Humility—A Eulogy Virtues
Excerpt from the Christian Century
A review of David Brooks
Feb 03, 2016 by Grant Wacker
“Résumé—or Adam I—virtues are the ones we feature in the job market when we tout our skills and showcase our ability to build, produce, create, and discover. They help us claim success by beating out the competition. Résumé virtues are valuable as far as they go. But unrestrained, they perpetuate many of life’s most intractable problems: greed, racism, sexism, violence, perversity, deception, and—worse—self-deception.
In contrast, eulogy—or Adam II—virtues are the ones we hope others will talk about at our funeral. Brooks’s accounting of them is considerably longer, partly because he is more interested in them and partly because they are subtler and require more nuanced descriptions. Definitions are elusive, but a good start would emphasize courtesy, kindness, courage, honesty, loyalty, and self-discipline. Eulogy virtues foster self-criticism, an inner moral gyroscope, a clear sense of identity, an awareness of fallibility, and a willingness to sacrifice for others. These virtues are developed, not discovered. They come slowly and are engraved on the heart, stroke by stroke. They also come indirectly. The action comes first, then the habit.
To be sure, eulogy virtues carry dangers when people take them to extremes. Benevolence, for example, can lead to condescension, principles to dogmatism, serenity to smugness, and reticence to aloofness.
Brooks does not really say what the heart of résumé virtues is, but he leaves no doubt that the heart of eulogy virtues is humility. This might be the most elusive virtue of all because we cannot seek it. Nor can humility be taught; rather, we see it modeled in certain people. Sensing that fulfillment is relational, humble people see themselves as part of a larger story, as a thread in a longer narrative. They know too, with Immanuel Kant, that humanity is “crooked timber.” So humble people try to confront their own moral limitations, squarely and without flinching. At the same time, they grasp that their moral limitations cannot be expunged, but can only be managed. The solution lies in palliatives, not cures.
Most important, humble people understand that the line between virtue and vice runs not between races or genders or nations, but deep within each person. The line is not firmly drawn but blurs as it moves from place to place and from time to time. Humans are dappled souls, seeking the light but never owning it. Reinhold Niebuhr got it right: “Beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself.”
So where is the road to character? Brooks emphasizes that it begins with constant small acts of self-discipline—gestures that keep Adam I in line and give Adam II a chance. And it develops from respect for tradition. Born of centuries of trial and error, tradition helps us see the difference between the transitory and the permanent and between passing happiness and enduring joy.”