According to The Atlantic, David Brooks, New York Times columnist and deep philosophical guru, is propounding his interpretation of the wisdom of the ages to attack those focused on achievement instead of finding their “inner depth.” Brooks asserts society should find “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.”
Oh. Sorry about that. We’ll try not to be so happy.
Brooks, according to The Atlantic, thinks Americans are too centered on power, money, and professional achievements, focusing on “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.”
Brooks spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, and used a March op-ed he wrote for the Times to launch into his plan for the human race. He had written:
We have two systems inside, one on top of the other. Deep in the core of our being there are the unconscious natural processes built in by evolution. These deep, unconscious processes propel us to procreate or strut or think in certain ways, often impulsively. Then, at the top, we have our conscious, rational processes. This top layer does its best to exercise some restraint and executive function.
Yup. Procreating is simply an expression of our primal nature and is drawn from the same deep wellspring as strutting, not from a desire to have a child whom we can nurture because of the altruistic side of the human being. But let Brooks continue:
Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality. Yet in conversation when we say someone is deep, that they have a deep mind or a deep heart, we don’t mean that they are animalistic or impulsive. We mean the opposite. When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent. A person of deep character has certain qualities: in the realm of intellect, she has permanent convictions about fundamental things; in the realm of emotions, she has a web of unconditional loves; in the realm of action, she has permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.
Of course, when Brooks illuminates us with the idea that a deep person has permanent convictions about fundamental things, that sheds about as much light as a tent. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all had permanent convictions, too. Web of unconditional loves? For what? Permanent commitments to transcendent projects? Just which projects is he referring to?
Oh, but there’s more:
So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering.
Yup. Dump that happiness idea.
People make commitments — to a nation, faith, calling or loved ones — and endure the sacrifices those commitments demand. Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions.
Anyone get the feeling that Brooks is channeling Obama here, asking the citizenry to ignore their desire for personal happiness and sign up in the Army for Hope and Change?
At Aspen, Brooks quoted the protean Jewish rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik, who iterated that the two Adams in the two accounts of Creation in the Bible were representative of the builder and creator, “Adam I,” as opposed to the spiritual entity, “Adam II.”
Brooks pontificated, “We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I. We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers. Some days we want to be externally successful, some days we want to be internally good. The question is whether your life is in balance.”
Brooks said there are five qualities that cause us to become deeper people: love, suffering, internal struggle, obedience, and acceptance. “It could be love for a cause; usually it’s love for a person; it could be love for God,” he said. He argued that love reminds us that “we’re not in control of ourselves,” and also “de-centers the self… a person in love finds the center of himself is outside himself… [love] complicates the distinction between giving and receiving, because two selves are so intermingled in love that the person giving is giving to him or herself.”
He explicated his view of suffering this way: “When people look forward, when they plan their lives, they say, ‘How can I plan… [to] make me happy?’ But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.”
Struggle? “Here, I don’t mean the struggle involved in winning a championship, starting a company, or making a lot of money… [deep people are] aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.”
Brooks championed obedience, saying, “If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves.”
Finally, he spoke of acceptance. He stated that it is “unmerited, unearned admittance”–belonging to “some sort of human transcendent community.”
Arthur Brooks, no relation to David, who is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a famous book in 2003 entitled Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America–and How We Can Get More of It. Instead of criticizing the desire for happiness, as David Brooks does, Arthur Brooks championed it. For example, he argued that child rearing, unlike David Brooks’ assertion of being the result of a primal instinct, gave “meaning” and happiness to life and likened it to Aristotle’s concept called eudaimonia.
Aristotle posited that eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness, was not only virtuous activity but was also dependent on other factors, such as the necessary supply of goods to ensure that the virtuous activity could be sustained. This is the reason David Brooks falls short; often the ambitious drive people have for success is not an end in itself but a means to enable the desires of the spirit to come to fruition. By stifling the drive to succeed and belittling the happiness that can be engendered by such ambition, he embraces a navel-gazing culture that all too often is susceptible to the need for a charismatic leader, rather than the drive for independence that is central to the American spirit.