“God, make me chaste – but not yet.”
That was Saint Augustine, famously wrestling between his worldly desires and desire for holiness. He’s profiled in David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character.
Brooks’s theme is that a truly good life requires controlling, even sacrificing, personal desires — but it’s an advantageous trade-off. This is what Augustine struggled over. He knew his pursuit of worldly success, pleasures, sex, wasn’t making him happy. But could he change?
Brooks profiles people he feels did resolve the dilemma and hence did live good lives.
George Marshall, for example, a model of soldierly devotion to duty and country. In WWII, Marshall ached to lead the D-Day invasion, and believed he’d earned the prize. But he forbade himself from ever putting personal desires first, and when FDR asked him point blank if he wanted it, Marshall could not utter the word “yes.” So it went to Eisenhower.
Eisenhower too is profiled in the book, along with Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, Frances Perkins, and Samuel Johnson; all certainly admirable characters. Each made sacrifices for the sake of a higher good, exercising self-control over personal impulses which might have entailed transient rewards but which conflicted with larger goals. The key is understanding what is really important, and the strength of will to put that first.
This again was Augustine’s struggle. But, unlike the others profiled, his greater good was not to achieve something in the human realm. While Ike and Marshall served their country, Randolph the cause of equality, Day and Perkins the downtrodden, etc., for Augustine it was God. It was to get right with God that Augustine finally summoned the will to reorder his life.
The others were serving something real; Augustine, something imaginary. So what is the moral lesson there? Brooks’s chapter on Augustine is all theological mumbo-jumbo, convoluted and false; indeed, absurd. You cannot live a truly meaningful life if the whole thing is grounded in delusion. Only when you overcome false ideas about existence, and grapple with the world as it really is, can you live a life of authentic meaning and virtue.
In concluding his chapter on Augustine, Brooks speaks of “faith against pure rationalism.” Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. My rationalism isn’t “pure,” since humans are imperfect. But we must try.
Brooks talks of a broad cultural shift from an ethos of “moral realism,” controlling the self in service to some larger good (a la Marshall) to one of self-actualization, “be all you can be,” or condensed to “the big Me.” And like others who put things in such terms, Brooks is censorious, albeit mildly; he thinks the shift has gone too far, and we’re losing a deeper kind of virtue.
Here’s my take. For most of human history, conditions of life were unforgivingly harsh, such that Brooksian “moral realism” was not just a virtue but a necessity. Of course selfishness and greed always operated too, yet survival required individuals to conform to societal strictures. That’s what has changed. No longer will a little free-spirited self-indulgence throw us back to living in caves. Modern advanced societies have at last mastered the problem of subsistence, freeing us to seek personal fulfillment in whatever ways feel nourishing to us, without having to be George Marshall about it.
Most of us still do try to serve others, and a larger good. But it’s not the only way to live meaningfully. In a utilitarian calculus of increasing the world’s sum total of human happiness, seeing to your own needs and desires is at least equal in importance to worrying about someone else’s. Indeed, you have a special duty to yourself, and you are the one person best positioned to know what’s good for you.
As Garrison Keillor has said, if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others?
In his summing up, Brooks’s point number one is: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” But the explanatory paragraph actually says nothing of God, it’s about moral ambition. If we live for such “holiness,” why so? Ultimately it’s always about personal fulfillment – doing that which makes us feel good. The ascetic starving himself in a cave does it because, on a level most important to him, the suffering makes him feel good about himself. “Happiness” is a suitable word for this concept. It is what everyone lives for.