David Brooks discusses moral longing & "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.

Mr. Brooks was the 13th featured speaker at the Abdella Center for Ethics, which was founded in 2003 by Hon. Charles Abdella. Other speakers of note include former Secretary of State Madeline AlbrightMark Kennedy Shriver, Elie Wiesel, and former U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone.

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. 

Learn more about the Abdella Center for Ethics and its outstanding speakers.

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