The Road to Character

David Brooks discusses moral longing and "The Road to Character" 

The renowned writer/political analyst embodied “the essence of a Saint John’s education” in his lecture with a focus on ethics and morality.
“I have achieved more career success than I ever thought I would….but I don’t have that inner light” that so many great people epitomize. With his characteristically funny and sharp demeanor, bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks dove in to his deeply reflective journey into how one lives a fulfilling moral life when he took the stage as the Abdella Center for Ethics’ thirteenth lecturer.

David Brooks is a bi-weekly Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and a regular analyst on PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered. He has served as the senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and has been a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for nine years in a range of positions, including op-ed editor.

Mr. Brooks described spiritual growth he has experienced in recent years on his path to penning The Road to Character, which he described as catalyzed by those small moments of bliss that “open up a spiritual longing.” He is inspired by the special individuals who radiate that inner light – people he has met like the Dalai Lama, and individuals like Dorothy Day and Dwight Eisenhower who appear in The Road to Character.

Mr. Brooks remarked that people make four commitments in life: to loved ones, to professional calling, to faith, and to community. In modern society, we too often focus our efforts on what he calls “resume virtues” (measurable accomplishments and accolades) instead of “eulogy virtues” – the things for which we will be remembered.

“We live in a culture where we know eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend more time on the others.” Mr. Brooks discussed the kind of inverted logic that drives the morally developed people he has met, which is found in the idea of finding oneself by losing oneself, or discovering success and happiness through failure. He sees an extreme individualism in our culture that leads to the over-valuing of personal achievement.

Mr. Brooks highlighted the value of schools like Saint John’s that focus on the development of the head and the heart, and was encouraged by the moral tradition and commitment to works of service and reflection that are manifest in the Saint John’s experience.

Several students - Freshman Haroon Khan, Sophomore Jack O’Leary, Juniors Sai Patel and Patrick Duffy, and Senior Brian O’Sullivan - had the opportunity to ask questions of Mr. Brooks during the program, which ranged from how we can reconcile his notion of gaining trust in the age of social media and instant gratification, and how Mr. Brooks would describe the “character” on display in the current U.S. presidential election. 
Mr. Brooks' talk merged well with the mission of the Abdella Center, which works “to encourage, promote and create a meaningful dialogue that appreciates the importance of individual ethical values in society, and provide a forum for the discussion, education and debate of ethical, philosophical and religious values in advancing social justice.”

Judge Charles Abdella, from the class of 1960, who has typically avoided the spotlight of the stage, expressed his sincere appreciation to the individuals who have dedicated themselves to this program, including Headmaster Michael Welch ’78, who will complete his 15 years of service at Saint John’s this summer. Judge Abdella is grateful for Mr. Welch for the stewardship of the center and the support of his dream that led to the establishment of the Abdella Center. His words led to a standing ovation from the crowd of over 800 guests.

Political & social analyst David Brooks

David Brooks has a gift for bringing audiences face to face with the spirit of our times with humor, insight and quiet passion. He is a keen observer of the American way of life and a savvy analyst of present-day politics and foreign affairs. 

He holds several prestigious positions as a commentator: 
  • Bi-weekly Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times
  • Regular analyst on PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered
David’s newest book, The Road to Character, “explains why selflessness leads to greater success. He tells the story of ten great lives that illustrate how character is developed, and how we can all strive to build rich inner lives, marked by humility and moral depth. In a society that emphasizes success and external achievement, The Road to Character is a book about inner worth.”

His previous book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, uses the story of a fictional American couple to explain the importance of neuroscience and sociology in understanding America’s politics, culture, and future. His other books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive are in a style he calls “comic sociology”—descriptions of how we live and “the water we swim in” that are as witty and entertaining as they are revealing and insightful. Bobos in Paradise was a New York Times bestseller.

David is currently teaching a course at Yale University. He holds honorary degrees from Williams College, New York University, Brandeis University, Occidental College, among others. In 2010, Brooks became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

David Brooks has worked at The Weekly Standard, joining the magazine at its inception and serving as senior editor.

He has been a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for nine years in a range of positions, including op-ed editor.
David Brooks has a gift for bringing audiences face to face with the spirit of our times with humor, insight and quiet passion. He is a keen observer of the American way of life and a penetrating analyst of present-day politics and foreign affairs.
David Brooks - 14th Abdella Center for Ethics Lecture

About the Abdella Center for Ethics

Saint John’s established the Abdella Center for Ethics in 2003 in memory and honor of George F. Abdella with his son, the Hon. Charles A. Abdella ’60. The annual lecture series complements the “whole person” education in Saint John’s academics and extra-curricular activities by exploring the role that ethical questions play in all aspects of modern life.
Saint John’s has made a continuous effort to provide diverse and noteworthy lectures and programs for its students through the Abdella Center for Ethics Lecture Series. Past speakers include former Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine Albright, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Dr. Paul Farmer, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, and Mark Kennedy Shriver. See photos of recent Abdella speakers.

Learn More