Yesterday’s post advocated for personal growth, the means by which humanity’s desperate need for better people might be satisfied. I recently read an article in The Atlantic that provided additional insight into the topic. It summarized a talk given by the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Normally I agree with almost nothing Brooks says, but here I found his thinking insightful.
Brooks argues that American culture overemphasizes attaining happiness, rather than “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.” We focus on power, wealth, and professional success, instead of cultivating the kind of personal qualities that will be discussed at our funerals. As Brooks says, we put “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Instead of emphasizing happiness and resume virtues, we should search for inner depth, for eulogy virtues.
For Brooks, the American rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik captured the dichotomy between resume and eulogy virtues in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik differentiates between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” As Brooks explains:
Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam … Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world … Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for … We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I … We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers.”
But how do we nourish depth? What does it mean to be deep? Brooks says:
I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence … In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.
Brooks also thinks deep people tend to be old, and I agree. “The things that lead you astray, those things are fast: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony … The things that we admire most—honesty, humility, self-control, courage—those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.” He lists Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, and Mother Teresa as examples of deep people.
Although I do believe we ought to become deeper people, I object to much of Brooks’ characterization of depth. “Large and sonorous emotions” and “spiritual presence” often hinder a life of depth. The Stoics and Buddhists believed, roughly, that fervent emotions impede a good life, and no one can accuse either group of being shallow. As for spiritual presence, the notion is extraordinarily vague. Perhaps Brooks uses the term to describe deep feelings generally. I’m not sure. But I state unequivocally that strong emotions and religious attachments often fetter personal growth.
“A set, permanent philosophy” can also be a hindrance to depth. If this philosophy results from a lifetime of searching and impartial inquiry, then it is a sign of depth. But in most cases a set, permanent philosophy is the first one to which the individual was exposed, and that typically signifies shallowness of thought and being. Also, an unreflective, permanent acceptance of the first philosophy one encounters often leads to dogmatism. And a dogmatic, unreflective person is essentially the opposite of a person of depth.
I agree that persons of depth often commit “to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime,” but so do Nazis, fascists, Fox News anchors, and other horrific human beings. Being committed to tyranny, oppression or racism does not make you a deep person. Or if it does, it surely doesn’t make you a moral one. Yet Brooks says, “In the realm of morality, they [deep people] have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”
This is the fundamental flaw in Brook’s description. We can imagine the most committed Nazi, slave owner, exploitative capitalist, or Fox News pundit having deep, spiritual-like emotions about philosophies which they consistently hold, and which they hope will continue on after their lifetimes. But such people aren’t moral.
This suggests that Brooks’ analysis only works if morality as ordinarily understood is not part of a deep life. By “morality as ordinarily understood,” I’m thinking of the late philosopher James Rachels’ account, in his best-selling university textbook, of “the minimum conception of morality.” The generally agreed-upon starting point for any moral philosophy is: 1) an effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons; and 2) giving impartial consideration to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct. Needless to say, the committed Nazi or Fox news commentators don’t subscribe to this minimum conception. Thus Brooks’ idea of depth doesn’t preclude immoral people, as surely he intended it to do.
The implications of Brooks’ view would also come as a surprise to Buddhists who advocate loving-kindness, or to religious traditions that advocate beneficence, or to the majority of moral philosophers who believe that compassion for, and connection with, our fellows is a large part of being “deep.” Yes, you could talk about intellectual or aesthetic depth without reference to morality, but I don’t think this is the depth Brooks has in mind.
I also object to Brooks’ list of deep persons. Three of the four persons he mentions are Catholics. (Albert Schweitzer was not Catholic and rejected much of traditional Christianity. Still, he might be called a Christian mystic or a death-of-God theologian.) Combined with Brooks’ references to “spiritual presence,” this suggests that he thinks depth is related to religion. The objections to this line of thinking are so apparent they hardly need noting. Yes, religious people can be deep and moral, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that religious persons are generally deeper or morally better than secular people. In fact, I think that conventional religion is generally an impediment to depth and morality, although this claim would take more time to defend than I now have. (As an aside, critics have claimed that Mother Theresa was no moral exemplar.)
Despite my objections to various aspects of Brooks’ thinking, for the most part, I agree with his overall sentiments. The deep, moral life is the one most worth living, and we generally don’t cultivate or value it. One can live such a life in many ways: by caring for your children, doing relatively menial work, singing, dancing, playing, creating, or in some combination of activities. As for happiness, when directly sought, it is often missed. Rather, it is the unintended by-product of a life explored in depth. Seek to live deeply, morally, and meaningfully, and you will have the best chance of living well.
A Final Caveat
I do realize how trite the above advice is for those who are destitute, incarcerated, oppressed, etc. As I’ve said many times, following Plato and Aristotle, one needs a good government to have a good life—the good life cannot be achieved by individual effort alone. Aristotle didn’t think that government could make people virtuous or happy, but good government by definition must provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. This is how to adjudicate between good and bad governments. Judged accordingly, the US government is better than some governments but much worse than any Scandinavian government or most European government at providing the conditions in which all people can flourish. The US is clearly not the greatest country on earth.
For those who are systematically oppressed, I have little to offer, except to advise you to do your best to find opportunities in the injustice which surrounds you. That it surrounds you is a great stain on all of us, and our more advanced descendants will look back with horror that we tolerated so much injustice. It makes me ashamed of being human. Please accept my apologies along with most fervent wishes that you find inner peace nonetheless.