David Brooks: Adam I and Adam II

Road to Character

On this side of Christ’s complete reconciliation of the universe to himself — the new heaven and new earth at the end of time — our own personal lives are in irreconcilable tension.  We are “Adam I” and “Adam II.”  We straddle the pursuit of our gifts and calling, our “resume virtues” and our “eulogy virtues.”  Who is Adam I and Adam II?

“Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature.  Adam I is the external, resume Adam.  Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things.  He wants to have high status and win victories.  Adam II want to embody certain moral qualities.  Adam II want to have a serene inner character, a quite but solid sense of right and wrong — not only to do good, but to be good.  Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.

While Adam I want to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.  While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose.  While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II ask why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for.  While Adam I want to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to his roots and savor the warmth of a family meal.  While Adam I’s motto is ‘success,’ Adam II experiences life as a moral drama.  His motto is ‘Charity, love, and redemption'” (pp. xi, xii).

“Adam I — the creating, building, and discovering Adam — lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic.  It’s the logic of economics.  Input leads to output.  Effort leads to reward.  Practice makes perfect.  Pursue self-interest.  Maximize your utility.  Impress the world.

Adam II lives by an inverse logic.  It’s a moral logic, not an economic one.  You have to give to receive.  You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.  You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave.  Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride.  Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.  In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself.  In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

To nurture you Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths.  To nurture you Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses” (p. xii).

“We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I, the external Adam, and neglects Adam II.  We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.  The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming.  The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions.  The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths.  We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character” (p. xiiii).

“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” (p. 15).

“Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life.  The assumption…is that when you are figuring out how to lead your life, the most important answers are found deep inside yourself….You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life?  What do I want from life?  What are the things that I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?”  By this way of thinking life can be organized like a business plan….But [she who was called] found her purpose in life using a different method….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, the our found outside.  This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the 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 by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems or 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?” (pp. 21, 22).

“Few people are put in circumstances that horrific and extreme [as Viktor Frankl in concentration camps during WWII], but all of us are given gifts, aptitudes, capacities, talents, and traits that we did not strictly earn  And all of us are put in circumstances that call out for action, whether they involve poverty, suffering, the needs of a family, or the opportunity to communicate some message.  These circumstances give us the great chance to justify our gifts” (p. 24).

“A vocation is not a career.  A person choosing  a career look for job opportunities and room for advancement.  A person choosing a career is looking for something that will provide financial and psychological benefits.  if your job or career isn’t working for you, you choose another one.  A person does not choose a vocation.  A vocation is a calling.  People generally feel they have no choice in the matter.  Their life would be unrecognizable unless they pursued this line of activity” (p. 24).

“A person with a vocation is not devoted to civil rights, or curing a disease, or writing a great novel, or running a humane company because it meets some cost-benefit analysis.  Such people submit to their vocations for reasons deeper and higher than utility and they cling to them all the more fiercely the more difficulties arise” (p. 25).

“She [Frances Perkins]…reflected on a distinction that had once seemed unimportant to her.  When a person give a poor man shoes, does he do it for the poor man or for God?  He should do it for God, she decided.  The poor will often be ungrateful, and you will lose heart if you rely on immediate emotional rewards for your work.  But if you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged.  A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement.  The job doesn’t have to pay off every month, or every year.  The person thus called is performing a task because it is intrinsically good, not for what it produces” (p. 44).

“The essential drama in 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” (p. 53).

“Knowledge is not enough for tranquility and goodness, because it doesn’t contain the motivation to be good.  Only love compels 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” (p. 211).

Education is a process of love formation.  When you go to school, it should offer you new things to love” (p. 211).

“He [Augustine] started with the belief that he could control his own life.  He had to renounce that, to sink down into a posture of openness and surrender.  Then, after that retreat, he was open enough to receive grace, to feel gratitude and rise upward.  This is life with an advance-retreat-advance shape.  Life, death, and resurrection.  Moving down to dependence to gain immeasurable height” (p. 211).

Road to Character (“The Humility Code”)

  1. “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness” (p. 262)
  2. However we have an “innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence.” We tend to see ourselves as “the center of the universe” (p. 262).
  3. Even though we are flawed, we are “splendidly endowed.” We do sin, but we “also recognize our capacity for sin” (p. 262).
  4. Humility – having an accurate assessment of our own nature and our place in the cosmos – is our “greatest virtue” (pp. 262, 263).
  5. Thus “pride is the central vice” because “it blinds us into thinking we are better than we are” – our abilities and moral weaknesses (p. 263).
  6. “The struggle again sin and for virtue is the central drama in life” (p. 263).
  7. Character is the result of “inner confrontation.” It is “a set of dispositions, desires, and habits” that are slowly developed through a “thousand small acts of self-control” (pp. 263, 264).
  8. What leads us astray are short term things: “lust, fear, vanity, gluttony.” The dimensions of character, in contrast, are long-term in nature: courage, honesty, humility” (p. 264).
  9. No one can achieve mastery of the virtues alone (p. 264).
  10. “We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape….The shape is advance-retreat-advance” (p. 265).
  11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self” (p. 265).
  12. Wisdom begins with knowing our limitations (p. 265).
  13. The good life is not possible “unless it is organized around a vocation….Vocation is found by looking without and asking what life is asking us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?” (p. 266).
  14. “The goal of leadership is to find a just balance between competing values and competing goals” (p.266).
  15. “The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature….A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose” (p. 267).

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