Arts & Culture | Reviews

Scaling the Big Me

Review of "The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life" by David Brooks

Do you dismiss as a hypocrite a public intellectual who divorced his wife of 27 years and married his much younger research assistant while writing a book called The Road to Character? Or do you buy his next book to see what he has learned through such public scandal, assuming a person is more than their worst moral failure?

I bought that next book because I’ve followed Brooks for many years and it was rumoured he had also converted to Christianity of late. It also provocatively states: “I have become radicalized. I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe.”

The book (his “best to date” says The Guardian) brilliantly conveys a narrative about all our lives as we climb the mountain of identity and ambition and then realize, sooner or later, that there is much more to life than our individual advancement. Through insight or crisis we see that the good life invites us to make lasting moral commitments to places, people and causes that are much larger than our own personal fulfilment, and that the moral joy of such commitments is an even better pursuit than focusing on our own character development.

That blessed ambition is the second mountain and the thesis of the book and is amply illustrated by inspiring stories – mostly about and from the United States. The bulk of the book investigates life’s four basic commitments in detailed self-help style, and how they can re-weave the social fabric: vocation, marriage, philosophy/faith, and community. The book ends with “The Relationalist Manifesto.”

But don’t be misled. The longest chapter by a long shot is chapter 21: “A Most Unexpected Turn of Events” in which Brooks narrates his marriage’s demise (which he attributes to his first mountain workaholism) and his second marriage to Anne Snyder, who is now editor of Comment magazine (succeeding James KA Smith). We find out there was a good three years of lonely apartment dwelling between his divorce and his romance with Snyder, and that his embrace of Christianity is more of a development in a lifelong inner dialogue between Christianity and his Jewish heritage.

This sprawling chapter focuses quite transparently on his on-going inner transformation as a religious “amphibian” or “border stalker.” He summarizes his spiritual journey this way: “Religion is hope. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” For a book about the value of commitments, the following statement sounds odd, but also deeply vulnerable: “Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The simple, brutally honest answer is, it comes and goes.” 

Brooks is a gifted writer of a different, and now more chastened conservative type. That means cultivating moral communities is still more strategic than big government political schemes. But he has publicly called Trump a “sociopath” and in his five chapters on marriage he makes no reference to gender complementarity. Lay your assumptions aside and see what you make of this many-layered man who lives what he writes – about a journey up a second mountain. For all those looking for a second chance in life – a more meaningful, more spiritual, more joyful attempt, beyond the precarious pitfalls of the Big Me.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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