17 min read ⌚
The Quest for a Moral Life
You live in the most democratic and individualistic age in history. You are freer than any of your ancestors, but are you happy?
David Brooks says: most probably, you are not. And it is precisely because of that freedom.
Let’s follow him in his quest for a moral life, as he climbs:
Who Should Read “The Second Mountain”? And Why?
We’re living in a world where everybody is free to do whatever he/she wants, and yet most of the people say they are unhappy.
The Second Mountain explains why is that so, and gives more than a satisfying – even enlightening – answer to many questions which burden today’s humanity (especially millennials).
That’s why we want to recommend it to anyone who feels lack of fulfillment and lack of joy in his/her life, and especially to those who want to find them in the seemingly unfree communal life of their neighborhoods, cities, towns, or countries.
About David Brooks
David Brooks is a Canadian-born American author and journalist, most renowned as an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.
Before becoming one of New York Times most read columnist, Brooks worked as a film critic for The Washington Times and a reporter for The Wall Street; he is also a senior editor at Weekly Standard and a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek.
He makes regular appearances as a commentator on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “PBS NewsHour.”
He is the bestselling author of five books: Bobos in Paradise, On Paradise Drive, The Social Animal, The Road to Character and this one, The Second Mountain.
“The Second Mountain PDF Summary”
Even though divided into five parts, The Second Mountain is actually a two-part counter-intuitive and possibly even revolutionizing examination of “how we function and conduct our lives.” (The Philadelphia Enquirer).
In the first part of the book – titled “Two Mountains” – Brooks offers a theoretical foundation for his belief that individualism is not the path to living a happy and moral life, i.e., is not the mountain you should climb to reach the summit of your existence.
In the second part – which actually consists of four separate parts – he introduces us to the four commitments which, in his opinion, may give some sense and meaning to your (and everybody’s) past, present, and future.
Part I: The Two Mountains
The two mountains from the title of the first part are the mountain of individuality and the mountain of commitment; separated by the valley of suffering, these two represent (in David Brook’s eyes) the two paths you can go by in life and, whether you want that or not, you’ve already taken one of them.
However, as Led Zeppelin sang, in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on. And Brooks says you really should; because, most probably, you’ve been tricked into taking the wrong one.
The First Mountain
The War for Individual Freedom
The first mountain is the one climbed by most modern people on their journey toward a life of happiness and fulfillment.
It is the mountain of individualism, as championed most fervently in the land of the free and the brave, the United States.
After all, we spent most of the 20th century waging wars against the world – first the Fascist countries such as Germany and Japan, and then against the USSR and the Eastern Communist bloc – to defend this exceptional idea: as long as you don’t harm anyone, you should be able to become anything you want to be.
As a result, nowadays, you can – not only in the United States but also in most of Europe and parts of Asia and South America. The US prides itself in this: against the collective identities of the East, we set an agenda of freedom and individuality, and the right side won.
Possibly “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world at the moment,” Jordan Peterson, repeatedly states this: it is, indeed, a story of good vs. evil, and fortunately, the good won.
What was the final result?
Well, let’s just say it was not the one we expected.
A Plunge into the Valley of Suffering
“The grand narrative of individual emancipation,” writes David Brooks, “left us with what some have called ‘the great disembedding.’”
“Whereas before people tended to be enmeshed in tight communities with prescribed social norms that sometimes seemed stifling, now they are cut loose. Whereas once they served in hierarchical institutions, now they have trouble thinking institutionally at all – how to live within an institution, steward an institution, and reform an institution – so the quality of our social organizations that make up our common life decays.”
In other words, individualism didn’t result in a world where everybody is happy; instead, it led both the individuals and our societies as a whole far from the summit of the first mountain and into the valley of suffering and defeat.
“A half century of emancipation has made individualism, which was the heaven for our grandparents, into our hell,” notes Brooks. “It has produced four interrelated social crises.”
People may try to tell you differently, but stats don’t lie.
#1. The Loneliness Crisis
We should have realized this sooner: individualism leads to loneliness, and loneliness is a debilitating feeling.
Just check out these numbers:
• 35% of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely;
• No more than 8% of Americans report having important conversations with their neighbors in any given year (i.e., no less than 92% probably don’t!);
• 30% of households are single-person households, as compared to less than 10% in 1950;
• Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen by 30%: roughly 45,000 Americans kill themselves each year;
• Most stunningly, the life span of the average American has declined for the last three years – the last time this happened, we were fighting in a war; the First World War!
If with individualism comes loneliness, with loneliness comes distrust. As George Eliot wrote almost prophetically in her magnum opus, Middlemarch: “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” We rely more on ourselves because when there is no connection, we can’t rely on nobody around us.
Back in the 1950s, three-fourths of Americans trusted their government; now, less than one-fourth does. Moreover, roughly 60% of Americans said that their neighbors were trustworthy in the 1950s; now, only half of that do; most frightening: only 18% of millennials!
“Every age group in America is less trusting than the one before,” notes Brooks, “and, as Robert Putnam of Harvard points out, that’s for a very good reason: People are less trustworthy. It’s not that perception is getting worse. It’s actual behavior. The quality of our relationships is worse. Distrust breeds distrust.”
#3. The Crisis of Meaning
Here’s another problem that comes with individualism: if you’re condemned to be free, as Sartre noted first, you’re also condemned to find your “why” in this world by yourself.
“When you take away a common moral order and tell everybody to find their own definition of the mystery of life, most people will come up empty. They will not have a compelling story that explains the meaning of their life in those moments when life gets hard.”
In 2012, less than 6% of young Americans suffered from severe depression; three years later, that number rose up to 8.2%.
Whether it is Sartre or Peterson, intellectuals who cherish people’s freedom always advise that everyone should write his/her own story; the problem, it seems, is that not everyone is capable of doing that.
In the meantime, the great narratives of the past have lost all meaning as well: only half of Americans today are proud to be Americans, and only 34% of millennials agree; and just 15 years ago, 70% of Americans were “extremely proud” to live in this country.
“Man has a horror of aloneness,” Balzac wrote in Lost Illusions. “And of all kinds of aloneness, moral aloneness is the most terrible.”
The three crises above have given rise to a fourth one, “which is not a facet of extreme individualism itself, but our reaction to it.”
“People who are left naked and alone by radical individualism,” reminds us Brooks, “do what their genes and the ancient history of their species tell them to do: They revert to tribe. Individualism, taken too far, leads to tribalism.”
And it’s only natural that such a thing should happen: an individual without a sense of purpose suffers from a severe case of existential dread. So, he slips into crisis mode: “I’m in danger! I’m threatened; I must strike back!”
We are programmed to do whatever we can to protect ourselves when we are left alone; and the easiest way to do this is to disqualify everyone suspicious. Tribalists seek out easy categories and certainty to conquer their feelings of unbearable doubt. They seek out war – political war or actual war – as a way to give life meaning. They revert to tribe:
Tribalism seems like a way to restore the bonds of community. It certainly does bind people together. But it is actually the dark twin of community. Community is connection based on mutual affection. Tribalism… is connection based on mutual hatred. Community is based on common humanity; tribalism on common foe. Tribalism is always erecting boundaries and creating friend/enemy distinctions. The tribal mentality is a warrior mentality based on scarcity: Life is a battle for scarce resources and it’s always us versus them, zero-sum. The ends justify the means. Politics is war. Ideas are combat. It’s kill or be killed. Mistrust is the tribalist worldview. Tribalism is community for lonely narcissists.
The Unexpected Underlying Problem
Nietzsche noted that he who has a “why” to live can endure any “how.” And Viktor Frankl witnessed this firsthand in Germany’s concentration camps: the ones who survived Auschwitz, he concluded, were the ones who had a “why.”
In a world of radical individuality, it is more than idealistic to expect that all people will be able to find a “why;” it is, in fact, irrational and impossible: if two “whys” contradict each other, either one person will end up without it, or a conflict will inevitably erupt, the very thing we tried to axiomatically stop from the beginning (“be free until you harm someone else’s freedom”).
Yup, David Brooks is going where you never expected he would: freedom is overrated and is the wrong foundation to build human societies on.
In the dizziness of freedom, he writes poetically, “nobody quite knows where they stand with one another. Everybody is pretty sure that other people are doing life better. Comparison is the robber of joy.”
Don’t get him wrong: Brooks is no fool to say that all freedom is wrong; but he does think that only one of them (political freedom) makes sense:
Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom – when it becomes an ultimate end – absolutely sucks. 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.
The Second Mountain
Instead of living the committed purpose-driven life of togetherness, most of us are living the unfulfilling and detached Instagram life of loneliness.
This is something David Foster Wallace already warned us in his celebrated commencement address “about living a compassionate life”:
“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
As we’ve implied above, Wallace’s remedy is unrealistic; and you don’t even need to go further than yourself to realize this:“when you are in your distraction,” reminds you Brooks, “untethered to actual commitments, focusing your attention is precisely what you cannot do. Your mind is afloat and at the play of prompts.”
In other words, most of us are neither brave enough nor capable enough to write our own stories and find some overall direction for our lives. In a world of distractions, our minds constantly “wander from the meaty big questions, which are completely daunting and unanswerable, to the diverting candy right on your phone – the tiny dopamine lift.”
“All of this, points in one direction,” concludes Brooks, “into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks.”
The Relational Nature of Happiness
There’s an even deeper reason – yes, deeper than all those numbers and stats above – why should freedom suck.
Because, in a way, its very nature is – after a certain point – incompatible not only with the nature of meaning and morality (the goals of the climber of the second mountain) but also with the nature of happiness itself (the shallow objective of first mountain climbers).
Why is that?
Simply put, because we can’t be happy in solitude; it doesn’t matter if one runs the 100 meters under 9.58 if he doesn’t know how fast someone else has run the same difference. It matters even less even when he does, but nobody has heard of his own achievement.
And it goes even beyond that: as many people have shown, one can be happy with little if the people around him have little as well. When someone has too much, nobody can be happy even if he/she has a lot.
Abundance? Affluence? Yes – but for whom? Even Steven Pinker is not optimistic enough to claim that we are on the road to solving inequality. If anything, we’re moving in the opposite direction, making the world a better place for fewer and fewer people.
The trickle-down effect means nothing in view of the notion that happiness is relational; and it means even less if you realize that happiness is fleeting as well.
Should the goal of one be something as temporary as human happiness? Will he/she ever achieve fulfillment?
Rebelling Against the Rebellion
The answer to the question above is a resounding “no.”
Which is why we need to waste no more time and start climbing the second mountain – the mountain of commitments.
“The person beginning the second mountain climb wages a silent rebellion against the ‘I’m Free to Be Myself’ culture that is still the defining feature of our age,” writes Brooks. “That individualistic culture… was itself a rebellion against the stifling conformity of the 1950s. The second-mountain ethos is a rebellion against that rebellion.”
And what kind of an ethos is this?
Well, instead of “Shoot for personal happiness and celebrate independence,” the motto of the second-mountain climbers is “Shoot for meaning and moral joy and celebrate interdependence.” The former want to be autonomous and speak with an active voice: lecturing, taking charge; the latter praise relations and seek to listen and respond:
Individualism thrives in the prosaic world, the world of career choices and worldly accomplishment. The second-mountain ethos says, No, this is an enchanted world, a moral and emotional drama. Individualism accepts and assumes self-interest. The second-mountain ethos says that a worldview that focuses on self-interest doesn’t account for the full amplitude of the human person. We are capable of great acts of love that self-interest cannot fathom, and murderous acts of cruelty that self-interest cannot explain. Individualism says, The main activities of life are buying and selling. But you say, No, the main activity of life is giving. Human beings at their best are givers of gifts.
Individualism says, You have to love yourself first before you can love others. But the second-mountain ethos says, You have to be loved first so you can understand love, and you have to see yourself actively loving others so that you know you are worthy of love.
Parts II-V: The Four Commitments
“Most of us make four big commitments over the course of our lives: to a vocation, to a spouse and family, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community,” writes David Brooks. And since the second mountain is the mountain of commitment, it is through a deep understanding of these four commitments that you can reach its summit.
Part II: Vocation
In 1946, George Orwell published an essay titled “Why I Write” in which he laid down for reasons to explain his decision to dedicate his life to writing novels and essays:
#1. Sheer egoism: “the desire to seem clever and to get talked about;”
#2. Aesthetic enthusiasm: “the pleasure he gets from playing with sentences and words;”
#3. Historic impulse: “the desire to see things as they are and find out true facts.
#4. Political purpose: “the desire to push the world in a certain direction, and to alter people’s ideas of what sort of society they should strive for.”
What happens when two of these reasons collide?
Well, if you are Orwell, and you have committed yourself truly and fully to your vocation, the only thing that can happen: the higher ideal wins out.
That’s why, even though he was a Democratic Socialist, Orwell was nothing if not honest even in his report from the Spanish Civil War.
What gave him this integrity?
The commitment, the narrative he decided to write for himself.
Choosing a vocation is much like choosing a marriage partner: there are almost always more than just a few options, but, at a certain point, you’ll have to settle for one.
But that’s not a bad thing: otherwise, you’ll become what the Elizabethans referred to as Johannes factotum, aka “Jack of all trades…” Well, you know the rest of that phrase.
Individualism gave birth to people like William Randolph Hearst, the tabloids, reality TV: in order to remain unique, everyone will do anything, even lie about himself.
Committing to something doesn’t work that way.
It usually means asking yourself the question “how can I be of service to my field of choice?” and not “how can it be of service to me?”
Part III: Marriage
Just like choosing a vocation, choosing a spouse asks for commitment.
Evolutionary, you are not built to live in a monogamous relationship; and no matter what every single pop group has sung for the past century, love is not for all times and is certainly not just a feeling; it is a scope of actions and rituals, a structure of behaviors.
Individualism has resulted in the destruction of the nuclear family for a reason: when you put yourself first, no relationships are possible.
Consequently, it is almost impossible to cancel the meeting with your boss and risk climbing the corporate ladder for a date with your spouse.
But, as team sports have taught us, sometimes taking one for the team is the only way to achieve victory.
In the long run, of course.
Part IV: Philosophy and Faith
It is one of the nine secrets of the Blue Zones: participating in a spiritual community – even if secular.
We don’t know why it lengthens life, but we can guess: people who believe in something together have a more profound “why” than people who believe in something alone.
This should surprise nobody: after all, we are animals, and as Aristotle knew, social animals as well; just like you wouldn’t expect from an ant to thrive if separated from its community, you shouldn’t expect that from a human being as well.
Not that we can’t survive or even live a reasonably happy life; but we need to do it through an enormous amount of willpower and conviction – something which most of us lack.
Faith – and religious communities – provides “a structure of behaviors” which deal with all of your problems in your stead. It is more difficult to do the latter to start with. Bur more importantly, even when it is very difficult to do the first (fasting, going to church/synagogue/mosque), there’s a sense of reward at the end of the road.
Rituals and vivid religious imagery help people live better and more fulfilled lives – not the least because they share both of them with other people.
Part V: Community
But what if you are not a religious person? Can you participate in the revival of your community?
Of course you can!
The trick is quite simple: just like in the case of choosing a vocation, a partner, or a religion, you need to put the needs of your community above your needs.
There is something small and petty when you do the latter – even if you become Steve Jobs, in the end, numerous people would still point out the fact that you did so because you didn’t care about the feelings of those around you.
There is something grand and beautiful in putting the needs of your community first: even if you fail, there’s a good chance that you’d feel fulfilled and most people will talk only kind words of you and your existence.
That’s exactly what many people are doing at this very moment worldwide. And the unit of change isn’t the world, or the country or even the town: it is your neighborhood.
Take the matters of the other people in your hands and do something. The communities of the world – and especially the community of the United States – are falling apart.
And just like Kennedy said half a century ago: they need you to do something for them.
Key Lessons from “The Second Mountain”
1. There Are Two Mountains You Can Climb in Life
2. Climbing the First Mountain Usually Ends with a Plunge into the Valley of Suffering
3. Choosing a Life of Commitments Means Choosing a Better Future for Everybody
There Are Two Mountains You Can Climb in Life
The main metaphor of David Brooks’ book is the metaphor of the two mountains, separated by the Valley of Suffering.
The first mountain is the mountain of individual freedom: it is the mountain of autonomy and action, of personal happiness and independence.
The second mountain, on the other hand, is the mountain of commitment: it is the mountain of moral joy and meaning, the mountain of giving and interdependence.
Climbing the First Mountain Usually Ends with a Plunge into the Valley of Suffering
Contrary to what almost everybody in the Western Hemisphere says for the last century, David Brooks claims that climbing the first mountain is not only an individualistic but also a lonely endeavor which almost never leads to its summit.
On the contrary, it ends with a plunge into the valley of suffering, as a result of the “neither here nor there” liquidity of absolute freedom.
People, namely, are unable to find meaning in their lives and, in the absence of that “why,” they choose short-term pleasures instead of long-term commitments over and over again.
They are leading Instagram lives, lives of real or virtual experiences, lives that are so much empty and bereaved of meaning that, in 45,000 cases a year in the USA only, they lead to suicide.
Choosing a Life of Commitments Means Choosing a Better Future for Everybody
The better way is the way of the second mountain.
Because, Brooks says, freedom sucks, and it only makes sense if it is a river to pass through and start climbing this second mountain; when it is an ocean, it does nobody any favor.
The only freedom which makes sense is the one which allows you to make any choice you like at a certain point in life; the only life which is worth living is the one in which you make certain choices and then stick to them.
Whether it is a vocation, a marriage partner, a religion, or a community – the narrative is the same: you say “yes” to something, and “no” to everything else.
And you stride forward – waving the banner of the communal future above your head, carrying it to the summit of the second mountain.
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“The Second Mountain Quotes”Living life in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner turns you into a utilitarian pragmatist. The ‘How do I succeed?’ questions quickly eclipse the ‘Why am I doing this?’ questions. Click To Tweet Your conversation consists mostly of descriptions of how busy you are. Suddenly you’re a chilly mortal, going into hyper-people-pleasing mode anytime you’re around your boss. Click To Tweet The meritocracy is… so engrossing and seems so natural that we’re not even aware of how it encourages a certain economic vocabulary about noneconomic things. Words change their meaning. Click To Tweet While it pretends not to, subliminally sends the message that those who are smarter and more accomplished are actually worth more than those who are not. Click To Tweet The modern conservative movement was largely started by former Marxists who had been mugged by reality—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Irving Kristol, Max Eastman, and on and on. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
In our view, The Second Mountain may be one of the most important books that have appeared of lately; and it is our early favorite for the best book of 2019.
Profound and eloquent, the “book is written with moral urgency and philosophical elegance” (Andrew Solomon) and is so powerful and haunting “that works its way beneath your skin.” (Oliver Burkeman).
Hopefully, for a change, it will make you start thinking of the others around you and forget about yourself.