The Enchanted Animal

The story Brooks tells—while filling in the reductionist modern narratives about what we really are—includes some flimsy, charm-like religion inserted as science.

July 27 th 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks. Random House, 2011. 448pp.

I'm going to ask the question
Please answer if you can
Is there anybody's children can tell me
What is the soul of a man?

I've travelled different countries
Travelled to the furthest lands
Couldn't find nobody could tell me
What is the soul of a man

I saw a crowd stand talking
I just came up in time
Was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
That a man ain't nothing but his mind

I read the Bible often
I try to read it right
As far as I can understand
It's nothing but a burning light

When Christ taught in the temple
The people all stood amazed
Was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
How to raise a man from the grave

Well I want somebody to tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

Well—what are we? Philosophers and blind blues gospel singers from Texas have asked the question for ages. And a brief look into history books, or even around your neighbourhood, shows that we don't only ask this question: we answer it too.

We answer the question "what are we?" in many ways. The many answers to that question are a bit like what's on the shelves in a well-stocked liquor cabinet: some bottles are dusty and ancient; some have been left on the shelf for a while; others are shiny and new; others are almost weightless, or the colour of fabricated steel, or ambrosial, or lusty. But both the shelves and the answers have one thing in common: they are essential liquors. Philosophers, too, tend towards distillation when answering this particular big question.

Most of us have at least studied the labels—and some of us have tasted—many of these liquors. Most of us can reel off a few of the more famous ones: Man is a political animal; I think, therefore I am; humans are producing animals; humans are utility maximizing animals.

David Brooks's recent book is a nice fizzy addition to these vintages. The Social Animal is a journalist's attempt to describe, as its subtitle suggests, "the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement." The book is an enjoyable romp that features snippets from philosophy, bits of poetry, and heavy doses of biological and sociological research on how the unconscious mind affects our actions, our thoughts, and our societies—and, ultimately, how we should define ourselves as humans.

Brooks's key point is that "we are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness." In modern times, the answers to the question of "what we are," and the way these answers are used by those who set up the political and other structures of our society, have failed because of their "reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature." And, Brooks suggests, "they will continue to fail unless the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy, unless the enchanted story is told along with the prosaic one."

But it turns out that the story Brooks tells—while effective in complicating and filling in the reductionist modern narratives about what we really are—is only partially enchanted.

The book is told (rather charmingly) as the story of two fictional people: Erica and Harold. Brooks uses their narrative as a framework into which he inserts scads of sociological and scientific research about the workings of the brain, the unconscious, and the host of complex relationships—personal, material, biological, political—that shape who we are. That method had me flipping through the pages rapidly while absorbing all sorts of fascinating bits of information. I found myself continually surprised—and yes, enchanted—by, say, Brooks's description of emergent systems and how thinking of poverty through that lens provides a much more robust and helpful way of combating it; or reading about the sense of euphoria that one experiences when near death. The enchantment in this case is like that which you experience when you shake hands with an especially attractive or interesting person in Paris: "Enchanté, delightful! Shall we grab a glass of wine? Tell me more about yourself! I'd love to get lost with you for while." So in this sense, the book is a smash hit: it's full of stuff that policy makers, students, business types, mothers, and fathers can all learn and benefit from and be delighted—enchanted—by.

But there is an older, deeper meaning for enchantment, and this is where the book comes up flat, or perhaps even sinister. Early in the book, Brooks writes:

Who are we? We are like spiritual Grand Central Stations. We are junctions where millions of sensations, emotions and signals interpenetrate every second. We are communications centers, and through some process we are not close to understanding, we have the ability to partially govern this traffic—to shift attention from one thing to another, to choose and to commit. We become fully ourselves only through the ever-richening interplay of our networks. We seek, more than anything else, to establish deeper and more complete connections.

All of this is excellent stuff. But, Brooks chooses to deal with what we usually associate with spiritual matters—in other words, God (or god)—in a strange way. Take this passage:

The unconscious is not merely a dark, primitive zone of fear and pain. It is also a place where spiritual states arise and dance from soul to soul. It collects the wisdom of the ages. It contains the soul of the species. This book will not try to discern God's role in all of this. But if there is a divine creativity, it is active in this inner soulsphere, where brain matter produces emotion, where love rewires the neurons.

Or, this passage, at the end of the book, where Harold dies:

What had been there at the start was there at the end, the tangle of sensations, drives and needs that we call, antiseptically, the unconscious. This tangle was not the lower part of Harold. It was not some secondary feature to be surpassed. It was the core of him—hard to see, impossible to understand—but supreme. Harold had achieved an important thing in life. He had constructed a viewpoint. Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines. Harold saw life as a neverending penetration of souls.

Thus the book ends; with death and a line about the "neverending penetration of souls," like something out of an Enya song.

Now, I certainly don't want to call Brooks a practitioner of the dark arts—I really like the book and his writing in general—but one gets the sense that the passages above go beyond the strict limits that Brooks set out for himself at the beginning of the book and act more as an incantation than anything else.

Perhaps the limit is the problem; the lack of a robust discussion of religion—and the human tendency to seek God—is a serious lacuna that leads Brooks, at times, to insert flimsy, charm-like religion as science. In this sense, the enchantment is not very welcome.

It's a shame, because Brooks is right: questions about what happens after we die are at the very heart of answers we give as to why we should stay alive. And we do seek, more than anything else, to establish deeper and more complete connections.

For Christians, this desire extends to God himself. All Christians affirm that the ultimate end of men and women is to become like God by having him fully come into us. Our most holy sacrament is that of communion! And death can't stop it. After all:

When Christ taught in the temple
The people all stood amazed
He was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
How to raise a man from the grave

Topics: Religion

Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.