While travelling across the country*, I did a lot of thinking on the proper way to live. It was some high-quality thinking; life-changing thinking. But, like most of my thinking on this subject, it would sound really banal if I was to write about it. However, I did come up with one bloggable insight.
I realized that I don’t believe in moderation.
It’s not that I believe in going overboard and drinking in the morning and abandoning your responsibilities and adopting all the behavior that is typically called “immoderate”. It’s just that I don’t believe in the theoretical framework that underpins the concept of moderation.
The Western* belief in the importance of moderation derives from Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”. Aristotle (who was a huge influence on Christian philosophy) believed that all virtues existed on a sort of sliding scale. Too little of a virtue was bad, but so was too much of a virtue. The important thing was to be somewhere in the center. For instance, too much courage is called recklessness and too little courage is called cowardice, but just-enough courage is called bravery; too much willingness-to-spend is called being spendthrift and too little willingness-to-spend is called miserliness, but just-enough willingness-to-spend is called generosity; etc.
Aristotle said that the thing to do was to recognize where you naturally fell on this scale and then aim for the other end of the scale (i.e. if you’re naturally cowardly, then you should try to be reckless). Thereby, you’d end up somewhere in the middle (i.e. at the Golden Mean). Then, after trying and trying, eventually your new behavior would become second nature to you.
I don’t believe that this is the way to achieve virtuous habits. Aristotle isn’t really saying something profound about the nature of virtue, he’s just making an observation about language. Yes, language does have a term for too much and too little and just enough of a virtue. But that does not mean that these virtues have are linked in the linear fashion that Aristotle described.
In fact, it’s my observation that too-much and too-little of a virtue are usually the result of more or less the same cause. For instance, both misers and spendthrifts suffer from an inaccurate conception of what money can purchase: they both believe money is more valuable than it really is–the miser believes he is hoarding up future happiness by saving his money, while the spendthrift believes he is purchasing current happiness by saving his money.
Similarly, both the coward and the reckless man have a poor conception of the value of their own life. Neither understands the conditions under which life is worth living.
To my mind, each virtue is like a dark room. You spend your time flailing around in the room and falling down and knocking things over and just generally making a mess. That mess takes various forms–sometimes the mess you make in the ‘courage’ room is called ‘cowardice’ and sometimes it’s called ‘recklessness’–but the fundamental problem is that the room is dark as hell and you can’t see anything.
The advocates of moderation would advocate that you feel your way all around the room and pat down everything and get a good sense of what’s inside it and then carefully learn how to navigate your way between the furniture without stumbling. And that’s fine. But I think it’d be much easier to just turn the light on.
In my life, I haven’t typically had much luck with moderating my negative impulses and strengthening my positive impulses. Oh, I’ve fumbled around with it. And I’ve done my best. But what usually happens is that I try and try and fail and fail and then I have some kind of blinding insight and from then onwards I have relatively little trouble with whatever character flaw I was worried about.
I’m not saying that attempting to moderate your behavior is not a worthwhile activity. In fact, I think that it can be beneficial, since attempts at moderation bring the character flaw to the forefront of your attention and force you to think about it. But I do think that moderation should not be your goal; instead, your goal should be to have the insight that makes moderation unnecessary.
*On a sidenote, I have arrived! I’m in DC right now (living at my parents’ house), and I’ve just signed a lease for an apartment in Baltimore!
**When I say “Western” I don’t mean, “As opposed to the deeply spiritual and intuitive Eastern mystical tradition to which I am an heir…” I just use the word in order to acknowledge that Western culture (the culture of myself and most of my readers) believes certain things that maybe other cultures don’t believe in.