The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
David Brooks, Allen Lane, $39.99
If you've ever thought of forking out money for a life coach, you'd be better off buying one of David Brooks' works of kindly astringency. A few years ago, The Road to Character was a runaway bestseller, somewhat surprising in this genre because it is a book of depth and substance, replete with sophisticated philosophical understanding rather than a few pat cliches. It didn't even have F*** in the title.
The real mystery for David Brooks is why human beings remain enthralled by themselves. Credit:Shutterstock
Instead, it used nuanced biographies of figures such as Dorothy Day, George Eliot and Augustine of Hippo. It beautifully repudiated a culture of self-absorption and turned the tables on a way of seeing the world that is really nothing more than a way of seeing oneself. Brooks knows how to hold an audience. Since time began, he has had a following as a columnist for The New York Times. He has also had a seat at the table of power and left hungry.
That hunger has created The Second Mountain, a kind of sequel to The Road to Character but one that comes from a more mellow and yet urgent place. It is curious that Brooks insists that this book is different. In some ways it is. Brooks has been through a divorce between the two works and, by mutual agreement with his former wife, doesn't let us close to that story. He describes the complexity of re-partnering with a younger work colleague. This means that his advice in this book about the meaning of marriage makes difficult reading. It is tinged with grief but is no less valuable because of that.
The core dilemma of The Second Mountain is similar to The Road to Character. It is the ancient problem of the rampant human ego that wants to be at the centre of its own life. Brooks has the smarts to know that philosophy has been toiling at this question for a wretchedly long time. It is easy to describe the misery created by the self-focused pursuit of happiness. The real mystery is why human beings remain enthralled by themselves. Nobody becomes an adult without discovering that they are basically pretty boring. Having figured that out, they can get on with a real life spent helping others.
In this new book, Brook wants to get us out of our own road. You have to wish him well, trying to succeed on a mission where everyone from Socrates to Jesus has had, at best, mixed luck.
His title acknowledges that most people climb a first mountain early in their lives: career, success, achievement and all that jazz.
The second mountain is far more interesting and often comes later. It is the ascent to meaning and purpose, peaks that are often wrapped in cloud by success. He writes: "The right thing to do when you are in moments of suffering is to stand erect in the suffering. Wait. See what it has to teach you."
In Brooks' description, the second mountain is scaled by ropes made of four commitments: vocation, intimacy, philosophy and faith, and finally community.
All of these involve movement beyond personal freedom: "Political freedom is great. But personal, social and emotional freedom – when it becomes an ultimate end – absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx puts it, all that's solid melts to air. It turns out that freedom isn't an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side – and fully commit to something."
This is hardly the flavour of the month but, in Brooks' handling, it becomes profound. He is at war with so-called "identity capital" and draws on many fine sources to make his case, some of them, such as the novelist Frederic Buechner, unfairly neglected. He rightly takes issue with that excruciatingly silly poem, Invictus by William Ernest Henley, that has become a hollow anthem urging people to be "the master of my fate … the captain of my soul".
Brooks takes significant personal risks in finding a better way of understanding his existence. He is prepared to make sacrifices. It is this journey of both heart and mind that makes The Second Mountain such a great travelogue of the interior life.
Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin's College in Melbourne. He is the author of Books that Saved My Life (Text.)
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