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David Brooks

“I think we mean that the person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions… People who are deep are spiritual. They’ve come to some stable philosophical convictions about fundamental things; they’ve made firmly-rooted moral commitments.

To put it in another way: they have a built a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect they have a permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action they have a commitment to important projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality they have a certain consistency and rigor; they’re not always perfect but there’s a sort of moral demand that pervades everything they do.

The next question is, how long does it take to get depth? When we look at people who we think have depth, we notice that it doesn’t happen all at once. The desires that lead you astray, those things are fast — lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we admire most — honesty, humility, self-control, courage — those things take some time and accumulate slowly.

It’s an ensemble of settled feelings. It’s not something that happens to people when they’re fifteen.

And these individuals often possess a certain virtue.

And the word ‘virtue’, again, it has pompous connotations. It seems stuffed-up, self-righteous. But all virtue means is that you have your loves in the right order. We all love and desire a multitude of things: love, friendship, family, popularity. We all desire money, to be good shape. And we understand whether we’ve thought about it or not that some loves are higher than other loves — that the love of family is higher than the love of money. If you’ve sold out your family to make an extra buck, you’ve done something wrong.

If the love of truth or friendship is higher than the love of popularity. If somebody tells you a secret and you blab it at a dinner party, you’ve become popular for a few minutes in that conversation, but you’ve inverted your love. And so being virtuous is not some pompous thing, it’s not some puritanical thing. It’s just having your loves in the right order.”


Pulled from David Brooks’s speech at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival “The Road to Depth: Thinking about What Character Is”. Find these ideas elaborated in Brooks’s new book The Road to Character.

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