Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality
That is the overall impression left in me after reading David Brooks’ “The Social Animal”.
As usual, David Brooks demonstrated both intimate knowledge and masterful skills of depicting the contemporary American upper-middle class: their upbringing, aspirations, anxieties, strengths and weaknesses. The two main characters, Harold and Erica, grew up from different social backgrounds but ended up on the same economic scale through the familiar route of meritocracy in this country. David Brooks was clearly ambivalent about the morality of meritocracy since the development of such cognitive ability requires not only nature but also and increasingly more nurture by well-educated parents. In other words, the upper-middle class tends to become an inherited affair under meritocracy.
Unlike the socialists of the Marxist tradition, Harold, the main character, does not seek to abolish meritocracy but rather to improve and perfect it. He dreamed about the kind of socialism where government will play the role of upper-middle class parenthood for the children of less fortunate families. However, he must face the political reality that “we are a bipolar nation, a bureaucratic centralized state that presides over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry”. He blamed material individualism for this sad state of our national affairs, “conservative activists embraced the individualism of the market; liberals embraced the individualism of the moral sphere … both sides assumed there was a direct relationship between improving material conditions and solving problems. Both sides neglected matters of character, culture and morality”.
This is what makes David Brooks a center right activist and a beloved figure among the independents and moderate progressives, people who read New York Times, watch PBS news and listen to NPR on their way to work. Many of them care deeply about social justice but feel trapped in the modern technocratic society that recognizes nothing except economic profits and political dominance, often going hands in hands and gaining power as a closed circuit.
Compared to his previous book, “The Bobo Paradise”, David Brooks went a lot deeper into the psychological and philosophical make-ups and contexts of the modern technocratic social order, attempting to loosen up its strangle hold on the meritocrats. Well, it’s certainly a noble effort and there are many gems worth keeping.
First, he pointed out that “reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations.” So what can we do when we feel like murdering our opponent on the tennis court or in the next office? According to David, “one is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character; more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.” Where does that more adequate ideal come from? Now we are deep into the psychological and philosophical territories. Wisdom instead of rationality or simple causation rules at such depth of reality. Here is an outline of David’s philosophical outlook (despite his self-claim that he distrusts philosophizing!): “We don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery … Our virtues do not fit neatly into a complementary or logical system. We have many ways of seeing and thinking about a situation, and they are not ultimately compatible … Wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance. We can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits on our knowledge.” How exactly do we go about DESIGNING such habits, arrangements and procedures? There David Brooks, as did countless of his predecessors and contemporaries, stumbled badly.
On the one hand, he acknowledged that “among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to organize perceptions … Unconscious emotions have supremacy but not dictatorship … Reason cannot do the dance on its own, but it can nudge, with a steady and subtle influence”. He even recognized that “learning is not entirely linear. There are certain breakthrough moments when you begin to think of and see the field differently … Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information”. Thus he appears on the verge of becoming a Renaissance man. However, the next moment he flipped over and sounded more like a rigid traditionalist or even fundamentalist, “abstract universals are to be distrusted. Historical precedents are more useful guides than universal principles … It is hard or impossible to become more moral alone, but over centuries, our ancestors devised habits and practices that help us reinforce our best intuitions, and inculcate moral habits”.
At the end of the book, Harold, the main character was dying of old age and reflected on his life’s journey, “the tangle of sensations, perceptions, drives, and needs that we call, antiseptically, the unconscious … was not some secondary feature to be surpassed. It was the core of him – hard to see, impossible to understand – but supreme … Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines. Harold saw life as a never ending interpretation of souls”. At his heart, Harold was a bohemian caught in the debris of an overwhelmingly bourgeois society. Quite contrary to what the title of the book suggested, Harold was anything but an unconscious animal of the bourgeois society in which he lived. He harbored a deep and sacred desire to transform society into something closer to his sensitive soul. He lived more like a conscientious instead of socially popular animal.
However, Harold’s dream remained merely a sentiment to the very end of his life, never fulfilled in any substantial way. Could he have done better? I suggest that he could have, if only he had followed his own intuitions more courageously and creatively. First, Harold realized that “above all the other necessities of human nature, above the satisfaction of any other need, above hunger, love, pleasure, fame – even life itself – what a man most needs is the conviction that he is contained within the discipline of an ordered existence”. Viewed from this angle, rationality is nothing but a uniquely human means or tool to achieve an ordered existence in consciousness, however simplistic and fleeting such order maybe. Thus rationality is not some foreign and dangerous monster to be feared but a natural human function of a healthy life style. Harold mistook some outdated forms of rationality, such as materialism, as rationality itself and threw the baby out with the bathwater! Without the support of new and more potent forms of rationality, Harold’s intuitions lacked the means to be transformed from unconscious into conscious energy as a viable alternative to the old materialistic order of human existence.
Second, although Harold realized that “life is change, and the happy life is a series of gentle, stimulating, melodic changes”, he failed to appreciate the spiritual message in the inevitability of change and concluded erroneously that “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us”. Such a mechanical conception of the human-life relationship diminishes the spiritual nature of human existence and leaves the human soul in a very lonely state indeed. A more organic vision of reality would have aligned human destiny with the inevitability of cosmic change and approached the happy life from a spiritual as well as human perspective (for example, The Human Cosmos).