Book Review of “The Second Mountain” by David Brooks

Written by Nick Licata


 

David Brooks is a thoughtful conservative commentator, a best-selling author, TV commentator, and New York Times syndicated columnist. He worked for conservative William Buckley’s National Review and was at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution. Still, he praised President Barack Obama at times and was so outraged by candidate Donald Trump’s version of conservatism that he supported Hillary Clinton and even wrote a “No, Not Trump, Not Ever” op-ed. In sum, he is not a dogmatist.
His newest book “The Second Mountain – The quest for a Moral Life”, rejects the dogma of individualism and replaces it with communalism. A rather ironic turn in his life, given that his first best seller, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, praised consumerism. He also admits that his most recent book, The Road to Character, was written while “I was still enclosed in the prison of individualism.”  His beliefs have changed, no longer believing that, “character building is an individual task; I now think good character is a by-product of giving yourself away.”
Securing visible and personal success is reaching the summit of what he calls the first mountain in life: achieving happiness. But more importantly, one must climb the second mountain and experience joy through embracing a commitment to something greater than oneself. Put simply by Brooks, the first “is about building up the ego and defining the self” and the second “is about shedding the ego.”
While Brooks is an agile commentator on our country’s political culture, as a theorist constructing a new theory for guiding our society’s future, he falls short. He shows little effort to show how a society can reach that second summit. Which is disappointing, given that Brooks initially promises that the book’s two purposes are to move people and societies from the first mountain to second one.
Instead, his attention is largely devoted to personal development. For example, two of the book’s five chapters are devoted to finding a meaningful vocation and maintaining a successful marriage. They don’t break new ground, but they provide compelling stories of people who have successfully changed vocations to better serve the greater community or how couples can achieve a long-lasting satisfying marriage. His own 27-year marriage ended in divorce about the time he began writing this book.
He laments that he went through a hard time, writing “life put me in a valley” and was lonely and humiliated. But there is no mention if there was any healing afterward or how it squared with his maxim in the chapter on the Maximum Marriage, where he says, “Marriage is the sort of thing where it is safer to go all in….”
The book’s much bigger gap is ignoring how committing to something bigger than one’s self, which according to him is the source of joy in reaching the second mountain’s summit. However, it may also lead to a very immoral result. Brooks’ romanticizes the feeling of being seized by a daemon, that is an obsession, a source of energy of doing a certain activity, such as “helping a sick person out of bed” or “offering hospitality at a hotel.” But what about those who are obsessed to do what they see as good things but result in harm? For instance, CNN reported how those who oppose vaccinating children posted Facebook messages to a mother who lost her son due to the flu saying, “You’re a terrible mother.” “You killed your child” because he had been vaccinated. The anti-vaxers are obsessed with stopping children from being vaccinated, something that Brooks would not likely have in mind.
Brooks’ narrow guidance in achieving joy becomes evident in the chapter Philosophy and Faith, a reflection on his life-long balancing act between Judaism and Christianity. He ignores the role of Islam, the world’s second largest religion, as another religion significantly influencing our societies.
While he has written about the dangers from leftist and rightist extreme views, his book overlooks the unintended consequences of achieving the second mountain’s summit based on passion and obsession, which has led to the extremism we are experiencing today from terrorists who sacrifice their lives for destructive purposes.