The Road to Character - by David Brooks

The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They're the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being--whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

I've discovered that without a rigorous focus on the Adam II side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self. You realize that the voice of your Adam I is loud but the voice of your Adam II is muffled; the life plan of Adam I is clear, but the life plan of Adam II is fuzzy; Adam I is alert, Adam II is sleepwalking.

I collected data to suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.

The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space--self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. "Thankfulness," the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, "is a soil in which pride does not easily grow." There is something intellectually impressive about that sort of humility, too. We have, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, an "almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance." Humility is the awareness that there's a lot you don't know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong. This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, "We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge, but we can't be wise with other men's wisdom." That's because wisdom isn't a body of information. It's the moral quality of knowing what you don't know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

People who are humble about their own nature are moral realists. Moral realists are aware that we are all built from "crooked timber"--from Immanuel Kant's famous line, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." People in this "crooked-timber" school of humanity have an acute awareness of their own flaws and believe that character is built in the struggle against their own weaknesses. You can see evidence of the inner struggle in such people's journals. They are exultant on days when they win some small victory over selfishness and hard-heartedness. They are despondent on days when they let themselves down, when they avoid some charitable task because they were lazy or tired, or fail to attend to a person who wanted to be heard. They are more likely see their life as a moral adventure story.

People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, "Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that."

The sort of process I've just described can happen in big ways. In every life there are huge crucible moments, altering ordeals, that either make you or break you. But this process can also happen in daily, gradual ways. Every day it's possible to recognize small flaws, to reach out to others, to try to correct errors. Character is built both through drama and through the everyday.

The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That's false. Adam I's desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys.

The Summoned Self

In this method, you don't ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don't create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, "At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world's deep need?"

Your ability to discern your vocation depends on the condition of your eyes and ears, whether they are sensitive enough to understand the assignment your context is giving you. As the Jewish Mishnah puts it, "It's not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from beginning it."

There is a general struggle between two philosophic dispositions, what the social critic Rochelle Gurstein calls the party of reticence and the party of exposure. The party of reticence believes that the tender emotions of the inner world are brutalized and polluted when they are exposed to the glare of public exhibition. The party of exposure believes that anything secret is suspect and that life works better when everything is brought out into the open and discussed.


That concept--conquering your own soul--was a significant one in the moral ecology in which Eisenhower grew up. It was based on the idea that deep inside we are dual in our nature. We are fallen, but also splendidly endowed. We have a side to our nature that is sinful--selfish, deceiving, and self-deceiving--but we have another side to our nature that is in God's image, that seeks transcendence and virtue. The essential drama of life is the drama to construct character, which is an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good. The cultivation of Adam II was seen as a necessary foundation for Adam I to flourish.

Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry, no matter how hard we try to reduce behavior to the sort of herd instinct that is captured in big data, no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like "mistake" or "error" or "weakness," the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like "virtue," "character," "evil," and "vice" altogether, that doesn't make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life. Sin is not some demonic thing. It's just our perverse tendency to fuck things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. Sin, when it is committed over and over again, hardens into loyalty to a lower love. The danger of sin, in other words, is that it feeds on itself.

Character, as the Yale law professor Anthony T. Kronman has put it, is "an ensemble of settled dispositions--of habitual feelings and desires." The idea is largely Aristotelian. If you act well, eventually you will be good. Change your behavior and eventually you rewire your brain.

Today, we tend to live within an ethos of authenticity. We tend to believe that the "true self" is whatever is most natural and untutored. That is, each of us has a certain sincere way of being in the world, and we should live our life being truthful to that authentic inner self, not succumbing to the pressures outside ourself. To live artificially, with a gap between your inner nature and your outer conduct, is to be deceptive, cunning, and false. Eisenhower hewed to a different philosophy. This code held that artifice is man's nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with. Eisenhower was not a sincere person. He hid his private thoughts. He recorded them in his diary, and they could be scathing.

The moderate person contains opposing capacities to the nth degree. A moderate person can start out hot on both ends, both fervent in a capacity for rage and fervent in a desire for order, both Apollonian at work and Dionysian at play, both strong in faith and deeply doubtful, both Adam I and Adam II. A moderate person can start out with these divisions and rival tendencies, but to live a coherent life, the moderate must find a series of balances and proportions. The moderate is forever seeking a series of temporary arrangements, embedded in the specific situation of the moment, that will help him or her balance the desire for security with the desire for risk, the call of liberty with the need for restraint. The moderate knows there is no ultimate resolution to these tensions. Great matters cannot be settled by taking into account just one principle or one viewpoint. Governing is more like sailing in a storm: shift your weight one way when the boat tilts to starboard, shift your weight the other way when it tilts to port--adjust and adjust and adjust to circumstances to keep the semblance and equanimity of an even keel.


When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don't usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant. Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Suffering simultaneously reminds us of our finitude and pushes us to see life in the widest possible connections, which is where holiness dwells. Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments. This way, suffering becomes a fearful gift, very different from that other gift, happiness, conventionally defined. The latter brings pleasure, but the former cultivates character.

We are all called at certain moments to comfort people who are enduring some trauma. Many of us don't know how to react in such situations, but others do. In the first place, they just show up. They provide a ministry of presence. Next, they don't compare. The sensitive person understands that each person's ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else's. Next, they do the practical things--making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels. Finally, they don't try to minimize what is going on. They don't attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don't say that the pain is all for the best. They don't search for silver linings. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice a passive activism. They don't bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process. She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on. She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct.


Marshall still did not excel academically at VMI. But he excelled at drilling, neatness, organization, precision, self-control, and leadership. He mastered the aesthetic of discipline, having the correct posture, erect carriage, crisp salute, direct gaze, well-pressed clothing, and the way of carrying the body that is an outward manifestation of inner self-control. This starchy formality is not in vogue today. We carry ourselves in ways that are more natural and relaxed. We worry about appearing artificial. But those in Marshall's military world were more likely to believe that great individuals are made, not born, and that they are made through training. Change happens from the outside in. It is through the exercise of drill that a person becomes self-regulating. It is through the expression of courtesy that a person becomes polite. It is through the resistance to fear that a person develops courage. It is through the control of facial expressions that one becomes sober. The act precedes the virtue. The point of all this was to separate instant emotion from action, to reduce the power of temporary feelings. A person might feel fear, but he would not act on it. A person might desire sweets, but would be able to repress the urge to eat them. The stoic ideal holds that an emotion should be distrusted more often than trusted. Emotion robs you of agency, so distrust desire. Distrust anger, and even sadness and grief. Regard these things as one might regard fire: useful when tightly controlled, but a ravaging force when left unchecked.

In the process of subordinating ourselves to the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. The customs of the institution structure the soul, making it easier to be good. They guide behavior gently along certain time-tested lines. By practicing the customs of an institution, we are not alone; we are admitted into a community that transcends time. The technical tasks of, say, being a carpenter are infused with a deep meaning that transcends the task at hand. There are long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out of them, but service to the institution provides you with a series of fulfilling commitments and a secure place in the world. It provides you with a means to submerge your ego, to quiet its anxieties and its relentless demands.


Mary Anne [George Eliot] had nobody close to her intellectual level with whom she could discuss what she was reading. She invented a word to describe her condition: "non-impartitive." She received information but could not digest it through conversation. She made a drama of herself and indulged in it, enjoying the attention, luxuriating in her own capacity for emotional depth, and savoring the sense of her own epic importance. People who see themselves as the center of their solar system, often get enraptured by their own terrible but also delicious suffering. People who see themselves as a piece of a larger universe and a longer story rarely do. Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It's not just the confidence and drive to act. It's having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never.

Many observers have noticed that love eliminates the distinction between giving and receiving. Since the selves of the two lovers are intermingled, scrambled, and fused, it feels more delicious to give to the beloved than to receive. Montaigne writes that the person in love who receives a gift is actually giving her lover the ultimate gift: the chance to experience the joy of giving to her. It doesn't make sense to say that a lover is generous or altruistic, because a lover in the frenzy of love who gives to her beloved is giving to a piece of herself.

Next, love infuses people with a poetic temperament. Adam I wants to live according to a utilitarian calculus--to maximize pleasant experiences, to guard against pain and vulnerability, to maintain control. Adam I wants you to go through life as a self-contained unit, coolly weighing risks and rewards and looking out for your own interests. Adam I is strategizing and calculating costs and benefits. He wants you to keep the world at arm's length. But to be in love is to lose your mind a bit, to be elevated by magical thinking. Love is submission, not decision. Love demands that you make a poetic surrender to an inexplicable power without counting the cost. Love asks you to discard conditional thinking and to pour out your love in full force and not measure it by tablespoons. In this way, love opens up the facility for spiritual awareness. It is an altered state of consciousness that is intense and overwhelming but at the same time effervescent. In that state, many people are likely to have mystical moments when they feel an awareness of some wordless mystery beyond the human plane. Their love gives them little glimmerings of pure love, love detached from this or that particular person but emanating from some transcendent realm. These sensations come in fleeting moments. They are intense and effervescent mystical experiences, glimpses into an infinity beyond what can be known for sure.

She had no system. She was antisystem. As she wrote in The Mill on the Floss, she despised "men of maxims," because the "complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy." Eliot creates her own interior landscape. She was a realist. She was not concerned with the lofty and the heroic. She wrote about the workaday world. Her characters tend to err when they reject the grubby and complex circumstances of everyday life for abstract and radical notions. They thrive when they work within the rooted spot, the concrete habit, the particular reality of their town and family. Eliot herself believed that the beginning of wisdom was the faithful and attentive study of present reality, a thing itself, a person herself, unfiltered by abstract ideas, mists of feeling, leaps of imagination, or religious withdrawals into another realm. There's power in the particular and suspicion of the general.

Eliot was a meliorist. She did not believe in big transformational change. She believed in the slow, steady, concrete march to make each day slightly better than the last. Character development, like historic progress, best happens imperceptibly, through daily effort.

Ordered Love

Even as a young boy, Augustine was caught between the competing ideals of the classical world and the Judeo-Christian world. As Matthew Arnold writes in Culture and Anarchy, the primary idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness, while the governing idea of what he calls Hebraism is strictness of conscience.

Augustine responded to this crisis by looking within himself. Looking in, he saw a vast universe beyond his own control. The vast internal world is dappled and ever-changing. He perceives the dance of small perceptions and senses great depths below the level of awareness. At least two great conclusions arose from this internal expedition. First, Augustine came to realize that though people are born with magnificent qualities, original sin had perverted their desires. What sort of mysterious creature is a human being, Augustine mused, who can't carry out his own will, who knows his long-term interest but pursues short-term pleasure, who does so much to screw up his own life? This led to the conclusion that people are a problem to themselves. We should regard ourselves with distrust: "I greatly fear my hidden parts," he wrote. The second large observation that flows from Augustine's internal excavation is that the human mind does not contain itself, but stretches out toward infinity. It's not only rottenness Augustine finds within, but also intimations of perfection, sensations of transcendence, emotions and thoughts and feelings that extend beyond the finite and into another realm.

Eventually Augustine came to believe that you can't gradually reform yourself. He concluded that you can't really lead a good life by using old methods. That's because the method is the problem. The crucial flaw in his old life was the belief that he could be the driver of his own journey. So long as you believe that you are the captain of your own life, you will be drifting farther and farther from the truth. You can't lead a good life by steering yourself, in the first place, because you do not have the capacity to do so. The mind is such a vast, unknown cosmos you can never even know yourself by yourself. The problem, Augustine came to believe, is that if you think you can organize your own salvation you are magnifying the very sin that keeps you from it. To believe that you can be captain of your own life is to suffer the sin of pride.

Augustine's pain during his years of ambition, at least as he describes it later, is not just the pain of someone who is self-centered and unstable. It is the pain of someone who is self-centered and unstable but who has a deep sensation that there is a better way to live, if only he could figure out what it is.

The basic formula of the Adam I world is that effort produces reward. If you work hard, play by the rules, and take care of things yourself, you can be the cause of your own good life. Augustine came to conclude that this all was incomplete. He didn't withdraw from the world. But his public work and effort was nestled in a total surrender. He came to conclude that the way to inner joy is not through agency and action, it's through surrender and receptivity to God. The point, according to this view, is to surrender, or at least suppress, your will, your ambition, your desire to achieve victory on your own. The point is to acknowledge that God is the chief driver here and that he already has a plan for you. God already has truths he wants you to live by. We have arrived, therefore, at a different theory of motivation. To recapitulate the Augustinian process, it starts with the dive inside to see the vastness of the inner cosmos. The inward dive leads outward, toward an awareness of external truth and God. That leads to humility as one feels small in contrast to the almighty. That leads to a posture of surrender, of self-emptying, as one makes space for God. That opens the way for you to receive God's grace. That gift arouses an immense feeling of gratitude, a desire to love back, to give back and to delight. That in turn awakens vast energies. Over the centuries many people have been powerfully motivated to delight God. This motivation has been as powerful as the other great motivations, the desire for money, fame, and power. The genius of this conception is that as people become more dependent on God, their capacity for ambition and action increases. Dependency doesn't breed passivity; it breeds energy and accomplishment.

To be healed is to be broken open. The proper course is outward. C. S. Lewis observed that if you enter a party consciously trying to make a good impression, you probably won't end up making one. That happens only when you are thinking about the other people in the room. If you begin an art project by trying to be original, you probably won't be original. And so it is with tranquillity. If you set out trying to achieve inner peace and a sense of holiness, you won't get it. That happens only obliquely, when your attention is a focused on something external. That happens only as a byproduct of a state of self-forgetfulness, when your energies are focused on something large. For Augustine, that's the crucial change. Knowledge is not enough for tranquillity and goodness, because it doesn't contain the motivation to be good. Only love impels action. We don't become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves. We don't become what we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love.


The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit--loosely, "falling-to-pieces-ness." This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called "the dizziness of freedom." When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn't a strong internal structure.

Samuel Johnson was a fervent dualist, believing that only tensions, paradoxes, and ironies could capture the complexity of real life. He was not a theorist, so he was comfortable with antitheses, things that didn't seem to go together but in fact do. As the literary critic Paul Fussell observed, the buts and yets that dotted his prose became the substance of his writing, part of his sense that to grasp anything you have to look at it from many vantage points, seeing all its contradictory parts. One certainly gets the sense that he spent a lot of time just hanging out, engaging in the sort of stupid small adventures groups of friends get into when they are just passing the time. Told that someone had drowned in a certain stretch of river, Johnson proceeded to jump right into it to see if he could survive. Told that a gun could explode if loaded with too much shot, Johnson immediately put seven balls in the barrel of one and fired it into a wall. He threw himself into London life. He interviewed prostitutes. He slept in parks with poets. He did not believe knowledge was best pursued as a solitary venture. He wrote, "Happiness is not found in self contemplation; it is perceived only when it is reflected from another." He sought self-knowledge obliquely, testing his observations against the reality of a world he could see concretely in front of him. "I look upon every day to be lost in which I do not make a new acquaintance," he observed.

Johnson's redeeming intellectual virtue was clarity of mind. It gave him his great facility for crystallizing and quotable observations. Most of these reveal a psychological shrewdness about human fallibility:

  • If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.

  • Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

"He was a man in whose presence nothing reprehensible was out of danger; quick in observing whatever was wrong or ridiculous and not unwilling to expose it."

Both Montaigne and Johnson were brilliant essayists, masters of shifting perspective. Both were humanists in their way, heroically trying to use literature to find the great truths they believed the human mind is capable of comprehending but also doing so with a sense of humility, compassion, and charity. Both tried to pin down the chaos of existence in prose and create a sense of internal order and discipline. But Johnson is all emotional extremes; Montaigne is emotionally moderate. Johnson issues stern self-demands; Montaigne aims at nonchalance and ironic self-acceptance. Johnson is about struggle and suffering, Montaigne is a more genial character, wryly amused by the foibles of the world. Johnson investigated the world to become his desired self; Montaigne investigated himself to see the world. We can each of us decide if we are a little more like Montaigne or a little more like Johnson, or which master we can learn from on which occasion. For my part I'd say that Johnson, through arduous effort, built a superior greatness. He was more a creature of the active world. Montaigne's equipoise grew in part from the fact that he grew up rich, with a secure title, and could retire from the messiness of history to the comfort of his estate. Most important, Johnson understood that it takes some hard pressure to sculpt a character. The material is resistant. There has to be some pushing, some sharp cutting, and hacking. It has to be done in confrontation with the intense events of the real world, not in retreat from them. Montaigne had such a genial nature, maybe he could be shaped through gentle observation. Most of us will end up mediocre and self-forgiving if we try to do that.

The Big Me

Starting in biblical times there was a tradition of moral realism, the "crooked-timber" school of humanity. This tradition, or worldview, put tremendous emphasis on sin and human weakness. Around the eighteenth century, moral realism found a rival in moral romanticism. While moral realists placed emphasis on inner weakness, moral romantics like Jean-Jacques Rousseau placed emphasis on our inner goodness. The realists distrusted the self and trusted institutions and customs outside the self; the romantics trusted the self and distrusted the conventions of the outer world. The realists believed in cultivation, civilization, and artifice; the romanticists believed in nature, the individual, and sincerity.

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called "the culture of authenticity." This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong. In this ethos, the self is to be trusted, not doubted. Your desires are like inner oracles for what is right and true. You know you are doing the right thing when you feel good inside. The valid rules of life are those you make or accept for yourself and that feel right to you. In this ethos, sin is not found in your individual self; it is found in the external structures of society--in racism, inequality, and oppression. To improve yourself, you have to be taught to love yourself, to be true to yourself, not to doubt yourself and struggle against yourself.

I've found in myself, and I think I've observed in others, a certain meritocratic mentality, which is based on the self-trusting, self-puffing insights of the Romantic tradition, but which is also depoeticized and despiritualized. If moral realists saw the self as a wilderness to be tamed, and if people in the New Age 1970s saw the self as an Eden to be actualized, people living in a high-pressure meritocracy are more likely to see the self as a resource base to be cultivated. The self is less likely to be seen as the seat of the soul, or as the repository of some transcendent spirit. Instead, the self is a vessel of human capital. It is a series of talents to be cultivated efficiently and prudently. The self is defined by its tasks and accomplishments. The self is about talent, not character.

If you believe that the ultimate oracle is the True Self inside, then of course you become emotivist--you make moral judgments on the basis of the feelings that burble up. Of course you become a relativist. One True Self has no basis to judge or argue with another True Self. Of course you become an individualist, since the ultimate arbiter is the authentic self within and not any community standard or external horizon of significance without. Of course you lose contact with the moral vocabulary that is needed to think about these questions. Of course the inner life becomes more level--instead of inspiring peaks and despairing abysses, ethical decision making is just gentle rolling foothills, nothing to get too hepped up about. The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied by the struggle to achieve. Morality has been displaced by utility. Adam II has been displaced by Adam I.

To live a decent life, to build up the soul, it's probably necessary to declare that the forces that encourage the Big Me, while necessary and liberating in many ways, have gone too far. We are out of balance. It's probably necessary to have one foot in the world of achievement but another foot in a counterculture that is in tension with the achievement ethos. It's probably necessary to reassert a balance between Adam I and Adam II and to understand that if anything, Adam II is more important than Adam I.

The Humility Code

Each society creates its own moral ecology. A moral ecology is a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands that emerge organically. Our moral ecology encourages us to be a certain sort of person. When you behave consistently with your society's moral ecology, people smile at you, and you are encouraged to continue acting in that way. The moral ecology of a given moment is never unanimous; there are always rebels, critics, and outsiders. But each moral climate is a collective response to the problems of the moment and it shapes the people who live within it. Over the past several decades we have built a moral ecology around the Big Me, around the belief in a golden figure inside. This has led to a rise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement. This has encouraged us to focus on the external Adam I side of our natures and ignore the inner world of Adam II. To restore the balance, to rediscover Adam II, to cultivate the eulogy virtues, it's probably necessary to revive and follow what we accidentally left behind: the counter-tradition of moral realism, or what I've been calling the crooked-timber school.

Together these propositions form a Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live. These are the general propositions that form this Humility Code:

  1. We don't live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquillity that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman's struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.

  2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore, we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn't. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.

  3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of an inner victory.

  4. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. Humility is awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness. Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.

  5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.

  6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success. This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd. It is possible to fight this battle well or badly, humorlessly or with cheerful spirit. Contending with weakness often means choosing what parts of yourself to develop and what parts not to develop. The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to "win," because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. It doesn't matter if you work at a hedge fund or a charity serving the poor. There are heroes and schmucks in both worlds. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in this struggle.

  7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions. If you make selfish, cruel, or disorganized choices, then you are slowly turning this core thing inside yourself into something that is degraded, inconstant, or fragmented. You can do harm to this core thing with nothing more than ignoble thoughts, even if you are not harming anyone else. You can elevate this core thing with an act of restraint nobody sees. If you don't develop a coherent character in this way, life will fall to pieces sooner or later. You will become a slave to your passions. But if you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.

  8. The things that lead us astray are short term--lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term--courage, honesty, humility. People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin. People with character also have scope. They are not infinitely flexible, free-floating, and solitary. They are anchored by permanent attachments to important things. In the realm of the intellect, they have a set of permanent convictions about fundamental truths. In the realm of emotion, they are enmeshed in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, they have a permanent commitment to tasks that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.

  9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside--from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars. If you are to prosper in the confrontation with yourself, you have to put yourself in a state of affection. You have to draw on something outside yourself to cope with the forces inside yourself. You have to draw from a cultural tradition that educates the heart, that encourages certain values, that teaches us what to feel in certain circumstances. We wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs, and the boundaries between us are indistinct.

  10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course--either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don't flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don't have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.

  11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self can you be open to the external sources of strengths you will need. Only by stilling the sensitive ego can you react with equipoise to the ups and downs of the campaign. The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement--reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing--and a capacity for reverence and admiration.

  12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We are generally not capable of understanding the complex web of causes that drive events. We are not even capable of grasping the unconscious depths of our own minds. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts. But over the centuries, our ancestors built up a general bank of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices. The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness. She is the grateful inheritor of the tacit wisdom of her kind, the grammar of conduct and the store of untaught feelings that are ready for use in case of emergency, that offer practical tips on how to behave in different situations, and that encourage habits that cohere into virtues. The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.

  13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you'll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you'll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you'll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

  14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. He realizes that he, like the people he leads, is likely to be sometimes selfish, narrow-minded, and self-deceiving. Therefore he prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden. He understands that public life is a contest between partial truths and legitimate contesting interests. The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals. He seeks to be a trimmer, to shift weight one way or another as circumstances change, in order to keep the boat moving steadily forward on an even keel. He understands that in politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones. Therefore the wise leader is a steward for his organization and tries to pass it along in slightly better condition than he found it.

  15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. Maturity is not based on talent or any of the mental or physical gifts that help you ace an IQ test or run fast or move gracefully. It is not comparative. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. Maturity does not glitter. It is not built on the traits that make people celebrities. A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed. The mature person can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions from admirers or detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right. That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses.