Is mainstream U.S. culture becoming addicted to excess, that more and bigger is always better? We measure the health of our economy by the growth of our GDP, how much more stuff and services we produce and consume than last year. But is more always better? Do we ever ask ourselves “how much is enough”? Or is the very concept “enough” lost from our vocabulary? Environmentalists call for limits on our hyper-consumption and production in order to achieve sustainability and stability. Most world religions and philosophies from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism agree, stressing that moderation — the “middle way” — is the key to a good life. And that an excess of material goods and egregious greed, despite momentary excitement, is ultimately a recipe for disaster, both personally, socially and environmentally.
In my middle years, my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to Greece to seek the ancient origin of my calling, “philosophy,” the love of wisdom. Climbing up Mt. Parnassus in the midst of an encompassing blizzard, we narrowly averted a fatal bus accident, and gratefully found ourselves just below the magnificent ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the god of light and reason. Here Socrates indirectly received his mission to question conventional truths and pursue wisdom from the Delphic Oracle. Socrates was deeply influenced by the prominent epigraphs on the sides of the temple. On one side: “Know Thyself” — as deep a challenge to us today as 3,000 years ago. On the other side: “All things in moderation.” Are they related? If we know ourselves — and our limits — will it help us avoid extremist outbursts, greedy lifestyles and fanatical actions?
The ancient Greek philosophers generally thus extol “sophrosene” — a blend of temperance and self-restraint — as the supreme virtue. Aristotle especially sees all virtues residing in the “golden mean between extremes,” which is good practical advice when it comes to eating, drinking and shopping. But should we be “moderate” in pursuit of knowledge and art? The philosopher Nietzsche argued that the greatness of Greek drama rested on the synthesis of opposites: form plus ecstatic energy; Apollonian reason integrated with Dionysian frenzy. “This is the contradiction at the heart of the world.”
There are also other examples of non-moderation that seem necessary for a good life and a good society. Dr. Martin Luther King often described himself as “an extremist for love.” The mass civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement, although nonviolent, was certainly not “moderate.” It was a “revolution in values,” a radical transformation of our society.
Should we really be “moderate” in advocating for our children, for human rights and for the planet? Perhaps even the reasonable ideal of moderation should not be carried to an extreme. In other words, be moderate in pursuit of moderation.
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Edgewood College in Madison specializing in the philosophy of peace and ethics interpreted as the quest for a good life. He lives in Dodgeville and offers his musings in this space on a rotating basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.