By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: David Brooks
Narration by: Arthur Morey, David Brooks
Though David Brooks only refers to Adam one and two (a nod to biblical creation), he is arguing “The Road to Character” is formed by two forces of nature in both men and women. The forces of nature are classified here as “Adam and Eve one”, characterized by logic, and rationality, and “Adam and Eve two”, characterized by spirit, sex-drive, instinct, and emotion.
As many know, this is not a new revelation. However, Brooks does a masterful job of recalling several interesting historical figures that are the gravel base and pavement for his “…Road to Character” argument. Because Brooks turns to the past, there is inference, and some suggestion, that the present and future are threatened by an imbalance between the two forces; with a result that implies a diminished character in modern times. One may disagree with that inference and still be entertained and enlightened by Brooks’ historical vignettes of accomplished men and women.
Brooks recalls the first woman Cabinet Member, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins. Perkins is raised in a wealthy family in Maine, educated at Mount Holyoke College, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia. Perkins becomes the woman behind the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In spite of her wealthy upbringing, Perkins is incensed by poverty and its causes. Her “Eve one and two” tell her that poverty is not caused by lethargy or want of ambition but by social circumstance. She is drawn to this conclusion by the struggles of her own life and those around her. Perkins becomes engaged with society while struggling with a mentally deranged husband and a financially and emotionally dependent daughter. Perkins lives a life that shows she is not in control of “Eve two” but that “Eve one” can ameliorate some of society’s inequities, and her personal problems, through service to others. Perkins is a consummate organizer; i.e. an essential character trait for Roosevelt’s New Deal. She supports her husband and daughter throughout the struggles of her life.
Brooks goes on to give thumb nail histories of Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Bayard Rustin, Mary Ann Eliot (aka George Eliot), Samuel Johnson, and others. In each vignette, Brooks outlines a struggle between “Adam and Eve one” and “Adam and Eve two” views of the world. The stories are about the agony felt by human beings struggling with logic and rationality, and its conflicts with spirit, sex drive, instinct, and emotion.
Eisenhower often seems to bumble in public but privately views the world and its events as a work in progress that will succumb to logic and rationality. Eisenhower consciously seems to remove Adam two thinking from his decisions. Brooks notes Eisenhower’s caddish dismissal of his long-term mistress as evidence of a character formed by an “Adam one” view of the world. The importance of Eisenhower’s duty to family, to position as President, and as example to country outweigh “Adam two” emotions of an illicit affair; i.e. he summarily dismisses his mistress with a memo. Further, Brooks notes Eisenhower refuses to engage in the Civil Rights conflicts during his presidency. One presumes refusal is based on an “Adam one” belief that right will prevail in the end because of human logic and rationality. Eisenhower’s road to character is paved with “Adam one” duty.
The same case is made for General George Marshall. Duty-to-country is at the base of Marshall’s public “…Road to Character.” Marshall, like George Washington, serves his country without desire for fame or fortune but with a reasoned need to do what is perceived as right. Marshall, like Washington, is a hard task master. He expects much from his army and from himself. He is confident, without being arrogant. He suppresses “Adam two” emotions to do his duty. He confronts obstacles directly. Outwardly, Marshall fears no man or position.
Brooks notes how Marshall confronts General Pershing when he criticizes Marshall’s actions in a lesser command; and later, confronts Roosevelt when the suggestion is made that WWII will be a war of machines rather than men.
The folly of hubris is never evident in either Washington’s or Marshall’s actions but each is willing to do what their country asks of them. Brooks tells the story of Marshall wanting to lead the D-Day invasion but agreeing with Roosevelt’s decision to appoint Eisenhower, Marshall’s subordinate. Marshall intends to retire after the war but is called to duty by Truman to form the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe. Ironically, the Marshall Plan cements Marshall’s name in history. The point being made by Brooks is that seeking fame is a fool’s road to character. Marshall did his duty. He did not seek fame. Fame found him through good works based on character.
A surprising thumb nail history is given of Bayard Rustin, a black activist that happens to be gay. Rustin is compelled by “Adam two” emotions that drive him to serial relationships with men. Rustin is shut out of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington because of a threat from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to expose an intimate King-Rustin relationship.
Rustin remains in the movement but is forced to reduce his profile. Brooks notes that Rustin is a primary influence in Martin Luther King’s non-violence, pacifist movement, founded on Gandhi’s philosophy of resistance. Though Rustin’s “Adam two” sex-drive besmirched his character, his “Adam one” logic placed him on the right side of history.
Another fine vignette is the story of Mary Ann Eliot; better known as George Eliot. Mary Ann is raised in a strict catholic environment. She rebels by denying the myths of Christ’s story of resurrection and healing. She firmly believes in God but not the truth of the bible’s apocryphal stories. After Eliot’s father’s death, Mary Ann is driven by her emotions and sex-drive to become serially involved with men for gratification, attention, and recognition. This insatiable desire continues until she meets the love of her life, George Lewes.
Lewes is married but has a reputation for philandering. Eliot chooses to become Lewes’ companion in Europe in spite of the harm it would do her reputation. Lewes becomes Eliot’s muse, constructive critic, and eternal admirer. Eliot becomes the famous writer of “Middle March” and “The Mill on the Floss”. Lewes is characterized as a lesser light but exactly what Eliot needs to realize her literary gift. It is Mary Ann’s courage to flaunt convention that paves her “…Road to Character.” Like Rustin, Eliot struggles with her personal life but through hard work and insight to human nature, she becomes a woman of substance and a writer of great human understanding.
Brooks profiles Samuel Adams and Montaigne in the last chapters of his book. They are equally well-formed men of character; one forged by human struggle, and the other forged by honest assessment of a privileged life. In the end, Brooks suggests “The Road to Character” is defined by the base upon which the pavement is laid. What is troubling about Brooks’ conclusion is the inference that–the way children were raised in the past is better than today. The inference is that children are not punished enough or are too coddled with praise to be motivated to achieve great and good things. Further, that today’s environment fails to build character because there is less understanding or appreciation of hard work and its rewards.
Brooks may be misreading today’s youth. Today’s youth are children longer than in the past, but they also have more years to live. Human hardship will always be with us and even the coddled learn from mistakes made in their youth. The substance of character has not changed but it may take more years to reveal it. Brooks and older generations would be hard pressed to say life is not better today than yesterday. Good character will be formed by hardships, and hard work today; just as they were in the past. The difference may be that hard work will be less physical and more mental.
“The Road to Character” will always be riddled with potholes and mistakes of youth. But, the road will be repaved by youth that has become older and wiser–some with character; others not.