Moreover, the very notion of “eulogy virtues” partakes in the crisis of selfishness that Brooks is busy decrying. In his chapter on George Eliot, Brooks cites the famous concluding passage of Eliot’s greatest novel, “Middlemarch,” concerning Eliot’s ardent heroine, Dorothea, with whose aspirations the book began: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Brooks is right to alight upon this passage: it’s a magnificent expression of a resonant theme. In Eliot’s characterization of Dorothea over the course of the nine hundred-odd pages of “Middlemarch,” a reader gradually witnesses an individual’s growth from debilitating self-centeredness to a larger, more profoundly gratifying empathy. Brooks’s instinct that there is wisdom to be found in literature that cannot be found in the pages of the latest social science journals is well-advised, and the possibility that his book may bring the likes of Eliot or Samuel Johnson—another literary figure about whom he writes with engaging sympathy—to a wider general readership is a heartening thought.
But Eliot’s unvisited tombs, in their quiet, solemn modesty, present an image that is the very opposite of a what is implied by a eulogy—which is, after all, a very public affirmation and celebration of a life. Brooks hopes that readers of his book will find themselves inspired to pursue the so-called eulogy virtues with all the intensity with which they once sought the résumé virtues, as he says he has been inspired to do himself. But the avowed cultivator of eulogy virtues may still be hoping that, when he’s gone, others will sing his praises. A hidden life is a much more demanding prospect to accept, or to recommend.
Rebecca Mead, in David Brooks’s Search for Meaning – The New Yorker.