Review: The Second Mountain

the second mountain

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A book on our life journey, from the first mountain of individual achievement and success to the second mountain of rooted commitment to relationships and service.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on a personal journey and this book reflects that journey five years on from his earlier Road to Character (review) in which he describes the movement from resumé virtues to the eulogy virtues that describe a life of character. In this book, Brooks develops a further dimension that his first book did not focus on, perhaps because Brooks himself was not focusing on it–that dimension of our commitments and our relationality. He continues to think about the moral life, and particularly the idea of moral ecologies, a way of being, believing and behaving shaped by our context. What he contends for in this book is a thicker moral ecology shaped by relational commitments rather than what he sees as the hyper-individualism of our contemporary culture.

This is where the two mountains comes in. The first mountain is the individual journey focused on self-realization, personal achievement and success. It operates in a moral ecology of self buffered from others, a focus on one’s own feelings, one’s own god, a privatization of meaning, a dream of freedom and a central focus on personal accomplishment.

Often it takes the experience of the value of failure, suffering, and pain to awaken us to the second mountain. Often the valley is a crisis of meaning, increasingly, it is the experience of intense loneliness. Brooks talks about the valley, and its companion, the wilderness, where we listen to our lives.

He then speaks about the second mountain, which represents the committed life. He focuses on four commitments, giving a section of several chapters to each. The four commitments he writes of are to a vocation or calling, to a marriage, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. For each, he describes, not a moment, but a process of realization and development. He offers help in discerning a vocation, which sometimes comes down to saying “yes to every opportunity.” He gives sound principles for the growth of intimacy, including whether you really enjoy talking to one another, and can envision enjoying that for a life. I love his description of marriage as “the school you build together.”

His discussion of philosophy and faith is the section that seems most personal and occupies the most space. He describes his own spiritual journey both away from the mixed Jewish and Christian influences of his youth and his return, significantly through the influence of his research assistant, Anne. He writes of her:

“Anne answered each question as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question, she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. And this is a crucial lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey. Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them” (p. 239).

So where did he end up, for those who wonder? He describes himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” It also turns out that after several years apart, he and Anne, a Wheaton College graduate and committed Christian, married.

In his final section, he talks about commitment to community, to restoring the kind of communities where people have a sense of belonging to and being responsible to and for each other. He has critical words for programs focused on single problems rather than comprehensive approaches.

He concludes by proposing that the second mountain is the relational mountain, and offers a relationalist manifesto with enumerated points that serve to sum up the book. Everything but the kitchen sink is here, a grand sweeping vision for the second mountain life.

As I read this book, I felt both a deep resonance with much of what Brooks writes and that he was trying to do so much that I found myself wondering at times, “what kind of book is this?” I did not find that it had as coherent a structure as The Road to Character. The lengthy sections on each of the commitments, each engaging, felt like stand alone pieces, each of which could have received book length treatments. I wonder if less could have been written on each commitment and more on how the four commitments cohere, if not in every life, but in healthy societies.

That said, Brooks charts the journey into the second half of life well, of the commitments to be negotiated if one is to enjoy a rich and full, and not merely successful life. That he writes so personally and openly of his own journey into both faith and love is one of the most attractive and winsome elements of this work. The challenge he offers to the hyper-individualism of our culture is one worth considering. Will we recognize that we need one another? That may be one of the critical questions of our time.

Review: The Road to Character

The Road to CharacterThe Road to Character, David Brooks. New York, Random House, 2015.

Summary: David Brooks explores the issue of character development through the hard-won pursuit of moral virtue, exemplified in the moral quests of people as diverse as Augustine and Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day.

I’ve long followed The New York Times op-ed pieces of David Brooks. Brooks often has seemed to me to be a quiet, reasoned voice speaking against the prevailing cultural winds. I wrote recently about the qualities of charity and cogency in public conversation and have long considered Brooks an exemplar of such qualities.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks seeks to initiate a conversation about moral ecology, particularly that of the United States. Brooks contends that there are two moral ecologies, one that emphasizes “resume” virtues, the other that emphasizes “eulogy” virtues, and that the resume virtue (or Adam I) moral ecology is prevalent in our moral landscape. It is a moral ecology that emphasizes “the Big Me” and focuses on skill and human potential. The other ecology (Adam II) understands human beings as “crooked timber” (a phrase drawn from Kant), and recognizes that we often fail to live up to our own ideals, and are not always fully aware of the drives and impulses that shape our moral actions, for good and for harm. This tradition emphasizes a moral awareness that results in humility, a striving toward moral excellence while acknowledge the reality that we fall short of the mark.

Brooks explores the “road to character” through brief sketches of a variety of individuals who he believe exemplify this “Adam II” quest. He explores the lives of a diverse cast of people from Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, to the contrasting figures of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (the former one of iron moral discipline, the latter who struggled toward a moral life and commitment for much of his life). There are both the religious, such as Augustine, who recognized that our incorrigible fallenness could only be overcome by grace, and those who turned from religion, like George Eliot, and who strove in their own character for moral coherence. We have the outwardly sunny Dwight Eisenhower, who struggled with a volcanic temper, and the self-controlled George Marshall, whose sense of calling and greatness of vision meant often working in supporting roles and yet gave Europe the Marshall Plan, which he always spoke of as the European Recovery Plan.

The concluding chapter is a kind of summing up, contrasting the “Big Me” of our current moral ecology, with the “code of humility” of the crooked timber tradition. His statements in this section were for me worth the price of admission. One example:

“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. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted….” (p. 265).

It seems this is an especially important conversation in this age of “Trumpery” where glitz and appearance seem to count for more than character. What I appreciate in what Brooks does is he engages us in a public conversation that includes both people of faith and those who would not identify with any faith but care about the moral character of our lives and public life. His exemplars are drawn from all of these backgrounds, and all are those who have had moral struggles and some reached moral conclusions that not all would embrace (for example George Eliot, who co-habited in a relationship with a married man).

It seems to me that Brooks is serious about this conversation. Not only has he appeared in various public and online media as well as his regular op-eds, but also he has created a companion website (The Road to Character) to the book. For my readerly friends, it includes a library of resources. He speaks in his book, borrowing a phrase from Eugene Peterson, of “the long obedience in the same direction.” It is my hope that Brooks will persist in this work, and find many companions on the journey.