Monday, April 13, 2015

Notes Toward a New American Stoic

David Brooks, The Road to Character

I’m sure dedicated trend-watchers must view reality TV, political scandals, and the eternal Kim-n-Kanye peep show with unalloyed dismay. Especially for social conservatives, yoked with a sense of moral obligation to the larger society, they must feel an especial impulse to intervene, to stand athwart the downhill slalom they perceive society following, and holler “Stop!” Bill Bennett felt that impulse twenty years ago. The feeling is older than dirt.

David Brooks has represented the voice of moderate Republicans in various mainstream and partisan newspapers since 1983. In various supposed leftist bastions like PBS and the New York Times, he’s become famous for upholding common conservative (as opposed to party hard-liner) opinions. It seems he’s perhaps grown tired of his own voice, because in his introduction to this book, he laments his own self-seeking, and that of today’s generation.

That should’ve been my first warning. I wanted to like this book. I’ve been reading, in my off hours, on Stoic philosophy recently, and though Brooks never uses that word, his collection of exemplar biographies on the principles of admirable character replicates the heart of classical Greco-Roman Stoicism. Yippee. Except the longer I read, the more I noticed Brooks evidently occupies a divided world. All virtue lives in the past; all wickedness lives in the present.

In one of the weirder passages I’ve seen from literary criticism, C.S. Lewis quotes Chretien de Troyes, writing in the 1170s, that “the age of chivalry is dead.” Homer believed his was a dying age, inferior to the Argive Greeks who fought at Troy. Men of affairs have always considered their era a ghost of some honored past, a past somehow populated by giants and uncluttered by pedestrian people. Consider these quotes from Brooks:
“Today, when we say that people are repressed, we tend to mean it as a criticism.”

“It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic.”

“Today, the word ‘sin’ has lost its power.”
David Brooks
Realize, Brooks isn’t discussing Lost Atlantis or the virtuous queens of Avalon. He’s describing people of the Twentieth Century, public personalities like Dwight Eisenhower and Dorothy Day. Later, Brooks spools backward to George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and even St. Augustine, but early on, his examples come from living memory. The outer limits of living memory, admittedly (Ike died when Brooks was seven years old), but living memory nonetheless.

Therein lies my problem with this book. Brooks has created a primer on moral rectitude and self-discipline, based on principles I wholly endorse and agree with. But he’s created a crystal trap modern readers cannot overlook: that everything in live used to be good, and now it isn’t. Virtue dwells uniquely in antiquity, while today’s modern age is populated by such complete venality that we’re essentially fighting the avalanche.

Then, very late in most chapters, Brooks will suddenly throw in revelations that his subjects actually couldn’t sustain the virtues for which he extols them. Labor organizer turned FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins so thoroughly vanished into her work, her daughter could only rebel by profligate living and carousal. Eisenhower was so fixated on his moral core that he slept through major trends of his Presidency, including the dawning civil rights movement.

I stopped taking Brooks seriously when he conceded that Eisenhower, for all his virtues, nevertheless abandoned his wartime mistress, Kay Summersby, with a mere letter. Wait, Ike kept a mistress? During the war?? While married to Mamie??? That somehow never made my official history textbooks. Following all the hero-making about Ike’s glamorous “self-conquest,” such intemperance in a commanding officer is deeply disturbing. Ask David Petraeus.

My problem, therefore, is with Brooks’ presentation. He completely segregates virtue from ordinary life, both in time, and within his subjects. He populates the past with presidents, saints, and superhumans. Then he assumes the worst celebrity excess represents modernity. The well-intentioned product is frankly discouraging.

Again, I don’t disagree with Brooks’ vision of virtue. Though salted with highly emotive Christian language, Brooks deftly describes classical Stoicism, without using that word that’s been cheapened by misuse. But I’ve said before: Stoicism, as a character-molding force, is a phenomenon whose time has surely come again. Please consider the original source:
Epictetus, Discourses
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Seneca, Letters

PS. Early on, Brooks wishes somebody would write a book about how Americans’ changing experience with death reflects Americans’ changing public morality. Please consider Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. You’re welcome.

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