We understand what it means to have good character as a soldier. We have something of an idea of what it means to have good character as a business professional.
But, what does it mean to have good character when you are in the business of thinking. That is, when you are a writer.
David Brooks asked the question in his column yesterday. He answered it clearly and cogently.
In his words:
We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?
Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.
Brooks is summarizing what appears to be an excellent book. Called Intellectual Virtues it was written by two professors, Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood. By all appearances the book’s authors and Brooks are following Aristotle’s definitions of virtue. They could not have done better.
First among the intellectual virtues is a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. Someone who thinks for a living must be curious and open-minded. He must want to learn and he must pursue knowledge avidly.
The more virtuous he is the more he is motivated by his love of knowledge, not his love of fame, money and celebrity.
Evidently, he is humble. Such an individual does not believe that he knows everything and he is willing to allow his beliefs and opinion to be questioned.
Second, he possesses courage. Brooks is correct to say that there is more to courage than holding unpopular opinions. Some opinions are unpopular because they are silly or absurd.
He defines intellectual courage differently:
But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious.
Note well that Brooks, following Roberts and Wood, uses an Aristotelian definition of virtue as a mean between two extremes.
Intellectual virtue exists somewhere between jumping to conclusions and failing to conclude anything. To find the correct middle ground between those extremes, an intellectually virtuous individual must possess self-control and self-discipline.
He should be able to formulate a conclusion, but he should wait until he has considered all the facts and all sides of the argument.
Next, there is the virtue of firmness.
Brooks defines it as the mean between being too yielding and being too rigid:
You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness.
Another virtue is autonomy. For my part I would call it judiciousness. It means that you should not believe everything you are told and should not reject everything you are told. You should not take someone else’s word as gospel and should not systematically reject the views of others.
Intellectual honesty requires that you not become a cult follower. It also requires that you not make a fetish out of making your own mistakes.
You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.
Brooks concludes, in a statement with which I concur: