The Second Mountain

“The Second Mountain. The Quest for a Moral Life” by David Brooks

Review by Adrian Petrice

“On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless. […] People on the second mountain are deeply rooted and deeply committed. The second-mountain life is a committed life.”  David Brooks

The question

In his latest book, NY Times columnist and best selling author David Brooks dares to answer an existential question: what does it mean to live a well-lived life? 

The author doesn’t just try to come up with a list or a formula; he is chewing the question of what is worth living for, rephrasing it and coming back to the issue from various angles: What distinguishes the people that seem to have found a better way? 

What is it all about? How such a life of meaning and purpose looks like? What makes a well-spent life?

The first paragraph of the book starts by evoking the delight of meeting people that are remarkable, not due to their accomplishments or social status, but because they “radiate joy, people who seem to glow with an inner light”. These people are not perfect, nor detached: they are not in the clouds, not naive. They are grounded in reality, they might not have an easy life or have everything sorted out, yet they are people of genuine hope and assurance, in spite of their often adverse circumstances. “They want to want the things that are truly worth wanting. They elevate their desires. The world tells them to be a good consumer, but they want to be the one consumed—by a moral cause.” (p. xiv)

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The central metaphor: the two mountains.

As he did in his previous best selling book, “The Road to Character” (2015), where he placed at the core of the entire book an antithetic metaphor, “Adam the first” vs “Adam the second”, which he borrowed from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s distinction between the two sides of human nature, Brooks also builds his latest book on an antithetical metaphor: the first and the second mountain. While the 2 central metaphors of each book overlap, there are differences in the focus of the 2 books and the author confesses that part of the reason to write the latter book is to compensate for the limitations of the former.

Adam I is concerned with the “résumé virtues” —skills and achievements to acquire in a competitive way, while Adam II cares most about the “eulogy virtues”—how he will be remembered after he leaves this life behind. The first- and second-mountain distinction sounds a lot like the résumé virtues versus eulogy virtues distinction: 

“Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world”. (The Road to Character, 2015, p. 29) 

“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.”  (The Second Mountain. The Quest for a Moral Life. 2019, p. xvi)

To express the two metaphors in a nutshell, and bring them together, one could say Adam I is busy climbing the first mountain, preoccupied with self-fulfilment, while Adam II realises he was climbing the wrong mountain and starts to make his ascension on the second mountain, his ultimate appeal shifting from self to something outside of the self.

There are many similarities between the two books and the two approaches, but there is enough distinction to make them significantly different, and the way the author describes the interval between the two books is insightful and particularly relevant to the themes of both books: “When I wrote The Road to Character, I was still enclosed in the prison of individualism. I believed that life is going best when we take individual agency, when we grab the wheel and steer our own ship. I still believed that character is something you build mostly on your own. You identify your core sin and then, mustering all your willpower, you make yourself strong in your weakest places. […] I no longer believe that character formation is mostly an individual task, or is achieved on a person-by-person basis. I no longer believe that character building is like going to the gym: You do your exercises and you build up your honesty, courage, integrity, and grit. I now think good character is a by-product of giving yourself away. […] Character is a good thing to have, and there’s a lot to be learned on the road to character. But there’s a better thing to have—moral joy.” (p. xix, xx)

Although the rhetorics employed in the book is building on an antithesis between the two mountains, the second mountain is not the perfect opposite of the first mountain: “To climb it doesn’t mean rejecting the first mountain. It’s the journey after it. It’s the more generous and satisfying phase of life.” (p. xiv)

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The style.

As he engages in the quest to answer this paramount question for himself, Brooks has no claims to original thinking. He writes as for himself, after extensive research and thoughtful reflection, aware that he is also writing for an audience vis-à-vis which he sees himself as “a teacher or middleman”, taking “the curriculum of other people’s knowledge and passing it along”. In doing so, he is brilliant, and I would say this is the major accomplishment of the book: synthesis and integration. Brooks starts from an existential question and investigates the answers provided by the prevailing culture, rooted in the current zeitgeist, or “moral ecology”, as he calls it, and find them unsatisfying before he gets to the answers he ends up with. One can see that the author’s job for more than 16 years was to write every week for New York Times two 800 words columns on subjects ranging from politics to sociology to faith, after thoughtful research, a process streamlined by his research assistant, then synthesising the best parts into a tight essay. This book is more than a collection of essays, although each chapter has the structure of an essay. Brooks plays for his readers the role of a thoughtful curator of ideas, carefully presenting the essential views of each strand of thinking he selected to weave into his own arguments as he prepares the gallery for his visitors. Brooks main merit in the way he wrote his latest book is his outstanding capacity for synthesis. 

According to Brooks, the search for coherence and commitment is an essential task of every human being: “one task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision”. Nonetheless, he is not a monist, and doesn’t seem too tempted to reduce everything to a single principle or truth, acknowledging the need to attend to various obligations in a harmonious manner: “The core challenges of the second-mountain life are found in the questions, How do I choose my commitments? How do I decide what is the right commitment for me? How do I serve my commitments once they have been chosen? How do I blend my commitments so that together they merge into a coherent, focused, and joyful life?” (p. 82)

The whole book feels like an essay, op-ed style, personal and familiar, with one exception: chapter twenty-one in part IV (“Philosophy and Faith”) gets even more personal and is different in style from the rest of the book; it resembles journalling: Brooks chronicles his own journey in the search for meaning, as he battled his own life crises, dealing with personal failure and the realisation that in spite of all the effort put into it and all the recognition from others, he might have spent his life climbing the wrong mountain. 

A story of coming to faith. 

Chapter twenty-one, “A Most Unexpected Turn of Events” feels like an autobiographical insert into a part of the book that deals with the need to commit to a philosophy and faith and for me it was strikingly resembling in tone with “Surprised by Joy” by C.S. Lewis. It is the story of a conversion, in spite of Brooks being reserved in fleshing out the emphatic points of evangelical conversionism. He describes himself as a “border stalker”, perpetually on the line between different worlds,  growing up as “either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian, a plight made survivable by the fact that I was certain God did not exist, so the whole matter was of only theoretical importance.” (p. 224) Reading his own account of his journey to faith, it became clear for me as a Christian reader that David Brooks crossed the border and became a Christian. 

I don’t want to spoil the joy of reading for yourself how this came to be, so I’ll only give you a few hints, what I think it’s very interesting to analyse in this conversion story. First, it is quite interesting to notice how a new convert, that was not previously ignorant about the tenets of his newly found faith articulates the gospel, how he describes his coming to faith, how he started by being attracted to Christianity by Jesus’ “moral beauty”, conquered by him, and convicted that he is in need of grace, that one cannot earn it or work for his own salvation and that Jesus is the saviour. Second, observing that a  crucial role in “making the teaching about God our Savior attractive” to the author (1 Titus 2: 10) was played by Christians that were authentic without being ostentatious, was particularly encouraging for me.  As he puts it, “Christian good has the power to shock.” (p. 222). For someone like Brooks, the intellectual and cultural adequacy, combined with the real joy an authenticity of Christians he met was important in sparking his interest: “to anybody who lives in the secular culture, one’s first encounter with a joyful intelligent Christian comes as something of a shock.” (p. 227) Thirdly, as I am a Christian that grew up in a believing family, it was interesting for me to notice the way a Christened Jew articulates the gist of each “moral ecology”—the Jewish faith and the Christian faith—, how they are fundamentally different in their emphasis, and not only in that, although they share so much in common. 

I love the way Brooks frames the story of his own coming to faith into the wider scope of his book; It is not an autobiographical book, it is not a book about himself, but he doesn’t leave himself outside the framework he presents. Any account of his personal experience or confessions of his own life journey emerges in the context of presenting a broader picture, a framework for measuring a life lived well, which he describes, contrary to the prevailing ethos in the western culture, as a life of commitment. 

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The answer(s)

So, what’s the good life? 

Simply put, the good life is the committed life—what Brooks calls “a second mountain life”. 

How can one tell if he’s living it? In the words of the author, the crucial way to tell whether you are on your first or second mountain is answering the following question: “Where is your ultimate appeal? To self, or to something outside of self?”

Actually, for Brooks, the good life is the better life. He doesn’t explicitly put it that way, but he is not rejecting altogether “the good life” as described by society, “the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.” Instead, while acknowledging that there are good things in life, these cannot deliver if we expect them to make us happy. All the first mountain goals, “the normal goals that our culture endorses—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness” (p. 11) cannot bring ultimate fulfilment. Moreover, the point is not being happy, but having joy. 

Brooks claims that our society has become a conspiracy against joy. That is mostly because we keep score of everything. We rank, we compare, we strive to improve our relative score and without being fully conscious, nor completely unaware of this, we are sleepwalking: numbed by the constant barrage of ideas and values that comes from “the rampant individualism of our current culture”, we find ourselves agreeing to a kind of gamification of our own lives. This makes us become self-absorbed and insecure. Nobody quite knows where they stand with one another. In an era of highly curated social media content, everybody turns into a reputation manager for himself, and “everyone is pretty sure that other people are doing life better. Comparison is the robber of joy.” (p. 19) In order to find joy, one must refuse to participate in this conspiracy against it. 

The first-mountain-kind of life is appealing; it is nice, but shallow and unfulfilling, a never-ending pursuit of happiness. The second-mountain-kind of life is good and “expresses and manifests itself in joy.” A joy that is not dependent on all the “nice to have” things that we are obsessed with getting while making our way up on the first mountain. "Ultimately joy is found not in satisfying your desires but in changing your desires so you have the best desires. The educated life is a journey toward higher and higher love.” (p. 201). As we start climbing the second mountain we undergo a motivational shift, fuelled and sustained by our love for something different than ourselves: ”Love must grow or die. Love is hunting for bigger game than happiness.” (p. 163) 

The committed life starts and ends in love.

Love seems to be the answer to life’s ultimate meaning and purpose.

And not just any kind of love, but a faithful, committed love, because commitment stems from love; otherwise it is reduced to mere determination, grit, and is ultimately depending on our character and our ability to muster all the willpower we can. 

Love is bigger than that.

“A commitment is a promise made from love.” (p. 55) and to commit is not merely making a promise, but remaining faithful to that promise: “the most complete definition of a commitment is this: falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters.” (p. 56)

The commitments that make us. 

Our allegiances define us, more so than our abilities or achievements. Brooks makes a compelling case for the need to shift our focus from living for personal gratification to living for something bigger than ourselves, and for the need to abandon the pursuit of personal happiness for the better goal of experiencing moral joy as a by-product of fulfilling our ultimate meaning. In doing so, he is not pushing any values on his readers, but rather raises questions, expresses his discontentment with the answers we are culturally conditioned to take for granted and presents the answers he believes to be true in a balanced and honest manner, as an option, leaving his readers to investigate and decide for themselves,  to find their own way, while claiming he found his, and it’s the truth.

The “goodness of a human life” is judged not by some ranking social system that puts the individual at the centre, nor by comparison or status, individual merit or achievements, or any aesthetic criteria, not by self-absorption but by self-giving, by how well a person chooses and lives up to four major commitments: 

- to a vocation, 

- to a family (spouse and children), 

- to a philosophy or faith, and 

- to a community.  

The author doesn’t suggest that one cannot have a fulfilling life unless she or he gets married, he is merely listing the top 4 major life choices that are crucial in shaping our lives and setting us on the path to climb the second mountain, the quest that really matters. 

These are all high stake, defining life decisions, therefore once the options are considered, the responsibility to commit should stay with the one who’ll be living his own life. Choosing what to work, who to marry, what spiritual path to follow in life, and a way of contributing to the community we belong to remains a personal responsibility. One cannot dodge that and no one is to be told what to work, who to love, what to believe and how to contribute where one belongs. One can be advised, influenced, and there’s wisdom in seeking counsel, but in the end we cannot decide for one another. Nevertheless, to choose we must: there are inescapable defining choices that shape who we are and how we live. Not to choose is choosing a purposeless life. 

How we live should be consistent with who we are. Our commitments give us our identity, and the fulfilment of our lives depend on how well we fulfil our commitments. 

Turns up that in the end we are all measured by moral criteria: each of this choices falls within our responsibility and following through our own choices is a moral obligation. Both the quest to find the answers and the degree to which we remain faithful to the answers we arrived at after exercising our freedom and responsibility in this life are moral undertakings. Brooks is not explicitly saying so, but it becomes clear that, provided we are human beings endowed with freedom and responsibility, not asking the questions or failing to commit to any answers doesn’t exempt us from our moral responsibility. We can get it right, we can go wrong, we can lose our way, we can get back on track, we can be lost, we can be found, we can come back to ourselves, but we cannot avoid it. This journey of finding what’s worth living for is for everyone:

“Eventually there’s no escaping the big questions. What’s my best life? What do I believe in? Where do I belong?” (p. 141) 

We might maintain the illusion of the possibility to escape “listening to our own lives” and avoid life-defining commitments. Everything in our culture breathes a mindset of always being on the rush to the next experience, living for ourselves and in constant flux of new stimuli, networked; everything seems to be designed to keep us from asking deep, important questions. We are constantly entertained, “we are living in diversion” and our life is saturated with “decommitment devices”, so we’re not being actually deeply interested in anything; we’re just “bored at a more frenetic pace”. 

We are terminally distracted, so we lack attention, commitment, and meaning.

We are conditioned to develop an aversion to commitment. 

We like to “keep our options open” and that gives us the illusion of freedom. It takes a while before we realise that liberty, as such, has no inherent telos. Some concepts migrate from one sphere of applicability to places where they lose their relevance, and if taken for granted, without proper examination and discernment, they keep us bound to confusion and lack of purpose. Take, for example, freedom: “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.” (p. 20) 

Freedom sucks. Wow! That’s a very controversial statement. 

I’ll let David Brooks convince you:

“Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side—and fully commit to something.” (p. 20)

Boundless freedom completely dissolves one’s identity, or prevents it from ever being formed.

“Our commitments give us our identity. They are how we introduce ourselves to strangers. They are the subjects that make our eyes shine in conversation.  Identity is not formed alone. […] Our commitments give us a sense of purpose. They are what give our lives constancy and coherence.” (p. 57)

“Our commitments allow us to move to a higher level of freedom. In our culture we think of freedom as the absence of restraint. That’s freedom from.[…] But there is another and higher kind of freedom. That is freedom to. This is the freedom as fullness of capacity, and it often involves restriction and restraint.” (p. 58)

“In this way, moral formation is not individual; it is relational. Character is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about the difference between right and wrong and about your own willpower. Character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments—temporary ones in childhood, provisional ones in youth, permanent ones in adulthood. Commitments are the school for moral formation. When your life is defined by fervent commitments, you are on the second mountain. […] people repress bad desires only when they are able to turn their attention to a better desire. When you’re deep in a commitment, the distinction between altruism and selfishness begins to fade away.” (p. 59)

I hope the quotes I selected convinced you that freedom, wrongly understood as keeping all your options open, condemns us to keep everything that’s worth living for in the realm of possibility: within reach, but never present, always there somewhere, never here; a visible horizon to which one never arrives. And that really sucks. What Brooks does here, however is not undermining the value of freedom, but refines our understanding of it, and redefines freedom as fullness of capacity in executing one’s freely chosen commitments.

“If you aren’t saying a permanent no to anything, giving anything up, then you probably aren’t diving into anything fully. A life of commitment means saying a thousand noes for the sake of a few precious yeses.” (p. 18)                          

The background: a thoughtful cultural analysis.

On his journey to answering the question “what is a good life?”, Brooks engages in thoughtful cultural analysis, identifying some of the most powerful assumptions that drive most people in the current society in their pursuit of happiness. Before getting to focus on what is making a life good, he is doing some myth-busting, pointing out to the usual suspects that are believed to get us there and find them all wanting.

Our Society

The cultural analysis is focused on American society, but his findings are representative of western society if we are to use a broad, generic term. Brooks describes the cultural shift from a prevailing “we’re all in this together” moral ecology to “I’m free to be myself”, an individualistic ethos that started to gain traction as the ‘60s counterculture “took the expressive individualism that had been rattling around Romantic countercultures for centuries and made it the mainstream mode of modern life.” (p. 88) While Brooks acknowledges that the march towards freedom produced many great outcomes, the idea of personal emancipation from dogma, oppression, social prejudice and group conformity, evolved into all sorts of forms of hyper-individualism, with both left-wing and right-wing variants, all building on the idea that self-actualisation, autonomy and individual freedom are the highest values (see also Charles Taylor’s classic work “The Ethics of Authenticity”); this led to an erosion of the “we sense”, the decaying of the social fabric, or “social capital”, as Robert Putnam coined the term. 

After this grand narrative of “I’m free to be myself” has been playing out for half a century, it became the undisputed prevailing ethos shaping western societies. 

As a result, we are currently swimming in a hyper-individual culture that prizes on very powerful assumptions. It is the “moral ecology” that we inhabit; even if we fail to acknowledge or understand, or articulate it, it shapes our ambitions for life, our identity and the way we see success. We are mostly culturally conditioned in our frantic pursuit of happiness, and Brooks identifies and succinctly describes some of the most powerful assumptions and ideas that shape our culture. The list is not exhaustive, nor uncontroversial; the most powerful ideas that Brooks identifies as shaping our culture are:

    The buffered self

The autonomous individual is the fundamental unit of society. A community is a collection of individuals who are making their own choices about how to love. The best social arrangement guarantees the widest possible freedom. The central social principle is: “no harm, no foul”. An “ideal society” is formed of people who live unencumbered, but together, each doing their own thing.                             

    The God within        

The goal in life is to climb Maslow’s hierarchies and achieve self-actualisation and self-fulfilment. The ultimate source of authority is found inside, staying true to yourself.           

    The privatization of meaning       

Don’t accept received ideas, but come up with your own values, your own worldview. No shared moral order, just something you do on your own, for yourself.                                      

    The dream of total freedom       

Institutions and communities that precedes individual choice —family, ethnic heritage, faith, nation—are eaten away by hyper-individualism, precisely because they are unchosen, therefore perceived as not quite legitimate.. The best life is the freest life, and spiritual formation happens in freedom, not within obligation.      

    The centrality of accomplishment  

In a hyper-individualistic society, people are not measured by how they conform to a shared moral code primarily, but by what they have individually achieved. All the “good things” —status, admiration, being loved—follow personal achievement. Selfishness is ok because promoting the self is the prime mission; in a properly structured society, private selfishness is harnessed to produce public goods.

One can add to the list, and Brooks names just a few more: consumerism, a therapeutic mindset, the preference for technology over intimacy. 

This mindset that puts self-reliance and individual fulfilment at the centre of what’s worth living for is so pervasive, it shapes our thinking and behaviour, and is especially easy to spot in our education system and in the high profile and influential meetings and contexts, from summits to various conferences, where the topic of values inevitably emerges. The refusal to admit that these values are the prevailing driving forces in our society, any attempt to “play them down”, is subconsciously reinforcing them. 

We can lie to ourselves, but we’re not that good. It’s hard to believe ourselves when we’re not convincing. By not being honest enough to admit that we value individual accomplishment and the values instrumental in achieving it at the expense of many other, potentially better things, we’re only adding to our own confusion. When we publicly claim they are not that important, yet privately such values shape our thinking and influence our behaviour at the deepest levels, we develop a schizophrenic personality. It’s Adam I and Adam II fighting each other, but if we function on the assumptions that drive Adam I, Adam II will eventually give in and lose the fight. 

Oftentimes the more we strive to preach to ourselves that we’re not actually prizing the things we do, the more they become our functional assumptions. If all we do has a negative focus and we merely try to inhibit or to suppress desires that we recognise as destructive, yet they exert a powerful attraction over us, and if we genuinely believe we will be able to overcome them with propaganda—repeating over and over again that we do not have the problems we have—we are deceiving ourselves. That is propaganda, not education. The goal is not to brainwash ourselves or one another, but to transform our ways of thinking. To educate ourselves in order to elevate our desires and to allow a transformation from within. People repress bad desires only when they are able to turn their attention to a better desire. Sustainable transformation cannot have only a negative focus. 

A major part of the problem is the hubris of self-reliance and meritocracy. Flawed as it is, the moral system underwriting hyper-individualism is nevertheless self-confident and proud of such self-confidence:

“The meritocracy is the most self-confident moral system in the world today. It’s 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. “Character” is no longer a moral quality oriented around love, service, and care, but a set of workplace traits organized around grit, productivity, and self-discipline. The meritocracy defines “community” as a mass of talented individuals competing with one another. It organizes society into an endless set of outer and inner rings, with high achievers at the Davos center and everybody else arrayed across the wider rings toward the edge. While it pretends not to, it subliminally sends the message that those who are smarter and more accomplished are actually worth more than those who are not. The meritocracy’s soul-flattening influence is survivable if you have your own competing moral system that exists in you alongside it, but if you have no competing value system, the meritocracy swallows you whole. You lose your sense of agency, because the rungs of the professional ladder determine your schedule and life course. The meritocracy gives you brands to attach to—your prestigious school, your nice job title—which work well as status markers and seem to replace the urgent need to find out who you are.” (p. 23)

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Our Universities. 

Secular sermons delivering great big boxes of nothing

David Brooks shows the ubiquity of these cultural influences in what he calls the “secular sermons” of commencement addresses. The values that are delivered in packages coming in various shapes and forms at such occasions are piling up evidence that we are soaked in a hyper-individualist mindset. Brooks describes the performance function of such university traditions in passing to the students the dominant cultural values, with turn out to be hollow: “we use these speeches to pass along the dominant values of our age. We hand them over like some great, awesome presents. And it turns out these presents are great big boxes of nothing.”

Graduating students are being teased year after year with fake hopes and expectations, and that by well-meaning, professionally accomplished, respected members of the society, which instead of turning them into believers, might actually turn them—sooner or later— into cynics, as they put down one after another the empty boxes and intuit that the distance between what they are being told and how “the jungle out there actually works” is far greater than it really is. As in the principle of action and reaction, exaggeration in one direction brings exaggeration in the opposing direction; the pendulum never stops in the middle before full swing. The most abrupt shortcut to cynicism is a disillusioned romanticism. If one has unsustainable expectations because of cultivated naivety, confronting reality might feel like crashing.

The top “great big boxes of nothing” identified by Brooks in commencement addresses are:

the great empty box of freedom! 

The purpose of life is to be free. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. We give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom!

The students in the audience put down that empty box because they are drowning in freedom. What they’re looking for is direction. What is freedom for? How do I know which path is my path?

another big box of nothing is the big box of possibility! 

Your future is limitless! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is the destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big!

But this mantra doesn’t help them, either. If you don’t know what your life is for, how does it help to be told that your future is limitless? That just ups the pressure. So they put down that empty box. They are looking for a source of wisdom. Where can I find the answers to my big questions?

the empty box of authenticity

Look inside yourself! Find your true inner passion. You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you!

This is useless, too. The “you” we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed. So they put down that empty box and ask, What can I devote myself to? What cause will inspire me and give meaning and direction to my life?

the emptiest box of all—the box of autonomy. 

You are on your own, we tell them. It’s up to you to define your own values. No one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself. Do what you love! (p. 13-15)

Brooks suggests that such hollow answers conflate all the difficult challenges young people face and make them worse: “the graduates are in limbo, and we give them uncertainty. They want to know why they should do this as opposed to that. And we have nothing to say except, Figure it out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself. They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it all over their heads!” (p. 16)

The author decries his own generation’s lack of courage to give direction, or at least to make plain to the younger generations the imperative to find out what is worth living for. The lack of wisdom that characterise our times often passes as intellectual sophistication, but it is foolish not to have anything important to say in answering the inescapable question of what’s worth living for and why. 

Brooks cannot help but ask himself and his readers: “How is it that on this biggest question of all, we have nothing to say?”

Instead of Conclusion: the problem and the solution

The ideas endorsing “the rampant individualism” prized by our culture are powerful; they are very influential, and in time they became undisputed assumptions in the west, yet in spite of them supporting or presupposing each other, they do not form a necessarily coherent worldview; initially emerged as legitimate reactions to previous prevailing ideas and cultural norms that were seen as suffocating the individual’s need for authenticity, they were taken to paroxysm and went too far. As Brooks says, “many ideas become false when taken to the extreme.” (p 10). 

Brooks diagnosis of how far we’ve gone in a wrong direction is unequivocal: “the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self—individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization—is a catastrophe.” (p. xx) 

As it often happens, the solution is implied in one’s description of the problem. Brook’s solution in the wake of the catastrophe of hyper-individualism he describes so convincing is a much needed shift of mindset, towards a relational understanding of identity and personal fulfilment: “the whole cultural paradigm has to shift from the mindset of hyper-individualism to the relational mindset of the second mountain”. Often the awakening to a more meaningful life comes as a reaction to disappointment, or a crisis: “the valley” or “the wilderness”— two metaphors standing for dealing with often painful, life-changing experiences—usually stand between the two mountains. It’s mostly after going through “the valley” or wandering in “the wilderness”, when people become interested in ”how to do commitments well, how to give your life meaning after worldly success has failed to fulfill.” (p. xxi)

The structure of the book follows the structure of the main argument: 

Contrary to what our culture is telling us, a life well-lived is a committed life. 

The committed life starts when our ultimate appeal shifts from ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. 

There are four defining, major commitments that shape a life: 

to a vocation, to a family, to a faith and to a community. 

The good things in life, the ones we’re after on our first mountain remain good, but they cannot provide a foundation worth building our identity on, and cannot make us happy.

There are better things in life, and a committed life is not without rewards. 

The greatest reward is fulfilling well our commitments and the moral joy that comes as a by-product of faithfulness.

Brooks asks the main question, lays out the foundation, describes the problem, the false solutions and the genuine answers, building everything around the central metaphor of the two mountains in “Part I: The Two mountains”. When he’s done doing that, we are left with a coherent framework for a meaningful discussion about what is a good life, what’s worth living for and how one should live well. After doing so, in parts II to V he goes into greater detail, each part focusing on one of the major commitments he identified, respectively: Part II: Vocation, Part III: Marriage, Part IV: Philosophy and Faith, Part V: Community. 

“The Second Mountain. The Quest for a Moral Life" doesn’t rush to offer advice, or ready-made answers, nor is the author delivering punch line after punch line, although the content is distilled in a way that can bring a reader in the situation to want to underline almost everything. The book is a result of a sustained work of digesting, synthesising  and integrating, as Brooks brings in support of his main theses a host of various authors and original thinkers.

In the words of its author, the book “aims to be a practical (and yet spiritual!) guidebook to the committed life, to the life lived in service of a vocation, a marriage, a creed, and a community. The second-mountain life is a spiritual adventure, but it is lived out very practically day by day.” (p. 82)


***** Readability (5/5) – Written for a wide audience: clear structure, raising good questions, using powerful metaphors

**** Application (4/5) – it doesn’t offer ready-made answers, nor tips and tricks, but it offers a compelling framework for evaluating life goals

***** General Appeal (5/5) – The whole book feels like an essay, op-ed style, personal and familiar, but not simplistic. It is intellectually stimulating and thought stirring.

*** Commitment (3/5) – neither weekend read nor major commitment

**** Challenge (4/5) – soul-searching & intellectually stimulating. It challenges readers, regardless of their cultural background or religious belief to critically asses the culture we live in and to examine their own assumptions, to ask themselves existential questions.

***** Recommendation (5/5) – a great read for people of all creeds and educational backgrounds!

Adrian PetriceComment