Australian readers are likely to find the matter-of-fact monotheism in David Brooks’ new The Second Mountain admirable, if not endearing. Rejecting the religious pride by which some think they’re morally superior, the Canadian-born American also observes there is “nothing worse than people who are so spiritualised they don’t love the world.”
His faith is grounded in stray moments of porousness between realms — a glimpse of transcendence sitting by a picturesque lake or perhaps amidst the throng at Penn Station. God is merely a name given to an interconnected animating force, something we are awash within and, if fortunate enough, get to experience as unconditional love.
The Second Mountain offers a compelling critique of Western civilisation. Although there is much to be grateful for, it’s high time we acknowledge its achievements come at a cost. Unduly cognitive, we’re under-living our lives, which are qualitative not quantitative. Society has become a conspiracy against joy, a totalizing machine that distracts from difficult yet meaningful choices, in favour of material comfort and fleeting pleasures. We treat community as a mass of competing individuals herded into an “endless set of inner and outer rings, with the high achievers at the Davos center and everyone else arrayed across the wider rings toward the edge”.
According to Brooks, late modernity is stranded atop its utilitarian Everest, an impressive socioeconomic meritocracy that is necessary but profoundly insufficient. Yes, Big Welfare means better services for the needy, Big Health means longer lives, and Big Tech means dazzling amounts of information. But so what? None of it is satisfying. Neither does it solve anything of consequence. No matter how scalable a system of knowledge, you can never be “wise with other men’s wisdom”.
In spite of our culture actively lying to us about what really counts, a few still attempt to climb the next peak, hoping to establish a foothold where relationality is the norm, where no one obsesses over measurable outcomes or buys into the delusion that money and political power can deliver real change. It’s the world of Barbara Goodson from Houston and Kathy and David’s non-profit, All Our Kids. Regular folks who do good for its own sake so that others feel understood, cared for, or trusted.
As has been widely reported, Brooks also details his own first mountain misadventure. Initial success left him aloof and uncommunicative, at least with those closest to him. Many of his friendships lacked depth. His marriage then collapses, revealing an unmoored, humiliated, and lonely middle-aged man at the bottom of a valley.
The fall, however, yields insight and the chance to transform through pain and suffering. Assisted on his spiritual journey by a much-younger Christian research assistant, whom he subsequently weds, The New York Times columnist comes to realize just how radically different religious consciousness is from its secular counterpart. How “big and absurd the leap of faith is”.
Brooks mixes his metaphors: life is a stage for an inescapable moral drama, acted out on connected but independent tiers. While we’re the same Shakespearean character in each, the sort of knowledge and forces at play are poles apart. Alive in the natural world, we call upon reason, facts, and science to manage our everyday affairs. Yet we also participate in the eternal dimension of spirit and meaning, home to intense metaphysical yearnings extraneous to the mind and human will. It is here, in an enchanted substrate familiar to the heart and expressed through art and narrative alone, that “our emotions assign value to things and tell us what is worth wanting”.
“It’s easy to not be aware of the underplay, but once you see it, it’s hard to see the other play about worldly ambitions as the ultimate reality,” he concludes. “The main story is the soul story.” Such a take is a philosophically elevated version of his distinction between resume and eulogy virtues, the framework of meaning that formed the crux of his previous book, 2015’s The Road to Character.
The final chapter of the book doubles as a manifesto aimed at promoting personal responsibility, sacrifice, and anything else exclusive to the second mountain. Brooks, however, makes no attempt to address the apparent contradiction. Surely, any conscious effort to make things happen in a systematic manner, rather than simply being a lived example of goodness, content to let it all unfold organically, in unison with the grace of God, smacks of having it both ways?
It’s no coincidence the greatest of sages — Socrates, Buddha, Jesus — left no script to follow.
Brooks ultimately betrays his Judeo-Christian attachments. Like many of us men, he struggles to surrender completely his egoistic self to the unseen authority of something greater, even when the defiance causes internal division and privation of meaning. Building the first mountain, it’s presumed, is part of a meta-narrative that will one day reveal why there is Something Rather Than Nothing. As Ivan explains in The Brothers Karamazov: