David Brooks’ treatment of Augustine in The Road to Character



Of all the figures in Brooks’ biographical box of chocolates Augustine I knew the best. Brooks’ treatment of Augustine as a ladder climbing youth fighting inner turmoil seems postured almost like a Tim Keller sermon for modern New Yorkers. Given the project of Brooks’ book the defects in characterization are forgivable. History is seldom this reducible.

As I mentioned before my habit of working through a dozen books at a time mean that I have also been picking at Henry Chadwick’s short introduction to Augustine. Chadwick highlights Augustine’s journey from Manicheism to Neo-Platonism and Plotinus to Christianity. Brooks telling of the tale certainly makes Augustine’s journey to Christianity more accessible to modern readers for whom the metaphysical wrestlings of ancient philosophy seem foreign indeed. Brooks portrays Augustine as wrestling with the emptiness of sex and success and only finding solace in escaping the grip of his disordered passions.

Augustine found himself feeling increasingly isolated. If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires. Everything is coldly instrumental. Just as a prostitute is rendered into an object for the satisfaction of orgasm, so a professional colleague is rendered into an object for the purpose of career networking, a stranger is rendered into an object for the sake of making a sale, a spouse is turned into an object for the purpose of providing you with love.

We use the word “lust” to refer to sexual desire, but a broader, better meaning is selfish desire. A true lover delights to serve his beloved. But lust is all incoming. The person in lust has a void he needs filled by others. Because he is unwilling to actually serve others and build a full reciprocal relationship, he never fills the emotional emptiness inside. Lust begins with a void and ends with a void.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 192-193). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brooks wants to bring us to Augustine’s conclusions through a tradition that has continued to follow Augustine, Reformed Christianity, although Brooks won’t drop that name. He will however quote Smedes and Keller.

The Ironic Deception of the Willful Pursuit of Self-Improvement

I’m now anxious to read the rest of the book because Brooks’ treatment of Augustine and his tradition of course (as I noted in early posts in this series) reveals the skepticism that this, my own tradition has towards the project of this book. How can you improve yourself when the taking up of such a project undermines your ability to complete it? What if the will to do so destroys your ability to reach its goal?

Augustine hung between worlds. He wanted to live a truthful life. But he wasn’t ready to give up his career, or sex, or some of his worldly pursuits. He wanted to use the old methods to achieve better outcomes. That is to say, he was going to start with the core assumption that had always been the basis for his ambitious meritocratic life: that you are the prime driver of your life. The world is malleable enough to be shaped by you. To lead a better life you just have to work harder, or use more willpower, or make better decisions.

This is more or less how many people try to rearrange their life today. They attack it like a homework assignment or a school project. They step back, they read self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They learn the techniques for greater self-control. They even establish a relationship with God in the same way they would go after a promotion or an advanced degree— by conquest: by reading certain books, attending services regularly, practicing spiritual disciplines such as regular prayer, doing their spiritual homework.

But 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. Your emotions are so changeable and complex you can’t order your emotional life by yourself. Your appetites are so infinite you can never satisfy them on your own. The powers of self-deception are so profound you are rarely fully honest with yourself.

Furthermore, the world is so complex, and fate so uncertain, that you can never really control other people or the environment effectively enough to be master of your own destiny. Reason is not powerful enough to build intellectual systems or models to allow you to accurately understand the world around you or anticipate what is to come. Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires. If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year’s resolutions would work. Diets would work. The bookstores wouldn’t be full of self-help books. You’d need just one and that would do the trick. You’d follow its advice, solve the problems of living, and the rest of the genre would become obsolete. The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.

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.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 198-199). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brooks gives us a nice summary of the paradox. If you try to save your life you’ll lose it. I’m anxious to see if he engages this paradox with the project that his book is. You can tell by this interview with the Washington Post that Augustine has deeply impressed Brooks and although Brooks is keeping his personal journey of faith private Augustine must figure heavily into it.

I was familiar with Augustine, but I had never really read in depth or read about him. I now consider Augustine the smartest human being I’ve ever encountered in any form. His observations about human psychology and memory are astounding, especially given the time. What’s even more amazing is he combines it with emotional storms. He’s at once intellectually unparalleled and emotionally so rich a character. I portray him as sort of an Ivy League grad. He portrays himself in “The Confessions” as this sexual libertine, but he wasn’t really that. He was just an ambitious and successful rhetorician and teacher who found that being a successful rhetorician was too shallow for him. He felt famished inside. I think his confession is a very brave renunciation of ambition.

Agency Again

Brooks’ in the George Eliot chapter introduced his concept of “agency” and he thankfully returns to it here.

This elevation is not only a renunciation of sex— though in Augustine’s case it seemed to involve that. It’s a renunciation of the whole ethos of self-cultivation. 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. He spent the rest of his life as a politically active bishop, engaging in brutal and sometimes vicious public controversies. 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.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 203-204). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Again in the Washington Post piece Brooks wrestles with the concept of agency as he experienced it in Judaism but now tries to figure out how it works in Augustinian Christianity.

He sees finds in Augustine that we are changed by love, but this change is not a self-directed Adam I type of change, it is God changing us through his love for us. It is Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude.

And as people rise up and seek to meet God, their desires slowly change. In prayer, people gradually reform their desires so that more and more they want the things they believe will delight God rather than the things they used to think would delight themselves.

The ultimate conquest of self, in this view, is not won by self-discipline, or an awful battle within self. It is won by going out of self, by establishing a communion with God and by doing the things that feel natural in order to return God’s love.

This is the process that produces an inner transformation. One day you turn around and notice that everything inside has been realigned. The old loves no longer thrill. You love different things and are oriented in different directions. You have become a different sort of person. You didn’t get this way simply by following this or that moral code, or adopting a drill sergeant’s discipline or certain habits. You did it instead because you reordered your loves, and as Augustine says again and again, you become what you love.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 207). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Exclusive Nature of Augustine’s Path

So what is an urbane columnist like Brooks to do with Augustine’s insight and path? Deep without our cultural assumptions of justice we imagine that God MUST arrange our rescue along egalitarian and democratic lines. CS Lewis, as he does so many times, articulates this best.

Then another thing. We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story!

Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 84). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Our assumption demands that God follow the Adam I disposition back to himself. A loving God must surely arrange the universe in this way we suppose.

What we fail to see, as is usual, is ourselves. We who are strong wish for justice to be a perfect meritocracy where God rewards our efforts and achievements while justly punishing our failures and shortcomings. We imagine the Gospel to be a rescue program on a shelf with the rest of the self-help books that we may appropriate and employ to our betterment and self-rescue. Paul, Augustine, Calvin and many others look at this and in a sense say “How unfair would such a thing be. The strong and powerful already have this world, shall God award them the next one too?”

It is the cross of Christ that is the wisdom and justice of God. Read the first few chapter of the book of 1 Corinthians.

As Lewis also points out our assumptions naturally turn God into an impersonal force or a system. Charles Taylor sees how this was an integral step of Deism in the making of our secular world. Look at this quote from Brooks’ chapter on George Eliot.

Cara’s husband, Charles Bray, was a successful ribbon merchant who had written his own religious tract, “The Philosophy of Necessity.” It held that the universe was governed by unchanging rules ordained by God, but that God was not active in the world. It was man’s duty to discover these rules and improve the world along their lines. Bray believed people should spend less time praying and more time involved in social reform.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 157). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Once God is unnecessary the world is up to us to save and so are our souls.

For Augustine and Lewis and many other Christians the reasons Christianity is so exclusive is by virtue of the nature of its claims. While many other paths can do good things for people and the world our fundamental rescue is not self-initiated but comes at us from outside. This makes all other project of secondary importance, or even obstacles in terms of receiving and fully living into the main event which is God’s work towards us in Jesus Christ.


This chapter had the least amount of new material for me but I think it is an important chapter in the book. I’m anxious to see how he integrates this chapter into the larger project.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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1 Response to David Brooks’ treatment of Augustine in The Road to Character

  1. Pingback: Samuel Johnson and Montaigne in The Road to Character by David Brooks | Leadingchurch.com

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