In his introduction to “The Road to Character” (Random House, 2015), New York Times columnist David Brooks acknowledges his indebtedness to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993). In his 1965 book, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the rabbi develops a distinction between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” As Brooks puts it, “Soloveitchik noted that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and that these represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II.”
The tension between Adam I and Adam II appears and reappears as a leitmotif throughout the 10 chapters of Brooks’ book. The author sees Adam I as a person who embodies what he calls “résumé virtues,” those practical and discernible qualities which an individual lists on a job application: particular talents, a self-confident display of usefulness, the brazenness to push the “Big Me.”
In contrast, Adam II represents the “eulogy virtues,” internal strengths that are not so easy to observe from the outside: quiet qualities of character and morality that slowly develop over the course of a lifetime. Adam II’s profound humility is expressed in a willingness to suppress the needs and desires of the self for the sake of the larger community.
Brooks writes, “While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world …. While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for …. While Adam I’s motto is ‘Success,’ Adam II experiences life as a moral dance.”
The virtues of Adam I and Adam II are not mutually exclusive; we need both. Most of us need to develop the résumé virtues of Adam I in order to become gainfully employed. As one of my high school English teachers used to say, “‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ but bread helps.” That is to say, we need to earn a living well before we need to earn a favorable eulogy.
Though he is concerned about our society’s excessive emphasis on Adam I, Brooks admits that the cultural shift in the 1950s and 1960s favoring such Adam I virtues as pride and self-esteem “had many positive effects; it helped correct some deep social injustices. Up until those years, many social groups, notably women, minorities, and the poor, had received messages of inferiority and humiliation …. The culture of self-esteem encouraged members of these oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.”
Brooks explores this tug of war between the values of Adam I and Adam II in eight chapters that offer succinct and penetrating biographies of eight men and women, all of whom, though deeply flawed, overcame early adversity, conquered their demons – or at least tamed them – and made major contributions to the larger world. By the end of their lives, each of these individuals had achieved a better balance between the values of Adam I and those of Adam II. However, it was the Adam II in each of them that led them out of themselves and into the service of others.
Chapters 2-6 focus on five Americans, all born in the 19th century, who helped strengthen the moral fiber of our country in the 20th century: Frances Perkins (1880-1965), Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor throughout his presidency and the first woman to serve in the president’s Cabinet; Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), hero of World War II and our 34th president; Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a leading figure in the Catholic Worker movement; George Marshall (1880-1959), chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953; A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), a prominent African-American leader of the civil rights movement.
In Chapters 7-9, Brooks moves back in time and crosses the Atlantic to examine how Adam I and Adam II played out in the lives of three other well-known individuals: George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), an English writer especially known for her novels; St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a major figure in the development of Western Christianity; Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), an Englishman of letters who published “A Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755.
With his characteristic cautious moderation, Brooks writes near the very end of “The Road to Character” that we do not need to replace the values of Adam I with the values of Adam II; rather, our task is to bring the résumé virtues of Adam I and the eulogy virtues of Adam II into healthier balance.
“It is probably necessary to have one foot in the world of achievement but another foot in a counterculture that is in tension with the achievement ethos. It’s probably necessary to reassert a balance between Adam I and Adam II and to understand that if anything, Adam II is more important than Adam I.”
It seems to me more than a little ironic that David Brooks, once identified as a conservative voice on the New York Times op-ed page, is now seen by many members of the Republican Party as subverting their cause precisely because he insists on moderation and balance.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.