Moderation in Ill Repute?

For some time now, I’ve been paying attention to the way people talk about moderation, and I don’t like what I hear. In politics, at least, there are clearly a large number of people who associate moderation with half-measures, philosophical inconsistencies, and perhaps even fecklessness. No wonder extremism is such a dominant element in our rhetoric. I think there is some home-spun (Texan?) idiom about nothing good ever being found in the middle of the road — if you know that one please put it in the comments.

Half-measures and fecklessness may characterize a certain sort of “moderation,” the sense of which is perhaps captured by our contemporary usage of the word “temporizing.” But that is certainly not the only form moderation can take, and I think it is not even the most common. I have suggested in a previous post that Aristotle’s conception of each cardinal virtue as a “Golden Mean” between two vices would make a much better paradigm.

G.K. Chesterton understood the difference. In Orthodoxy, he wrote:

The perfect happiness of men on earth (if it ever comes) will not be a flat and solid thing, like the satisfaction of animals. It will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance. Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.

And also that the Catholic Church

has at once emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray.

Until recently, I had assumed that the eclipse of Aristotle’s type of moderation was relatively recent, occurring perhaps only in my lifetime. But the following quotation from Les Misérables (1862) gave me some pause:

There is a theory for everything which proclaims itself “common sense;” Philinte against Alceste; mediation offered between the true and the false; explanation, admonition, a somewhat haughty extenuation which, because it is a mixture of blame and excuse, thinks itself wisdom, and is often only pedantry. An entire political school, called the compromise school, has sprung from this. Between cold water and warm water, this is the party of tepid water.

Hugo is landing some pretty tough punches in that passage. The odd thing is that Hugo himself also writes disapprovingly (or so it seems to me) of those who refuse to compromise — those whom he calls “the ultra”:

To be ultra is to go beyond. It is to attack the sceptre in the name of the throne, and the mitre in the name of the altar; it is to maltreat the thing you support; it is to kick in the traces; it is to cavil at the stake for undercooking heretics; it is to reproach the idol with a lack of idolatry; it is to insult by excess of respect; it is to find in the pope too little papistry, in the king too little royalty, and too much light in the night; it is to be dissatisfied with the albatross, with snow, with the swan and the lily in the name of whiteness; it is to be the partisan of things to the point of becoming their enemy; it is to be so very pro, that you are con.

Thus, despite his cutting critique of “common sense” moderation, Hugo understands that one can only take abstract reasoning so far before it becomes counterproductive in practical terms. One might almost say that on the question of moderation versus ideological purity, he sees both sides.

The same ambivalence is on display in Hugo’s treatment of materialism versus idealism, which allows him to write both this:

Intellectual and moral growth is not less indispensable than material amelioration. Knowledge is a viaticum, thought is of primary necessity, truth is nourishment as well as wheat. A reason, fasting from knowledge and wisdom, becomes puny. Let us lament as over stomachs, over minds which do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonising for want of bread, it is a soul which is dying of hunger for light.

and at the same time this:

Matter is, the moment is, interest is, the belly is; but the belly must not be the only wisdom. The momentary life has its rights, we admit, but the permanent life has its also.

So which attitude toward moderation is dominant today? And how long have things been that way? If you find a piece of cultural evidence, whether in yesterday’s New York Times or in a favorite book from fifty years ago, please send it to mark at reasonableminds dot org. I promise to report back. Thanks in advance for whatever you send.

By the way, there is one idea about which Victor Hugo seems to me to have been dogmatically immoderate. But that’s for another post.

5 Responses to “Moderation in Ill Repute?”

  1. jim walsh Says:

    The “Either/Or” is seductive. Someone said that the appeal of fascism was “the liberation of action,” action, that is, without the burden of thinking. So, the Either/Or offers the liberation of simplicity.

    And it seems to find warrant not just in Kierkegaard but in Scripture itself — see Revelation 3:14-16.

    Chesterton offers the complexity of the Both/And . . .

  2. Pat O'Donnell Says:

    “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Among others, former Texas pol Jim Hightower made use of this as the title of a book. Here’s a link:

  3. Mark Grannis Says:

    Thanks to both of you.

    Do you suppose there is anyone else in the universe today who is adding Kierkegaard and Jim Hightower to his reading list at the same time? I know it’s a big universe, but still . . .

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    I don’t have a reading list. I don’t even have time to watch TV anymore. This is where I squander what little free time I have.

    Asking me to scorn moderation and live a life of extremes is like asking you to be more verbose.

  5. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Two thoughts:

    St. Augustine, of whom I grow more fond as the years go by (perhaps it’s because he understood little boys so well), would have understood the blending of vices, or, if you like, the compromise with evil, not as a form of moderation but as an absurdity. Since evil has no existence, it is absolute absence or good, the blending of evils could never result in more good. For example, the coward does not become more brave by a dose of foolhardiness.

    I wonder whether the uncomfortableness with the “both/and” reflects a cultural discomfort with poetic imagination or, if you will, a lack of a certain narrative sensibility. To quote Lewis, “only the devil knows exactly where he is going.” It’s a symptom of 19th century dialectical abstraction. Jesus, for example, had little trouble, as Wendy has pointed out, using the unjust judge as an analogy for his followers to come to an understanding of what the Father was like. Culturally, we may need to recapture a bit of that Hebraic sense of humor. As an aside, it’s why I chuckle when George Bush says that Jesus is his favorite philospoher.

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