The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
by David Brooks.
Random House, 2019.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $28.
Reviewed by Paul Brian
David Brooks has a new book full of old ideas—and a lot of self-righteous platitudes thrown in for good measure. The Second Mountain is all about moving beyond self-interest and learning to care for others. It hinges on a metaphor of two mountains: the first which is about “building up the ego,” “defining the self,” and “acquisition,” and the second of which is concerned with “shedding the ego,” “losing the self,” and “contribution.” Interestingly, Brooks then goes on to spend almost the entire book defining himself and his beliefs.
The world is in a “transition moment” between individualism and “relationalism” according to Brooks. We can either run back to tribalism and ensuing wars that will “make the twentieth [century] look like child’s play,” or we can head for “relationalism” and “spreading out more in commitment to others,” according to the New York Times columnist. Hyperindividualism and collectivism both go too far, as opposed to “relationalism,” which Brooks says “sees each person as a node in a thick and enchanted web of warm commitments.”
Do you feel enchanted yet?
First, what The Second Mountain gets right: it reminds us that modern culture has become pathologically individualistic. Brooks urges a social “renewal” that will heal our “crisis of connection,” arguing correctly that “over the past sixty years we have swung too far toward the self.”
People today are thirsting for a mission, for a reason to live. Brooks observes: “The world tells them to be a good consumer, but they want to be the one consumed—by a moral cause. The world tells them to want independence, but they want interdependence—to be enmeshed in a web of warm relationships.”
People, especially young people, are given what Brooks calls “empty boxes” of individualistic clichés and open-ended freedom with no inherent value.
“Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great, but personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks,” Brooks writes in one of the book’s strongest passages. “It leads to a random busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, ‘all that’s solid melts to air.’ It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in, freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side and fully commit to something.”
Do most “young people” really have such open-ended freedom? After all there are numerous demands from academia to the job market that don’t exactly make everything quite so limitless. But let the rhetoric prevail.
In a particularly heavy-hitting portion of The Second Mountain, Brooks points to the rapidly growing suicide crisis in America. “Since 1999 the U.S. suicide rate has risen by 30 percent,” Brooks observes, adding that “between 2006 and 2016 suicide rates for those between age ten and seventeen rose by 70 percent.”
This jaw-dropping and horrific statistic is made even more alarming when considered in addition to what Brooks terms “the slow-motion suicide” of opioid addiction and the wider trend of deaths of despair, which some theorists such as economist Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case of Princeton believe heralds a coming collapse of the United States.
Brooks writes that today’s politics has become a quasi-religious conflict between “the saved and the damned” increasingly linked with ethnic and moral identity and full of people completely unwilling to compromise in their perceived struggle for “existential survival.”
“We are down in the valley. The rot we see in our politics is caused by a rot in our moral and cultural foundations in the way we relate to each other,” Brooks writes.
Despite the positive aspects of The Second Mountain, nagging negatives remain. For one, the tome is oversaturated with Brooks’s saccharine style—sometimes to the point of overshadowing even his solid points, as, for example, when he writes about how “our society has become a conspiracy against joy.”
Brooks, who terms himself a “Burkean conservative,” cannot seem to write a sentence without oozing droplets of unctuous self-righteousness. Indeed, there are numerous New Age-y pronouncements sprinkled all over The Second Mountain like squirming spiritual sardines:
“Happiness is good, but joy is better.”
“Very often the people who have the most incandescent souls have taken on the heaviest burdens.”
“A life of ease is how you get stuck and confused in life.”
“If you don’t know what your life is for how does it help to be told that your future is limitless?”
“Suffering that is not transformed is transmitted.”
Please tell me: Did Anthony Robbins and Eckhart Tolle just give birth to an adult baby named David Brooks?
Brooks’s argument that the current cultural cynicism around marriage is mistaken is well taken, but it is hard to divorce his grand moralistic statements from his own actual divorce from his wife Sarah and later remarriage to his much-younger research assistant Anne Snyder. The book is conspicuously missing any passage about asking your first spouse for forgiveness while you explore that transcendent “second mountain.” Sometimes when Brooks goes on about how marriage is “a moral promise to hold fast through thick and thin” it becomes hard to ignore how he leaves out almost any details of his first marriage.
Brooks married his first wife Sarah in 1986. He finalized his divorce with her in 2014 and married his younger, Christian assistant Anne Snyder in 2017. Even though “there had been nothing wrong or romantic” during her time working previously for him as a researcher, Brooks writes how he can see how the public might interpret it differently.
Brooks goes on to praise the life path of Leo Tolstoy as a man who ascended the second mountain, conveniently omitting to describe Tolstoy’s immensely harmful abandonment of his wife and children in order to go live the simplified, purer life he dreamed about.
Brooks, born in Toronto, Canada, talks about his “fantastically happy childhood” in New York and Philadelphia, and his later formative experiences at the University of Chicago in living life “more fully” than ordinary people because of his identity as a scholar in the academy’s “eternal procession.” In perhaps a contender for Most Pretentious Statement of the Century, Brooks writes that: “Once you’ve had a glimpse of the highest peaks of the human experience it’s hard to live permanently in the flatlands down below. It’s a little hard to be shallow later in life, no matter how inclined in that direction you might be.”
Elsewhere, Brooks writes about how much of our thinking is not about truth-seeking but is about winning “social approval and admittance into the right social circles.”
This is tellingly true. Does Brooks not see how this could be applied to him? When he’s not busy writing columns on the wonderfulness of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and extolling the supposed accomplishments of Gloria Steinem, Brooks is busy explaining how both sides should get along by conservatives conforming to liberal sensibilities. Is this not all done in order to appeal to upper-income liberal readers who want to experience warmed-over progressive bromides disguised as some kind of vaguely moderate, “reasonable” conservatism? Is Brooks not the epitome of the approval-seeking creature he derides?
Indeed, when Brooks writes that, “Gloria Steinem found herself living under the weight of a male-dominated society” it is hard not to retch. This is particularly so given that Brooks puts Steinem directly next to descriptions of genuinely inspiring historical figures like Etty Hillesum and Viktor Frankl. In fact, it’s a disgrace and typifies the kind of fake both sides-ism “reasonable conservative” mantle of public recognition that Brooks covets.
Brooks writes of his Jewish ancestors fleeing from the Cossacks and the horrors of the pogroms in Ukraine, but fails to see how extensively paralleling their dramatic exodus to physical freedom with his own life path from selfish oaf to enlightened man of God is more than a little pretentious and even potentially offensive.
“We didn’t make that exodus with our feet in my generation, but with our wits … The culture of immigrant Jews instilled a burning hunger to make it. The hunger, once implanted, stays as you age, but the food it seeks changes. Success is no longer enough,” Brooks writes.
Well, excuse me.
Undoubtedly the most compelling parts of The Second Mountain come when Brooks talks about his religious journey. The Jewish values of his childhood were about dedication to “co-create the world” and “finish what God has begun” through “works and good deeds,” but Brooks basically says he came to need more than that.
The dramatic reveal in The Second Mountain is that Brooks now considers himself kind of Christian. Brooks writes about Christians he knew growing up, such as a selfless camp counsellor who, combined with meeting his current wife, led him to understanding Christianity in a new and more meaningful way. Raised among Jews who sometimes went to church as a kind of attempt to be more accepted in Anglophone culture, Brooks experienced both traditions growing up: “I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian …”
Although he writes that religion doesn’t necessarily produce more virtuous people, Brooks remarks that he has found worth in the “visions of goodness” offered by faith; he praises the vision of “earthy goodness” and kindness to the community offered by Judaism and the “simple, sincere, cheerful, pure, overflowing joy” of the true Christian approach to life.
“Did I leave Judaism and become a Christian? When I’m at Jewish events, as I often am, my heart swells and I feel at home … On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew. The beatitudes are the moral sublime, the source of awe, the moral purity that takes your breath away and toward which everything points. In the Beatitudes we see the ultimate road map for our lives. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian …” Brooks writes in one of the book’s most compelling passages.
Brooks says he lives his life like a “border stalker.” “Politically, I am not quite left and not quite right. Professionally, I am not quite an academic and not quite a journalist. Temperamentally, I am not quite a rationalist but not quite a romantic …”
“Somebody should scream at me: ‘make up your damn mind about something!’” Brooks writes. Bullseye. Nonetheless, those of us prone to dance around firm labels like Brooks can’t help but sympathize with his quandary.
Brooks’s piercing moments of religious revelation came with what he calls seeing the soul in everyone. In a compelling epiphany calling to mind Daniel Quinn’s animist vision at a Trappist monastery in Ishmael, Brooks talks about seeing how everyone was a part of a greater spiritual reality and had infinite depth and meaning, stretching back to their ancestors, whose souls still influence and surround us. “This underlying, animating spirit is still, and always, omnipresent. And, if there are souls, it’s a short leap to the belief that there is something that breathed souls into us through an act of care and love.”
At one point in The Second Mountain Brooks writes about worrying his newfound openness to Christianity and religiosity will cost him friendships, career opportunities, and respect. Nowhere does he point to any such actual consequences. In fact, so far as I’m aware he’s still a leading columnist at the Times and The Second Mountain is selling quite well.
In various ways, The Second Mountain is a thematic rip-off of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. In Merton’s book the author gives up worldly pursuits and enters monastic life; here, the author gets to enjoy the best of Judaism and Christianity and the company of an inspiring young wife while remaining a “border stalker” who can enjoy the best of all worlds. We get to hear about his deep inner journey too, because we all know that nobody goes through profound inner change or meets remarkable people without exhaustively documenting it as some kind of centrist Deepak Chopra.
Brooks admits The Second Mountain is in some ways an update to his last work, The Road to Character, and that he’s more like a “middleman” passing on “other people’s knowledge.” His self-deprecating humor is fine, but to be brutally frank, if your book is primarily a compendium of the insights and realizations of others, why should anyone buy it?
I don’t believe Brooks is being insincere or trivially attention-seeking in The Second Mountain—beyond what appears to be his innate nature—but there’s something rather cloying about the whole endeavor. Brooks’s marriage and life is his own business, but his grand moral pronouncements become verbose and repetitive. His personal religious journey is touching and he deserves credit for sharing it with the world, as well as for his personal involvement in community-building through his Weave: Social Fabric initiative via the Aspen Institute, but Brooks verges too far into preachiness and self-righteousness in this volume.
Despite some valuable insights we must ask whether a book like this would be notable (or get reviewed) were it not written by a man who already has significant name recognition. The answer, obviously, is no. Not only is The Second Mountain largely derivative drivel, its observations on the need for social cohesion have already been covered more skillfully by such other writers as Robert Putnam and Sebastian Junger.
This book is like a sitcom that can’t stop throwing laugh tracks at the audience. It screams, “Look at me, I’m profound and deep!” Yes—yes, you are—good job! Brooks spills too much ink trying to prove he’s thought and felt deeply. We get it, man, you’re a deep thinker! If he could, Brooks would stick a bright, neon-green sticker on each copy of this book that reads: “Warning: High Levels of Profundity; May Cause Inner Spiritual Development.” More aptly the sticker should announce: “Warning: Recycled Pablum. Read the Bible or Dante Instead.”