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The Second Mountain

The Quest for a Moral Life

By David Brooks
19-minute read
Audio available
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks

The Second Mountain (2019) poses an age-old question: What’s the secret to living a joyful, meaningful and fulfilling life? David Brooks provides a provocative answer that rubs against the grain of present-day society: reject individualism and the almost totally unrestricted personal freedom it promises, and embrace a life of service to other people instead.

  • Professionals feeling a lack of fulfillment in their careers   
  • Individuals feeling a lack of joy in their lives
  • Citizens feeling a lack of connection in their societies

David Brooks is a center-right columnist for the New York Times, where he writes about politics, culture and society. He is the author of multiple best-selling books, including The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. He is a regular commentator on The PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered and NBC’s Meet the Press. He also teaches at Yale University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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The Second Mountain

The Quest for a Moral Life

By David Brooks
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks
Synopsis

The Second Mountain (2019) poses an age-old question: What’s the secret to living a joyful, meaningful and fulfilling life? David Brooks provides a provocative answer that rubs against the grain of present-day society: reject individualism and the almost totally unrestricted personal freedom it promises, and embrace a life of service to other people instead.

Key idea 1 of 12

Individualism undermines our social connections.

To understand the first mountain that people climb on their journey toward a life of fulfillment, we should begin by mapping out the societal landscape from which the mountain emerges. The nature of this landscape can be summed up in a single word: individualism.

As its name suggests, this is a belief system that champions individuality. It’s the dominant ethos of the United States, which can therefore be called an individualistic society.

Individualism allows a philosophy of life where people are offered almost total personal freedom. Unlike members of non-individualistic societies, you won’t have to conform to the ideas, values or behavioral norms of other people or organizations. For example, you won’t have to live by the dictates of political leaders or religious institutions.

Those dictates represent various things that other people want you to think, value or do. But what do you want to think, value or do? Individualism invites you to answer this question for yourself, and encourages you to follow your own desires. Want to devote your life to whitewater rafting? Or become a powerful business executive? Do whatever you want, individualists say, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s ability to do the same. In the ideal version of an individualistic society, we can all peacefully coexist and do our own thing alongside each other.

Underlying this conception of society is a worldview that sees people as separate individuals, rather than interconnected members of various overlapping communities like churches and neighborhoods. When you belong to one of these communities, you’re bound up with your fellow community members in a set of shared spaces and endeavors: an example of this is a Jewish community worshipping God in their synagogue. In a communal context, it makes sense for people to have mutual commitments to each other and to their shared values and objectives.

But each of those commitments represents a limitation on personal freedom. By committing to follow the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut, for example, a person embraces stringent restrictions on what she can and cannot eat. Individualism balks at such a prospect, because, as far as this belief system is concerned, the fewer our commitments and constraints, the better. But this is a problematic notion, as we’ll see in the next blink.

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