Brooks, David. 2019. The second mountain: The quest for a moral life. New York: Random House.

Part I: The Two Mountains.

The first mountain is the normal one: the person performs in order to be successful and, when this happens, he or she begins to wonder, “Is this all there is to life? The second mountain involves a rebellion, however slight, against mainstream culture and considering others who are in need. It involves a vocation, a spouse and family, a philosophy or faith and a community. Brooks takes up each of these in the book. He notes the joy and satisfaction on starting on his quest for a moral life.

1) Moral ecologies: These are a “collective response to the big problem of a specific moment” (4). They are built on a series of assumptions: the people’s right to live as they please; the God within; privatization; total freedom; the centrality of accomplishment. A tension between the self and society.

2) The Instagram life: “the big swim to nowhere”; the aesthetic life; and the notion that complete personal freedom “sucks”.

3) The insecure overachiever: leading to personal identity and your job title alone, constantly comparing yourself to others.

4) The valley: The “social” valley has led to loneliness, a crisis of meaning, distrust, tribalism and suffering. “suffering shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency” (17).

5) The wilderness: leading to confusion of purpose and a need to shed the old self and let the new self emerge—discovering your heart and soul (43).

6) Heart and soul: “The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility” (46). We come to see the shallowness of life, when we are not fulfilled, leading to hardship, which is necessary to begin the “second journey” (51).

7) The committed life: commitment begins with the love of something, a contract with it. It gives us our identity, a sense of purpose and builds our moral character.

8) The second mountain. There becomes a motivational shift (67) that involves our desires being transformed. States include: material pleasure, ego pleasure, intellectual pleasure, generativity, fulfilled love and transcendence (“The feeling we get when living in accordance with some ideal” (67).

The four commitments. Part II: Vocation.

9) What vocation looks like: “The think everybody knows about finding a vocation is that it’s quite different from finding a career” (89). Brooks notes that “The summons to vocation is a very holy thing. It feels mystical, like a call from deep to deep” (93).

10) The annunciation moment: realizing the moment or time when you have the awareness of a vocation and finding your purpose in life.

11) What mentors do: learning how to deal with success and error. [See my article on “Mentoring a mother tongue speaker.”]

12) Vampire problems: Choices that determine the kind of person you are and become. Shoiuld the decision be rational, which Brooks sees as a “fable” (109) or should the “daemons” (unresolvable tensions) take over and determine the journey? No one can consciously “anesthetize the daemon” but people can be strangers to their own desires and settle for a false life (115). It is not about a career path but about what “gives me my deepest satisfaction” (121) and is therefore the right “fit” for me.

13) Mastery: “A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you” (123). A vocation makes the man.

Part III: Marriage.

14) The Maximum Marriage: “Passion peaks among the young, but marriage is the thing that peaks in old age” (139). Brooks notes that “marriage is the ultimate moral education” (144)—it demands nearly everything and gives nearly everything (146).

15) The stages of intimacy I: the glance, curiosity and the dialogue precede opening the gates to each other.

16) The stages of intimacy II: the leap, crisis and forgiveness precede fusion.

17) The marriage decision: Are you ready? Do you really like the person? Does the person fill your need? How high is the bar? Quoting Lewis Torman, there are things to look for in a relationship: happiness of parents; childhood happiness; lack of conflict with mother; home discipline (firm, not harsh); strong attachment to both mother and father; lack of conflict with father; frankness from parents about sex; degree of childhood punishment; neither disgust or aversion of premarital attitude about sex (168).

18) Marriage: The school you build together: building intimacy with autonomy; the crises of life; a rich sexual life; keep alive the idealized images of each other; empathetic wisdom; communication the art of recommitment. The first love is champagne (183), the second love is the second mountain. It is love that endures until death.

Part IV: Philosophy and Faith.

19) Intellectual commitments: The evolution of American education, including the humanistic ideal (192) and the intellectual virtues. Brooks notes that “The educated life is a journey toward higher and higher love” (201).

20) Religious commitment: stories about how some people, including a nod to himself (Brooks) have found faith.

21) A most unexpected turn of events: further examples of faith in the author’s life. His was a “pilgrimage” from the Jewish tradition into an understanding of grace. The Jews of NY put “peoplehood before faith” (210) but “the Jesus story was not about worldly accomplishment” (219). He reviews his interaction and subsequent attachment to Anne Snyder, researcher and colleague. Brooks describes his “own moment of decision (245ff) and it involved reading many authors and experiencing faith as change.

22) Ramps and walls: Brooks describes several walls: 1) the siege mentality, dividing those “who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad” (256); 2) the wall of bad listening where people “unfurl the maxims regardless of circumstances” (256); 3) the wall of invasive care; 4) the wall of intellectual mediocracy—those who are brutal in the “march for excellence” (257). He also found ramps: 1) ritual—moral order and sacred story; 2) unabashed faith; 3) prayer; 4) spiritual consciousness; 5) the language of good and evil, now “largely abandoned in the public world,” (259), especially the word “sin.” “I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes” (262).

Part V: Community.

23) The stages of community building I: unveiling yourself and confronting our weaknesses in conjunction with others.

24) The stages of community building II: village over self; initiating connections; radical hospitality; community as expert; the least are the most (286). “Thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet fact to face on a regular basis, such as a dinner table or a packed gym or an assembly hall” (294).

25) Conclusion: The rationalist manifesto: an examination of hyper-individualism vs. relationalism in the process of becoming a person. Brooks is interested in “the good life,” not in terms of things, but rather in terms of commitments and relationships. This, he notes, will lead to “the good society” (308). He concludes with a declaration of interdependence in which joy is recognized as a moral outlook.

Acknowledgments: there are many, but he concludes with Anne: “This book has been, and the rest of my life will be, warmed and guided by Anne’s light” (315).

Notes 11 pages that are cross-referenced to each chapter of the book.

Index: key terms are agency, beauty, Christianity, commitment, community, culture, ego/self, emotion, faith, first mountain, God, happiness, heart/desiring heart, individualism, Jewish people and Judaism, joy, loneliness, love, marriage, moral ecology, morality, purpose, relationships, second mountain, society, spirituality, suffering, the valley, vocation and wilderness.

Brooks is extremely well read and quotes many authors. Those who seem most quoted are: William F. Buckley Jr., Frederick Buechner, Edmund Burke, Dorothy Day, Alai de Botton, Fyodor Dostoyefsky, Victor Fankl, Sarah Hemminger, Abraham Joshua Heschel, James Hollis, William James, Jesus, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King Jr., C.S. Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, Friedrich Nietszche, Henri Nouwen, Anne Snyder, Joseph Soloveitchik, Davy and Sheldon Vanauken, David Foster Wallace, Judith Wallerstein and William Wordsworth.

The book is easy reading, aside from looking into the notes and index for the many quotes and references. I found the chapters on vocation and marriage especially well written, with practical ideas and comments.

Karl Franklin
October 2019