by Celia Coates
A man who is searching for wisdom about being good gave me a printout of one of David Brooks’ opinion pieces that he’d found useful. Brooks had written about the “Five Lies Our Culture Tells” in THE NEW YORK TIMES and here’s his list:
* “Career success is fulfilling. … if you make it, life will be good.”
* “I can make myself happy.”
* “Life is an individual journey.”
* “You have to find your own truth.”
* “Rich and successful people are worth more….”
Although I’d bought Brooks’ THE ROAD TO CHARACTER a few years ago, I found it too heavy to finish but, now, the idea of these five lies intrigued me. The printout said his new book, THE SECOND MOUNTAIN, was about to be published so I went straight to Barnes and Noble to order a copy. (I like buying books the old-fashioned way.) There I was told it had already become a best seller. I left the store with Brooks’ book under my arm even though I had hesitated at the subtitle, “The Quest for a Moral Life.” I’m much more interested in enlightened lives and believe that what we really need is to gain knowledge about the multiple dimensions of reality and the true nature of being human. We need to have an understanding about what life is before we can know much about how to live it.
After a few pages Brooks began discussing moral ecology, a term I’d never heard before, and I found his ideas compelling. Unable to put the book down, I’d taken it with me when I went to lunch with a friend. I joined her on the terrace of a Panera restaurant, set the book on the table and turned to go inside and get a salad. A man at a near-by table stopped me and asked, “What do you think of that book?” I was still so full of delight with what I’d read that I answered, “It’s brilliant, useful, and readable!” No one at a Panera had ever asked before about what I was reading. Then, a few minutes later while my friend and I sat at the table talking together, a man walked by, glanced at the book and asked – “Are you reading that book?” Two men had asked about THE SECOND MOUNTAIN! No wonder it’s a best seller.
Here’s some of Brooks’ take on moral ecology,
“We all grew up in one moral ecology or another. We all create microcultures around us by the way we lead our lives and the vibes we send out to those around us.”
“Some moral ecologies are local, in a home or office, but some are vast and define whole eras and civilizations. … Moral ecologies subtly guide how you dress, how you talk, what you admire and disdain, and how you define your ultimate purpose.”
“Moral ecologies are collective responses to the big problems of a specific moment. For example, around the middle third of the twentieth century, people in the Northern Hemisphere faced a great depression and a cataclysmic world war. Big problems required big institutional responses. People joined armies, formed unions, worked at big companies. They bonded tightly together as warring nations. Therefore a culture developed that emphasized doing your duty, fitting into institutions, conforming to the group, deferring to authority, not trying to stick out or get too big for your britches. This group-oriented moral ecology could be summed up by the phrase “We’re All in This Together.”
It was a moral ecology that had many strengths but, ultimately, Brooks writes,
“People felt imprisoned by the pressure of group conformity and tortured by the intolerant tyranny of local opinion. Many played out their assigned social roles, but they were dead inside.”
Now we have gone to the other extreme.
“Over the past sixty years we have swung too far toward the self, the only way out is to rebalance, to build a culture that steers people toward relation, community, and commitment – the things we most deeply yearn for, yet undermine with our hyper-individualistic way of life.”
These forces and flows are active around the world, but at this time America has reached an extreme of both materialism and individualism. The man at the top of the political pile right now is proud of not being a good man. He is distinctly pleased with being seen as a rich celebrity who plays only by his own rules for his own gain. Brooks says now the time of “I’m Free To Be Myself” is coming to an end and I can understand why people who were raised in the moral ecology of me and greed is good might welcome his book about a different, more fulfilling mountain to climb.
Brooks’ discovery of the second mountain came, as it does for most of us, after a time of trouble in his own life.
“When I wrote THE ROAD TO CHARACTER,” I was still enclosed in the prison of individuation.”
He has continued to advance in understanding himself and the world around him, and now to teach others. He writes that there is a,
“…crucial way to see whether you are on your first or second mountain.
Where is your ultimate appeal? To self, or to something outside of self?”
(My own point of view is that although it is a great next step, it’s not enough to look outside the self. We have to look far beyond the self.)
He goes on to say,
“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contributions.”
“I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self – individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization – is a catastrophe. I now think that living a good life requires a much vaster transformation. … The whole cultural paradigm has to shift from the mindset of hyper-individualism to the relational mindset of the second mountain.”
Brooks does recognize joy, a greater good, and the value of mysticism, but it seems to me he has not fully grasped that there are other heights to reach – for each of us and for whole cultures – beyond the two mountains. The next step is about giving up climbing mountains altogether and to explore the heavens beyond them.
I haven’t finished reading his book yet – perhaps he has more to say further along.
* * * * *
THE SECOND MOUNTAIN, The Quest for a Moral Life, by David Brooks, Random House, 2019
If you would like to read the original New York Times printout, go to https://nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/cutural-revolution-meritocracy.html
The image that leads this post is “Glencoe, United Kingdom” by Darrell Gough