Several years ago, David Brooks hit a wall. Although his résumé sparkled—a columnist for The New York Times, a political commentator for PBS and NPR, and the author of best-selling books like Bobos in Paradise—his inner life felt impoverished.

Brooks’s quest to fill that hollowness culminated in his latest book, The Road to Character (Random House). He pairs sketches of historical figures like Augustine and Dwight Eisenhower with analysis of our culture’s retreat from biblical notions of sin and righteousness. Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, spoke with Brooks, a cultural Jew, about recovering the classical quest for virtuous living—and great men and women who can light the way.

Throughout The Road to Character you distinguish between “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or the "resumé virtues" and the "eulogy virtues." Can you explain the difference between the two and how they influenced your project?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made this distinction between Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is the career side of ourselves, and Adam Two is the internal side, the spiritual side of ourselves. The crucial thing is that they operate by different forms of logic. Adam One operates by a straightforward, economic logic: Input leads to output, and effort leads to reward. Adam Two operates by an inverse logic, basically the logic of the Beatitudes: The high will be made low; you have to give to receive; you must lose yourself to find yourself.

I didn't have a midlife crisis or anything, but I came to realize that I pay too much attention to the Adam One side of my life, and that I'm not articulate enough about my inner life. I came to a realize that career success doesn't actually lead to happiness. It doesn't lead to the deepest fulfillment. I started looking for something more.

You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?

Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.

When you lose awareness of sin and start thinking that, deep down, human beings are pretty wonderful, you lose the struggle of character building. Building character is not like being better than someone else at a career. It’s conquering your own weakness. But you won’t make that effort if you lose a sense of what your weakness is and where it comes from.

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How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.

There are surveys called “The Narcissism Test” that ask whether respondents agree with statements like, “I like to be the center of attention because I’m so extraordinary,” or “Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has gone up 30 percent in 20 years.

Our economy encourages us to promote ourselves with social media, to brand ourselves and get “likes.” In theory, we know humility is important, but we live in a culture of self-promotion.

Much of the book is about historical figures who stand in contrast to the culture of self-promotion, such as Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and a major player behind the New Deal. What about her upbringing and education shaped her character?

Perkins went to Mount Holyoke College back when the main purpose of higher education was not intellectual skills (though that was certainly a priority) but character-building. Since she was weakest in chemistry, the school made her major in chemistry. If you can do what you’re weakest at, you can handle any challenge. Holyoke also sent its students around the world on missionary trips. They picked up this heroic sense that they could do something brave.

Perkins was unsure of how to dedicate her life until, in 1911, she watched workers die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That gave her what some have called “the call within the call.” She had her career, but now it had become a vocation. Forever after, she would do anything she could to advance the cause of workers’ rights.

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You write about two military figures, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. What are some differences between their view of morality and our “culture of authenticity" today?

They didn't trust themselves. Eisenhower knew that he had this terrible temper. So he was always checking himself. He knew that if he was going to lead, he needed to show cheerfulness, certainty, and confidence. But he didn't feel that inside. He felt anxiety and anger.

And so he knew he couldn't be his “true self” in public. Nowadays, we say that you should always be sincere, but Eisenhower was self-distrusting. He said, "If I'm sincere, I will not be effective. I have to work hard on building myself into something better.” So he built himself into a very cheerful, happy person, at least externally. But that construction took a lot of effort. Sometimes, when he was angry at certain people, he would write their names down on a piece of paper, rip it up and throw it in the garbage just to purge his anger.

Marshall was a very scattered and disorganized young man. He was always afraid of being humiliated. But he dedicated himself to the military so powerfully. He said to himself, "There are certain organizations that have been here before I was born, and they'll be here after I'm dead, and I'm going to serve those organizations. And I'm going to try to live up to the standards of excellence that they embody."

Sometimes that did make him austere. He was not the easiest guy to get to know. But he served his country with amazing steadiness. Occasionally you'll run into people who were heroes in history, but not to those closest around. Marshall was a hero to those closest around him. They regarded him as a man of almost unbelievable integrity and honesty.

You also write about Augustine of Hippo and Dorothy Day. What can these portraits of Christian faith teach us?

Augustine is quite simply the most capacious mind and intelligent man I’ve ever encountered.

He was a successful young rhetorician, but the more he achieved, the more uncomfortable he felt. So he investigated his own mind to see what was going on. He understood psychology, 1,600 years ago, as well as we do today. When Augustine plumbed the depths of his mind, he found infinity there. In other words, he found God. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the road into the self leads right out of the self.

As a bishop, Augustine fought many battles over church doctrine. But he had achieved a certain tranquility. If you focus only on your outer life, you never can. Worldly ambitions always have a way of demanding more.

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Dorothy Day is another amazing character. Some people come to faith in moments of suffering and pain, but she came to faith in a moment of joy, at the birth of her child. She said, “I’ve never felt as great a love as I felt in the days after the birth of my daughter.” And with that came a need to worship and to adore God.

Day became a Catholic, a social worker, and a newspaper writer, and she spent her life building communities. There’s a phrase from Nietzsche that Eugene Peterson turned into a book title, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Our culture praises choice and individualism, not obedience. But obedience is where Day found joy.

With Augustine and Dorothy Day, their faith had a huge impact. Do you see a connection between religious faith and the development of character?

There are two issues here. First, I found there were many people who were secular but who we would say had great character. We can just see that.

But even if they didn't have faith themselves, they had what I call the "biblical metaphysic." They had the categories of Christianity and Judaism in their heads. Categories like sin, redemption, the soul, virtue, and grace. They knew the words. Eisenhower wasn't particularly religious, but his mother gave him those words. Abraham Lincoln's faith, to take another example, is always mysterious to me. But he certainly felt the pull of Providence.

I don’t think you need to have faith to be a good person. I observe people who are great people without faith. But I do think you need to have the biblical metaphysic. You need to have the words and categories.

Your book describes two paths to character. One is the path of moral effort, of emulating great heroes like the ones you profile. The other is the path of grace, the experience of receiving the gift of goodness. Which path works best?

It’s both. You may be able to build character and greatness through disciplined effort, but I don’t think you can experience the highest joy without grace. Nor can you experience tranquility. That only comes from gratitude, the feeling that you’re getting much more than you deserve.

My book includes a beautiful passage from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He writes about certain moments when you are feeling down, and then suddenly you feel this tremendous sense of acceptance. You’re not asked to do anything—only to accept the fact that you’re accepted.

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The word character can sound tough and austere. But most of the characters in my book had moments of profound joy, of feeling overwhelmed by gratitude.

You end the book with “The Humility Code”: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” “Humans are flawed yet deeply endowed.” “Humility is the greatest virtue. Pride is the greatest vice.” “We are all ultimately saved by grace.” Is it any accident that these sound like the teachings of Jesus and the apostles?

I spend a lot of time going to Israel. Christian art there has a certain “face.” When you walk the Stations of the Cross, you enter different chapels from different traditions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic. But the art features the same facial expression: one of gentle, loving kindness. In Greek or Roman art, the expressions are much “harder” and less grace-filled. But the Christian art has a kind of joy-filled humility.

The Gospels brought about a revolution in morals. To put it broadly, there was a shift from a desire for power to a desire for sacrificial love. Even just speaking as a historian of ideas, culture, and behavior, that was a radical revolution that created a radical counterculture.

Today when we hear the word counterculture, we think of hippies in the 1960s. But the hippies ultimately represent the same individualistic striving we see from Apple computer and Ben & Jerry’s.

The true counterculture is found in faith, whether Jewish or Christian. It’s about living by a totally different moral logic. The logic of the Bible and the language of humility—that’s the real counterculture.

When I read your book, I couldn’t help thinking about how evangelicals (myself included) often capitulate to Big Me culture—positive psychology, the self-branding of social media, “life plans.” What can evangelicals learn from both secular and religious people who have taken the road to character?

Recently I met with the Gathering [a group of Christian philanthropists] in Orlando, Florida, and spoke, as an outsider, on the ramps and the walls the evangelical community builds for outsiders. Ramps are things that welcome people into a community, and walls are things that drive people away. I argued that what drives people away the most is a mixture of an intellectual inferiority complex with a moral superiority complex.

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Intellectual standards in the evangelical community are not as high as they could be. It’s getting better. Everyone wants to be kind to each other. But sometimes you have to be a little cruel to disagree, and to disagree sharply and honestly to raise the intellectual standard of the enterprise.

On the other hand, as someone who has come to know a lot of evangelicals in the past years, many through writing this book, there are so many people who embody serenity and joy. They radiate caring love.

Words and theology are important. But I’m a big believer that “the message is the person.” When you run across somebody who is joyfully giving, humbly giving, that’s a more attractive evangelical move than any book or tract could be.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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The Road to Character
The Road to Character
Random House
320 pp.,
Buy The Road to Character from Amazon