The world today seem to prefer politics to morality, a personal brand to inner character, resume virtues that achieve success over eulogy virtues that reveal who you truly are... and it like this from the news to Instagram, at PTA meetings and little league fields, from the grocery store line to the protest front lines. David Brooks thinks we need to find our way back on the road to character.
Today, New York Times columnist David Brooks joins Miroslav Volf for a conversation about his 2015 book The Road to Character. Together, they reflect on the central virtues in a life of flourishing that leads to joy, the importance of reintroducing the concept of sin back into public conversation, and the challenge of finding the resolve to pursue the commitments to vocation, faith, community, and family in a culture that tempts us toward individualism and idolatry of the self.
This is part 2 of a 2-part conversation on Flourishing, Character, and the Good Life. Check out Part 1 , featuring David Brooks interviewing Miroslav Volf about his 2016 book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.
- Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik: Adam 1 vs Adam 2
- Resume Virtues vs Eulogy Virtues
- The power of a good mom for developing character
- Christian Smith and the dearth of moral dilemmas in young people, reducing everything to emotivism and individualism
- Sin vs "insensitive"
- "How do you introduce sin into the secular conversation?"
- Brooks sense of vocation: Shifting the conversation out of politics and into morality.
- Tim Keller: don't talk about depravity, talk about disordered loves.
- Character development requires awareness of sinfulness, correcting where we've gone wrong.
- Managing the "Big Me"
- How to motivate humility
- Humility: Not thinking lowly of oneself, but seeing yourself accurately.
- Humanity as crooked tinder: Confront your broken nature.
- Flourishing is a commitment to four things: vocation, faith/philosophy, community, spouse/family
- "The tree is my only friend. ... The tree talks to me and says, 'I am life, I am life, I am eternal life.'"
- Biblical imagination of the world to come: Lion with lamb; everyone sitting under their own fig tree; entering into joy.
- A "deeply embedded" life
- "Every day in government sucks, but the whole experience is tremendously rewarding."
- Flourishing and suffering, enlarging capacity for empathy
- Love to enlarge our hearts
- Moments where it comes together in joy
- The gratuity and deficit that comes with joy
- The way David Brooks writes his column: piles of papers and notes, crawling around on the floor
- Joy as advent and anticipation
- Market economy, competition, self-projection as a brand, selling oneself
- The rise of fame in recent years: By 2 to 1, college students prefer a life of fame to a life of sex
- "You need a counter-culture within yourself."
- Tough interview question about character: "Name a time you told the truth and it hurt you."
- "There is a vacuum for people to think and talk about their own internal lives."
- People are hungry and thirsty for a discussion of character and flourishing amidst their default lives of success and individualism.
- Practices and habits to form character
- Experiencing great love that fuses one with another
- Overcoming challenges and suffering
- Deep involvement in an act of service
- "Do the reading."
- Latch on to a tradition, rather than build your own system.
- The role of education in being drawn toward beauty and moments of transcendence
- This podcast featured David Brooks and Miroslav Volf
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Martin Chan & Nathan Jowers
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
- Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center For Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
David Brooks: I think my calling is to try to shift the conversation a little out of politics and into morality. Work I do as, as a TV pundit-- it's over politicized and under moralized. I'd like to just shift a little, but you've got to meet people where they are. There are two sets of virtues, one, the, the resume virtues, which make you good at your job. And then the eulogy virtues, the things they say about you after you're dead: whether you're courageous, honest, honorable, capable of great love. And we live in a world where we're a lot clearer about how to build the resume virtues than the eulogy ones. People have a clearer sense of how to have a good career than how to build a good inner character.
It's not that people are bad, but they're just lacking a moral vocabulary for how to do that. If I defined find a life of flourishing, it was the quality of commitment to four things: to, uh, a vocation, to a faith or a philosophy, to a community, and to a spouse and a family. And if you can make awesome commitments to four things outside yourself and surrender yourself to those four things and forget yourself to those four things, well, that is a life of flourishing. And the by-product of that is the inner light, the joy that you see in people who are deeply invested in a cause, in a family, and who know what they believe.
Evan Rosa: This is For The Life of The World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa, with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. The world today seems to prefer politics to morality; a personal brand to inner character; resume virtues that achieve success, over eulogy virtues that reveal who you truly are.
And it's like this from the newsroom to Instagram, at PTA meetings and on little league fields, from the grocery store line to the protest frontlines, and David Brooks thinks we need to find our way back onto the road to character. This is part two of Miroslav Volf's conversation with David Brooks. Last week, we aired David asking Miroslav about his 2016 book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. And today we're presenting the second half of that conversation with Miroslav turning things around to ask David about his 2015 book, The Road to Character.
Together, they reflect on the central virtues in a life of flourishing that leads to joy, the importance of re-introducing the concept of sin back into public conversation, and the challenge of finding the resolve to pursue the commitments to vocation, faith, community, and family in a culture that tempts us towards individualism and idolatry of the self. And a reminder that next week on October 2nd, we'll be dropping the first part of our conversation with Charles Taylor, preeminent philosopher, author of Secular Age and Sources of the Self.
He talks with Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnally-Linz about what's going wrong with our democracies, the epistemic crisis in the world of post-truth, and the importance of ethical growth and shared moral understanding in human culture. We also asked him several questions from our audience that came in via email and social media.
We're excited to share that with you, so make sure to tune in next Saturday. Thanks for listening today, friends.
Miroslav Volf: But I think we have to talk about your book as well.
David Brooks: Shoot.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Well. You know, maybe just for the beginning, you build in your book on the, on the distinction between, uh, uh, rabbi Soloveitchik made between, uh, Adam the first and Adam the second. You use this slightly differently than he does. Can you just spell out who's the who's Adam one and who's Adam two? Or who's Eve one
and Eve two?
David Brooks: I meant to make it gender neutral. Um, yeah, Adam one is the-- Soloveitchik, he's a great dualist. Uh, there there's this line that there are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don't. Uh, and he was, he was a big dualist and believed in dichotomies and tensions. Uh, and basically Adam one is the building creative Adam, uh, and, and Adam two was the inner and the spiritual Adam. One is majestic Adam as he put it and one is humble Adam.
And so the way I formulate it in the book is that there are two sets of virtues. One are the, the resume virtues, which make you good at your job. And then the eulogy virtues, the things they say about you after you're dead, whether you're courageous, honest, honorable, capable of great love. And we live in a world where we're a lot clearer about how to build the resume virtues than the eulogy ones. People have a clearer sense of how to have a good career than how to build a good inner character. It's not that people are bad, but they're just lacking a moral vocabulary for how to do that. And I certainly found that in my own life. I mean, the book really emerged because I had achieved way more career success than I ever thought I would, but I hadn't achieved the sort of, uh, inner light one sees in people.
Uh, I went to Frederick, Maryland shortly before finishing the book. And I, uh, ran into some ladies who teach immigrants English, and then how to read, which can take years. And I just walked into this group of 35 women age 50 to 75, and they just radiated a patience and a calm and a joy and just a tranquility and just a goodness.
They made me feel important. They had no idea who I was or anything. And you think, well, I've achieved this in life. But what they have, I haven't achieved that. And so it just struck me as important to know how to get there. And so the, the book is based on a series of mini-biographies and every single person was pathetic at age 20, but kind of magnificent at age 70.
So. Hmm. And so they weren't born good, but they did something to make themselves.
Miroslav Volf: So you read, uh, just as a footnote, you read, uh, Rabbi Soloveitchik as, as a kind of a dualist, uh, rather than both the incorporating in us, both they mentioned--
David Brooks: it's about balance.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Yeah. For, for humans, those are two modalities of human destiny right?
But the reason I'm asking is that--so for you as maybe for him, but for you, you are the object of discussion. Uh, for you, the, what's the what's the, we know what good Adam one does for Adam two. You can't have character without existing, but what good is Adam two, for Adam one?
David Brooks: Well, I do think.... That's a good question.
So, uh, sometimes humility, uh, is not the most positive virtue. Uh, if you're running for president and competing with Donald Trump, uh, but I would say basically character's about relationships. And I mean, if you want the Adam one, if you want the, this one reason to be a good person, I would say that the capacity to build trust in relationships is a very valuable commodity.
So, for example, in World War II, they drafted hundreds of thousands of young men, uh, and a certain number rose to the rank of major and some stayed privates and corporals. And so they did a study. What are the factors that explained or correlate with those who rose and those who didn't, and it could be intelligence, it could be physical courage, but those correlations were extremely weak.
The strongest correlation was having an intense, really loving relationship with your mother. Uh, because those who could accept and absorb and understand how an intensely loving relationship works when they became junior officers, they were able to endow that love to their men and they rose. And in retrospect to the characters in my book, um, and they are people like Dorothy Day or Dwight Eisenhower or Saint Augustine or Samuel Johnson, their dads were, eh, but their moms were all amazing.
Miroslav Volf: Hmm.
David Brooks: And so there is, there is something about, and I think this capacity to love deeply, doesn't have to have to come from parents, but has to come from somewhere. And, and if you can love deeply, I suspect you'll do better off in the world in general.
Miroslav Volf: But you don't, you're not saying you will love deeply so that you would do better off in the world.
That's a, that's a kind of human, uh, intrinsic value, uh, that--
David Brooks: Right. My, I think most people today. They're way too focused on, uh, on the, on the, uh, the promotions. And so they don't need, hey, if you become a Saint, you might be able to be CEO. They don't need that. Uh, they, they, uh, in my view, people just need, you know, you're, I'm sure you're familiar with the work of Christian Smith who went around to college campuses and asked people, um, asked students, what's your last moral dilemma and 70-- he's a sociologist at Notre Dame-- 70% of the students couldn't name their last moral dilemma.
They said, well, I pulled into a parking space, but I didn't have any quarters. I liked an apartment, but I couldn't afford the rent. And he would say, that's sort of a problem. It's not really a moral dilemma. And his argument was that they had not been given the vocabulary to understand what happens when two value systems conflict.
And so they were, they were reduced to sort of, uh, emotivism: what feels good for me is good for me. What feels good for you is good for you. And if you're reduced to that, then you really can't have a moral argument. You can't track your own moral development, you don't have the handholds to do that.
And so one of the things that seemed to be important was to introduce theological words into the secular sphere. Uh, and so words like sin. I did a, before I went, before the book who came out, I did a Charlie Rose and he asked me about the book and I talked about it and I got an email from an editor, not at my house, at another house, a very, very smart editor.
Uh, and he said, you know, I love the way you talked about your book, but I wouldn't use the word sin. I'd use the word insensitive. And it was like, well, that's why I'm writing the book because insensitive is not sin. Uh, but then you have the question: how do you introduce sin into the secular conversation?
I mean, my, I think my calling for the last third of my career, whatever it is, is to try to shift the conversation a little out of politics and into morality just cause I think our, work I do as a TV pundit, it's over politicized and under moralized. So I'd like to just shift a little, but you gotta meet people where they are,
Miroslav Volf: But will morality get you to sin?.
David Brooks: I think you, I think if I think sin is central--
Miroslav Volf: it'll get you to, to something being wrong, something, but will it get you to sin?
David Brooks: I think if you don't have a pervasive sense, there's something fundamentally screwed up about our nature. That we're both splendidly in doubt and deeply broken, then you're just not accurate.
And so the question is how do you get there? And actually I talked to a pastor, a very famous one who I'm sure you known him, Tim Keller. And, uh, I said, how do I talk about sin? And he said, don't talk about depravity. That's not going to sell, or it's not, it's not where people are. Talk about disordered loves.
And so, you know, we all have a lot of things. Uh, and if a friend gives you a secret and you blab it at a dinner party, you're putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. And we know that's wrong. And so that's sort of a accessible, I hope a secular way of describing what sin is. We have a tendency to put a lower love above a higher love, and we do it all the time.
And so, but introducing that concept of sinfulness, it seems to me is, is core to character development. The whole logic of character development is based on identifying your core sins, whether it's vanity, greed, fear, and then trying everyday to overcome it. And that's the first step in the process toward, I would say flourishing, the ability to confront your own sinfulness.
Miroslav Volf: So, so the big, the big, uh, if there's a big enemy in, uh, in your book, it's the kind of big "me" right in the sense, uh, that we've become a culture of the big, uh, big "me"s. I'm so let's say I'm persuaded, I'm persuaded by you on this, but what exactly is wrong? With a big B, a large percentage of Americans seem to relish the big "me" and many of them identified, have identified with the huge "me," uh, in the, uh, right?
Uh, and so, so how do I, how do you go about persuading folks that there's a problem with a big "me" or what are the motivations for that? Or what are the motivations for your cardinal virtue, as opposed to the big, uh, big "me" is humility. Not so much little "me," but the humility, but how do I motivate humility? I'm thinking I'm a Nietzchean and then you talk to me about humility. I thinking I'm Marxist and you talk to me about humility. I'm thinking I am kind of a libertarian of a certain sort. Where do I get it? What are the reasons, motivations?
David Brooks: Yeah. Well, first humility to me is not thinking lowly of yourself. It's accurate self-awareness from a position of other- centeredness.
It's the ability to be outside yourself and to see yourself accurately and see both your strengths and your weaknesses. And so that, that's what humility is. I would say the reason the big "me" is an unsatisfying life is because, I mean, I use the term that I guess Isaiah Berlin got from Kant: the crooked timber of humanity.
And so we are all crooked timber. And if you're relying on your own golden angel inside to lead you right, all the time, you're lying, relying on a very flawed instrument. And so the argument was you the argument of the book, and I think it's insufficient now, but the argument of the book was you have to confront your broken nature, why you're a crooked timber, work everyday to get better at it.
I think what was wrong with the book was even was, it was too individualistic. And in retrospect, the people I wrote about who really made something very impressive with themselves, they were, they were not only capable of confronting their sinfulness, which Dwight Eisenhower's was his anger Dorothy Day was her, just the disorganized self-indulgence she had as a young woman, but they were able, capable of making these amazing commitments to other things.
And, and so they were, they committed to four things. And I think a life of flourishing, if I defined life of flourishing, it was the quality of commitment to four things to, uh, a vocation, to a faith or a philosophy, to a community, and to a spouse and a family. And if you can make awesome commitments to four things outside yourself, and surrender yourself to those four things and forget yourself to those four things, then the by-product of that, well, that is a life of flourishing. And the by-product of that is the inner light, the joy that you see in people who are deeply invested in a cause and a family and who know what they believe.
Miroslav Volf: So , so you don't think that, um, life of flourishing to significant degree depends on the kind of food that's available to you kind of health that you might or might not have, kind of political social arrangements that might be, uh, available.
Is this a component of flourishing, maybe not as important as the other, or do you think, are you a stoic in some ways?
David Brooks: No, I'm the opposite. I'm, uh, emotionally irrational. But. But I would say, I would say it, you probably need to have a ceiling of those things, but, uh, I would say, I would say in exceptional circumstances, we can think of circumstances where people were deeply flourishing without those things, maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer and World War II were uh, Viktor Frankl that this book, Man's Search For Meaning he describes a woman who's days away from her death, in the camps, in the Holocaust.
Uh, and she's, he says, she says to him, you know, "I'm glad life has hit me so hard because before this, I did not take life seriously, and now I do." And she's alone up there in the bed she'll die in. And she looks out the window and she can see a tree. And she said, she says, "the tree is my only friend. And I talked to the tree." And he says to her, "does the tree talk back to you?"
And she says, "yes, the tree says to me, I am life. I am life. I'm eternal life." I would say at that moment with that woman's sense of fullness with her, not her own life, but just eternal life. I would say she's flourishing at that moment.
Miroslav Volf: I think she's doing something. She's having an absolutely extraordinary experience, uh, deeply human experience. But I can't get away from the kind of entirety of the traditions, religious traditions, which imagine flourishing under the images of lion will lie together with the lamb. Every person will sit under their, their own vine and fig tree and have, uh, uh, there's going to be, a kind of sense of community and the world ordered aright into which I'm situated, or let me put it, let me put it through a different image. In, in the, in the biblical, in the gospel traditions, you have, uh, imagination of the world to come as entering into joy, not myself being joyous, notwithstanding the circumstances in which I find myself. But rather a kind of almost joy, describing the entirety of the environment in which I'm situated, it's my joy, but I entered into it. Right. And so I, I, where does this fullness of flourishing?
David Brooks: Well, listen I'm like when I teach my classes, I'm not saying you should be dying in a Holocaust camp. Like that's not my life recommendation.
Uh, but I would say a couple things. One is that, I I'm trying to describe when I talk about the commitments, I'm trying to like describe a life deeply embedded.
Miroslav Volf: Hmm.
David Brooks: So one of my characters, uh, Frances Perkins, witnessed the triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and she watched 58 people rather than being burned to death, jumped to their deaths in lower Manhattan.
And it was sort of her call within a call, the moment when she became not only a do-gooder, which she already was, but ferociously dedicated to the cause of worker safety, which she then would spend the next 50 years ferociously dedicated-- I mean, ferocious-- compromising with anybody, working with anybody, doing anything for the cause of worker safety.
And so she was a person deeply embedded in the world, but she wasn't always happy. But she was, uh, fulfilled. I have a friend who works in government and she says, you know, every day in government sucks, but the whole experience is tremendously rewarding. And so sometimes that's true. No,
Miroslav Volf: I, yeah. Yeah. But no.
So I, I certainly think that, um, these kinds of experiences, uh, speak to the greatness of the character and sometimes we need to go through these kinds of experiences. In order to discover actually our own calling and depth of, uh, of, of our character and what we are able or not able to do. But it seems to me that those are the kind of the stages on some way, right?
The stages maybe necessary stages, necessary, not just for me, but sometimes I sacrifice my myself for the benefit of others that necessary stages given the state of the world in which we find ourselves, but the kind of image of flourishing life is this fullness in which all participants toward which we are through these sacrifices moving.
Right. There's something of that.
David Brooks: Yeah. So you're Mr. Joyce. I hesitate to have my own definition in front of you, but, uh, uh, but you know, I would say you have when we talk about a flourishing life, that it would have to include suffering, it would have to include moments of suffering where, you know, which teach us things, which teach us about ourselves, which enlarge our capacity for, uh, for empathy.
Uh, and which we turn into moments of, uh, narratives of sort of redemption. It would have to include love, uh, moments of deep and passionate love to sort of plow open the ground, uh, and to just enlarge our hearts, it would have to include moments of awed beauty. And then I think I would get back to the moments when it comes together.
Um, you know, I talk, and this happened a long time ago that I don't mention the book, but we all have moments in our life, where we have moments where we think joy. And the one I talk about sometimes is, is, um, I was doing the, the news hour on PBS and it was a summer evening and it was like 10 years ago. And I drove home to where I was living with my family, uh, then in Bethesda, Maryland, and my kids who were then twelve, nine, and four had a little Safeway ball, a little, one of those plastic balls you get at the grocery store and they were kicking it up in the air and they were chasing each other across the yard.
And they were rolling over each other and tumbling and laughing and just having a great time. And it was like the perfect summer evening. The summer sun was coming in my grass for some reason looked great, uh, and so I pull into my driveway with traps around the side of my house, and I'm confronted with this tableau of family happiness.
And I just sit there, staring at it through the windshield. And it's one of those moments where you get overwhelmed by a gratitude, which you know you haven't earned. And you want to be worthy of such moments. And so that's a moment of flourishing, but it doesn't feel like something you've earned. It's something, it's a super abundance of what you've earned.
And, and that's why the transcendent element element is always in the room.
Miroslav Volf: And in a sense that that's how I think about joy as well. If it's completely earned. I mean, I sometimes say, you know, when you get a paycheck at the end of the month, you know, you rejoice that you have a job that pays you, but it's when you get the bonus at the end of your year, that it is a source of true joy.
There's something there's kind of gratuity, right to joy, which I think is very--
David Brooks: I would say joy could also come in the form of deficit. There are moments like-- we've screwed up the word eros in our culture, the longing for excellence. Like when CS Lewis uses the word joy, he doesn't mean the satisfaction of desires.
He means the longing.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Yep.
David Brooks: And Dorothy Day, her book, The Long Loneliness, loneliness for her is not solitude it's um, uh, it's the longing for God. And so it's not the satisfaction of desire, it's the desire itself. And so there's something about joy that's involved in the search. And so, again, I'm talking about myself, but I'm a columnist.
Uh, but so there are moments-- we we can all relate to this at work, where, so what I do the way I write is: I've a very bad memory. So I have lots of pages of notes and stuff, and I lay it out on the floor and each paragraph, each, each pile of paper on my floor of my living room is that, yeah, so that's, that's, uh, each, each pile is a paragraph of my column and they pick up the pile of papers, write the paragraph, throw it out, pick up the next pile.
So to me, the writing process is the process of crawling around on my living room floor. And sometimes when I'm at the edge of my knowledge and understanding and concepts are happening to me, and I'm aware that thoughts are coming into my mind, those are like very joyful moments and that, and it feels like prayer.
It's like, yeah, you're enraptured in something and it's not because you achieved it, but you're on the road.
Miroslav Volf: Joyous anticipation in the Christian terms. It's advent. Kind of joy as well as in the, as in the fulfillment. Um, let me take you a little bit to, to less happy topics than joy.
David Brooks: Ted cruz? Is that where we're going?
Miroslav Volf: We could, we could start with Ted Cruz or maybe Donald Trump or the big "me," uh, and in some ways, I think both of them and maybe a few others, uh, as well, um, and the relationship of the kind of cultural occupation of the kind of big "me" and, uh, the kind of market economy that we today inhabit, not only generating immense disparities as well, but also being highly, highly competitive.
And it's high competitiveness of the market. I need to always present myself in my best suit from the moment I get up, I need to look in a certain way. And I'm constantly being, projecting myself, uh, and selling myself in order to be simply able to achieve the goals which I have in order to, in order to live.
Um, is there surprise that we strive for the big "me?" If our entire way of life is organized about it's a condition of possibility of my, our entire life is the being of the big "me." Yeah. So how does your critique of the big "me" as well as the solution fit in the, in the, what do you do with the economy, which produces the need for the big "me" all the time?
David Brooks: But I would say obviously if you're starting a, a, um, doing a startup or trying to make yourself into a public intellectual or trying to make yourself well known in the world of marketing or whatever sphere, obviously self promotion, Instagram, Twitter is a part of that. And it's part of the self promotion. And one of the things I mentioned, the book is how much fame has gone from a value that was very unpopular. UCLA does these studies of college freshmen and used to be what people wanted: they ask you, what do you want out of college or life? And it's I want to have a meaningful philosophy of life. And fame, which used to be down near the bottom is now usually second or third after financial security.
And so fame-- becoming famous has become a very desired thing. And my famous, my favorite study of this is, uh, is they asked college students, would you rather have a life that leads to a lot of fame or a life that leads to a lot of sex. And by two to one, they chose the life of fame. And so I go to college campus and I say, listen, I'm on TV a lot. I write a column for a prominent newspaper. I'm kind of famous. Go with the sex it's better.
So, but so that's part of one's career. Uh, nonetheless, if that's all you are, uh, you really will turn into Donald Trump. You will have, you will have no inner life. Uh, and my supposition is that having no inner life is a bad thingin the long run.
So, but, but, so I'm not saying you should deny that I'm-- this is where Soloveitchik comes in.
He's not saying deny your Adam one, but it's realized that it's in tension. These two things are in are in tension with the other side of your life. And my argument is the same as yours. You need to, you need a counterculture within yourself. You need an inner hold. Somebody you you'll know, the natural urge is to just want to make it in this world.
And that's what the world rewards. And so you need some other community, some other value system, some other set of commitments that just impose upon you a different set of standards and, and, you know, to get back to what will help you in long run. I have a friend who hires a lot of people and the question he asks at every job interview is name a time you told the truth and it hurt you. Because he wants to know they're going to put Adam two above Adam one sometimes. And so I tell all my students: learn to fake that one.
Miroslav Volf: But you don't, you don't want it-- I don't hear you pushing at the, at the kind of systemic question. So as a public intellectual, you're attending to the cultural responses to the situation. You're not asking the question. Am I hearing you rightly, but how to, is there something not quite all right with a system that's generating such huge discrepancies in wealth.
David Brooks: And, um, I write about that all the time, but I would say that, uh, you're getting into my business and I'm getting into your business.
Miroslav Volf: No, no, no. That's not right.
David Brooks: What I mean to say is I just think there is a vacuum for people to think about their own internal lives.
Miroslav Volf: Oh, I agree..
David Brooks: And you know, I was talking to some people just before this: I went on this book tour and I'm talking about Augustine and love and Dorothy Day and moments of suffering and grace. And on this book tour, I sometimes go into rooms. I'm at a big convention center. There's a bunch of CEOs and treasurers, and they're talking about healthcare costs and their fiduciary responsibilities.
And they look like the least spiritual entities on the face of the Earth. And I walk in and I'm going to do all this wahoo stuff about love. And I walk into the room at an airless convention center, and I think this is not going to go well. Uh, and most of the time they lock in and more than any other talk or, more than any other subject I've ever spoken about, there's a quality to the silence in some of those rooms, which is the quality of a desperate, thirsty group of people.
And you're just like a sprinkler in the desert and it feels like it just feels to me, the country is just hungry for this and you don't even have to be that good at it, but if you're offering some spit of it, then there's a thirst for it. And I've had my students here say we're so thirsty, which is why your class is so popular so. Aside from your talents, of course.
Miroslav Volf: You're preaching to the choir choir here. I think it's a, where I'm headed partly with it. Is this more integral account of a flourishing? I mean, there, there is a way in which I can find my own personal meaning without that translating into kind of a transformed lives that irradiate, not just to my environments, but also to social social institutions. I think we are probably--
David Brooks: I wouldn't, I wouldn't disagree, but I just remind you, Emerson said souls are not saved in bundles, but they're, they're, I mean, I, I believe me, I'm, like half my columns are on social conditions and why Donald Trump sucks. But so I don't, I don't deny the importance of that, but I just think if you look at the, where the public debate is what's most needed is moral language to personal-- uh, the, we are a country that's politics rich and meaning poor. And the personal search for meaning is the, is the biggest need.
Miroslav Volf: So we won't have disagreement on that, but let's take from there. Um, I think what might be needed.
So, so let's assume that let's the thing that we assume where the, where the end the road toward character ends what happens along the way? What are the kind of practices and helps along the way that one can, one needs to have, not just to have moral ideal in front of one, but rather religious tradition, philosophic, ancient, philosophical traditions saw themselves as kind of communities of particular practices in order to help you along the way. How do you imagine that?
David Brooks: My answers are not controversial. I mean, you have to have experienced great love. We wouldn't say somebody was a deep person, unless they were capable of, of great love, uh, that fuse them uh, one with another, uh, we wouldn't say someone was, was a deep and emotionally successful person unless they didn't overcome some challenge and suffering.
Uh, Paul Tillich, who I quoted in the book says that what suffering does is it takes you beneath the everyday-ness of your life and carves a hole in what you thought was the basement of your soul. And it reveals a cavity below, and then it carves a hole in that and reveals a cavity below. And so it really introduces yourself to yourself.
And then we wouldn't say somebody was a deep person, unless they were deeply involved in some act of service. And so I quote, um, oh, I'm forgetting his name. I'm blanking, having a moment. He was a famous doctor in the 19th century was a musicologist and then-- Albert Schweitzer, uh, and he said, I only hire people from my hosp-- I don't hire idealists from my hospital.
I only hire people who perform acts of service as if they're doing the dishes, because those who are looking for the validation of the idealism are not going to be able to last out here. And so we, we looked for moments like that. Uh, and then, you know, so I think it's, you know, some, and then I think, you know, there's, here's the University of Chicago in me coming out:
I do think you have to do the reading. I do think you have to be familiar very
Miroslav Volf: Thank you, this is very important. Do the reading!
David Brooks: So, so I went to Chicago and we had a great great books program. It was like DS for two years. And when I went there, there were still these old German refugees from World War II who read the great books, whether it's Nietzche or Hobbes or Locke, and, their belief was, this was their religion:
That, that the keys to life were in these great books. And I remember there was a guy named Carl Weintraub who was a legendary professor, who really was the greatest of the Western Civ teachers. And he wrote to a friend of mine, a classmate of mine, who's now president David's college just before he left, he, he died:
"I taught these books as if the men and women who wrote them, which they did had sacrificed their life and blood and soul and spirits to put what they knew into these books. And I tried to teach them with the passion and the respect to which they deserve. But sometimes when I would hear words from my students, it sounded like they were just pushing around air.
And I taught this for 50 years and I think I made an impact on some of my students, but I just don't know."
And that's the lament of a guy who, who taught until he was in his eighties and just didn't know the impact it had, but he communicated the value of those books, which all of his students then carried through life.
The passionate for these ideas. And my view is if you know, we tell students, come up with your own value systems. If your name is Aristotle or Nietzsche, maybe you can do that. The rest of us need to latch on to a tradition much wiser than we can be. And you simply don't know what the moral traditions are unless you do the reading.
So I do think reading is an essential component and then other things like being aroused by beauty, be awed, by beauty and drawn toward beauty. I mean, we can all, moments of transcendence. I mean, colleges can have a role in giving people moments of transcendence by offering them beautiful things to look at by encouraging them to fall in love with things uh, and so, you know, I think colleges play that role as part of part of the step. A role I think are mostly being abdicated right now.
Miroslav Volf: This is a marvelous, uh, ending point to our conversation. Please join me in thanking David Brooks.
Evan Rosa: For The Life of The World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured journalist David Brooks and theologian Miroslav Volf. Production assistance by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek. If you're new to the show, so glad that you found us. Remember to hit subscribe so you don't miss any episodes. And if you've been listening for awhile, thank you friends. If you're liking what you're hearing, I've got a request: would you support us?
It's pretty simple, really and won't take much time. Here are some ideas. First, you could hit the share button for this episode in your app and send a text or email to a friend or share it to your social feed. Second, you could give us an honest rating on Apple podcasts. How are we really doing? Finally, you could write a short review of the show in Apple podcasts.
Reviews are cool because they'll help like-minded people get an idea for what we're all about and what's most meaningful to you, our listeners. Thanks for listening today, friends. We'll be back with more this coming week.