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Bar News - July 20, 2016

Book Review: Brooks Offers Thought-Provoking Exploration of Moral Character


The Road to Character
By David Brooks
Random House (2015)

Character. “What is it?” and “Who has it?” These are the core questions that author and New York Times journalist David Brooks probes in his thought-provoking book, The Road to Character. His conclusion, in short, is that character is not the resume of our life, but the eulogy.

To illustrate his point, Brooks examines several prominent figures. Through mini-biographies of their lives woven into substantive essays, he delivers what is the essence of their “character.” One might expect his examples to include modern day figures, such as Bill Gates or President Barack Obama. Instead, he reaches back to the 18th and 19th centuries, even to 354, the year of the birth of St. Augustine. His reason for doing so is to portray what he calls a “shift” in our culture, from an earlier high moral standard to a lower standard, which he refers to as a “moral mediocrity.”

Brooks does not go so far as to suggest that possessing great character is a thing of the past, but his examples show how it has been altered; a transition (or loss) that gives the reader something important to consider.

It is unclear exactly how the author selected his subjects. Among them are Francis Perkins, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, St. Augustine, and Samuel Johnson. What is clear is his extensive research into the lives and accomplishments of each individual he profiles.

The common theme with each person is how his or her character emerged when certain circumstances were encountered early in life. Brooks tells us that great character is something that is developed. It happens when a person is motivated toward a vocation that benefits the greater good. Among the traits he says are necessary in responding to this calling are humility, sympathy and honest self-confrontation, a far cry from self-centered egotism that is all too common in today’s culture.

Take Frances Perkins for instance. Witnessing workers fall to their deaths during the horror of Manhattan’s great fire of the Triangle Waistshirt Factory, on March 25, 1911, left an indelible mark on her sensitivities for factory workers. Following a lifetime of supporting workers’ rights, she became a political figure of great strength and influence. Perkins went on to become the first woman member in the US Cabinet and was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Roosevelt. She was influential in constructing the New Deal, a vehicle for creating jobs. She also helped develop the first minimum wage and overtime laws.

The coal-mining state of Pennsylvania was home to George Catlett Marshall. In his youth, his father lost all his wealth (earned from the coal industry) in a bad real estate scheme. Life became hard for the Marshall family and especially young George. Unlike his older brother, the family favorite, George was not a great student. In the chapter entitled “Self-Mastery,” Brooks tells us how George strived to defeat his academic weaknesses. Through his efforts, he was led toward a path of greatness.

In a time when military minds were sorely needed, George Marshall emerged as a man of sound decision-making, honesty and credibility – a moral authority and leader. He became Army chief of staff at the outset of World War II. Among his achievements were the appointment by President Truman as US Ambassador to China, followed by appointment as US Secretary of State. He then created the critical plan designed to restore Europe following the devastation of World War II. Although officially known as the European Recovery Effort, President Roosevelt preferred calling it “The Marshall Plan,” to give due credit to its founder. Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

These two profiles are among many others that lead the reader to understand the essence of truly great character. From writers and philosophers, to civil rights leaders and religious teachers, the book provides a compelling spectrum of profiles. One cannot help coming away with an appreciation of Brooks’s social commentary, and perhaps even some questions about one’s own character. How would your obituary read? Like a resume, or something different? Brooks offers an important perspective to consider.

Kathy Fortin

Kathy Fortin is a law firm consultant with Arthur G. Greene Consulting. She has written many articles, essays and a nonfiction book on Italian immigration. She can be reached at

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