Samuel Johnson and Montaigne in The Road to Character by David Brooks

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds Michel_de_Montaigne_1

Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne

David Brook’s The Road to Character is a biographical box of chocolates and this chapter, like many of the others has a treat composed of two kinds of sweets.

He begins the chapter with Samuel Johnson with his amazing giftedness and his famously torturous life. Half way through he draws our attention to Michel de Montaigne, someone whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until a couple of weeks ago, nothing citations to him in Charles Taylor, CS Lewis and Brooks himself. In his address to the Redeemer Faith and Work group Brooks noted “I’m really into dualisms” and this comes through most clearly in this chapter.

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. Johnson is a demanding moralist in a sensual, competitive city. He’s trying to fire moral ardor and get ambitious bourgeois people to focus on ultimate truths. Montaigne is a calming presence in a country filled with civil war and religious zealotry. Johnson tried to lift people up to emulate heroes. Montaigne feared that those who try to rise above what is realistically human end up sinking into the subhuman. In search of purity they end up burning people at the stake.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 233-234). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is the way of David Brooks trying to figure out the world. He loves his dualisms so the best way to figure things out is to put two things, both alike and different side by side so that we can compare, contrast, see and learn. This was clear in the chapter on Randolph and Rustin. Now he follows Johnson, who he will finally place above Montaigne.

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.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 222). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The goal for Brooks is to see.

That wrestling was undertaken on behalf of an unblinking honesty. The Victorian writer John Ruskin wrote, “The more I think of it I find this conclusion more impressed upon me— that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 239). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Again, for me the chapter was a delight. Two brief but well told biographies with some scattered bits of wisdom trying to grapple with a larger whole and a quest towards greatness.

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.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 234). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A Road to Follow?

So now we’ve reached the end of our cast of characters. We would not wish to duplicate the tortured circumstance of Samuel Johnson nor could we is towering intellect. We may well wish to receive Montaigne’s aristocratic condition but those days have passed as well. These two essayists do indeed help us to see, but do they help us to do? Since the Augustine chapter we might still wonder what the value of doing is anyway?

Once again in this chapter I was struck by our view of them from the secular box. We see these men as products of their time and circumstance. We understand the world better by seeing different times but can this seeing be spun into golden wisdom?

The introduction raised this expectation.

The subjects of the portraits that follow in chapters 2 through 10 are a diverse set, white and black, male and female, religious and secular, literary and nonliterary. None of them is even close to perfect. But they practiced a mode of living that is less common now. They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses. They waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect. And when we think of them, it is not primarily what they accomplished that we remember— great though that may have been— it is who they were. I’m hoping their examples will fire this fearful longing we all have to be better, to follow their course. In the final chapter I wrap these themes up. I describe how our culture has made it harder to be good, and I summarize this “crooked timber” approach to life in a series of specific points. If you’re impatient for the condensed message of this book, skip to the end.

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

So Stay Tuned…

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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