure inside. This has led to a rise in narcissism and self-aggrandisement.

So far the propositions that define the crooked-timber tradition have been scattered across the many chapters that make up this book. Together these propositions form a Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live.


These are the general propositions that form this Humility Code:

1 – We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals.

2 – The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the centre of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain.

3 – Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognise sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself.

4 – The struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos.

5 – Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are.  Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible.

6 – Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. It doesn’t matter if you work at a hedge fund or a charity serving the poor. There are heroes and schmucks in both worlds.

7 – Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during your battle with yourself. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind.

8 – The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin. People with character also have scope. They are not infinitely flexible, free-floating, and solitary. They are anchored by permanent attachments to important things.

9 – No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars. If you are to prosper in the confrontation with yourself, you have to put yourself in a state of affection.

10 – We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course—either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill.

11 – Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self can you be open to the external sources of strengths you will need.

12 – Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We are generally not capable of understanding the complex web of causes that drive events. We are not even capable of grasping the unconscious depths of our own minds. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts.

Over the centuries, our ancestors built up a general bank of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices. The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness. The past offers practical tips on how to behave in different situations, and that encourage habits that cohere into virtues. The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It

13 – No good life is possible unless it is organised around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely.

14 – The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. He realises that he, like the people he leads, is likely to be sometimes selfish, narrow-minded, and self-deceiving. Therefore he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests.

15 – The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. Maturity is not based on talent or any of the mental or physical gifts that help you ace an IQ test or run fast or move gracefully. It is not comparative. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. Maturity does not glitter. It is not built on the traits that make people celebrities.



Even within the tradition of moral realism, there are many differences of temperament, technique, tactics, and taste. Two people who both subscribe to the “crooked timber” view may approach specific questions in different ways.

Even within the same moral ecology, there’s a lot of room for each person to chart a unique path. But each of the lives described in this book started with a deep vulnerability, and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability.

The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is. Sin and limitation are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling—in recognising the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

Each struggle leaves a residue. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy. The stumbler doesn’t aim for joy. Joy is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else.

People do get better at living, at least if they are willing to humble themselves and learn. Over time they stumble less, and eventually they achieve moments of catharsis when outer ambition comes into balance with inner aspiration, when there is a unity of effort between Adam I and Adam II, when there is that ultimate tranquillity and that feeling of flow—when moral nature and external skills are united in one defining effort.