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Moderation may be the most challenging and rewarding virtue

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Aurelian Craiutu, professor of political science and adjunct professor of American studies at Indiana University, writes in Aeon:

Three centuries ago, the French political philosopher Montesquieu claimed that human beings accommodate themselves better to the middle than to the extremes. Only a few decades later, George Washington begged to differ. In his Farewell Address (1796), the first president of the United States sounded a warning signal against the pernicious effects of the spirit of party and faction. The latter, he argued, has its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind and can be seen in ‘its greatest rankness’ in popular government where the competition and rivalry between factions are ‘sharpened by the spirit of revenge’ and immoderation.

If one looks at our world today, we might be tempted to side with Washington over Montesquieu. Our political scene offers a clear sign of the little faith we seem to have in this virtue without which, as John Adams memorably put it in 1776, ‘every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey’. Although our democratic institutions depend on political actors exercising common sense, self-restraint and moderation, we live in a world dominated by hyperbole and ideological intransigence in which moderates have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection. Can we do something about that to save them from extinction? To answer this question, we should take a new look at moderation, which Edmund Burke regarded as a difficult virtue, proper only to noble and courageous minds. What does it mean to be a moderate voice in political and public life? What are the principles underlying moderation? What do moderates seek to achieve in society, and how do they differ from more radical or extremist minds?

Before answering these questions, we must address the common view that tends to equate moderation with indecision, weakness, opportunism and cowardice. In the eyes of those who espouse this interpretation, moderation appears as a bland, incoherent and undesirable virtue, the opposite of the firmness and clarity of purpose desired by those who prefer starker contrasts and brighter colours. ‘Moderation sees itself as beautiful,’ Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped, only because ‘it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.’ To others more politically inclined, moderation is unsatisfactory because it is seen as a form of appeasement that does not offer a suitable platform for mobilisation and reform.

What did the ancients think about all this? For one thing, they didn’t share our present skepticism toward moderation. On the contrary, they praised it and thought that the alleged ‘barbarians’ were also incapable of moderation, that is, of following a rational middle course. If classical authors agreed on the importance of moderation, they also insisted that it is not an easy virtue. Tacitus called it, in fact, ‘the most difficult lesson of wisdom’, while Horace linked moderation to the golden mean and balance, all good things in his view, but difficult to achieve in practice. Plato highlighted both the importance and difficulty of moderation in The Republic, where he defined it as the virtue that allows us to control or temper our passions, emotions and desires. For all their differences, Plato’s wisdom was not lost on his most important disciple, Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defined virtue as a mean between extremes, and insisted that ‘a master of any art avoids excess and defect’, always seeking ‘the intermediate’ that preserves order and freedom in society. Yet since the mean is never one-dimensional, we must always assess and evaluate the context of our choices in order to decide on the appropriate course of action at the ‘right’ time, in the ‘right’ place, and with regard to the ‘right’ people. To achieve all this, one needs both prudence and moderation, yet there is no algorithm for them; moderation can be learned and gained only through experience and practice. It is a challenging virtue, not suitable to the young who lack knowledge and patience.

Moderation as temperance also occupies a key place in the Christian tradition, in which it has long been regarded, along with prudence, as a cardinal virtue. Many Christian theologians, including St Thomas Aquinas, argue that moderation is not incompatible with fortitude, courage and wisdom. In fact, they claim, no one can be wise and courageous without also being moderate at the same time.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2017 at 10:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Politics

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