Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: On Moderation

On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World
by Harry Clor. 2008.

In everything it is no easy task to find the middle. . . therefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. –Aristotle

I have tried to imagine a reader who would not benefit from Harry Clor's On Moderation, to find someone for whom this volume is of no use. Surely this book must be redundant for the philosophically literate? No. Too esoteric for the layman? No. Too long? Certainly not, at 120 pages. On Moderation has enough of tempered sagacity to earn the trust of the old and enough challenges to common suppositions to stir the youthful. It is neither sententious nor witless, chastising nor therapeutic. It neither overwhelms with footnotes nor suffers from a lack of references. On Moderation is for everyone. Perhaps it is a banal, even hokey, compliment to say that a book titled On Moderation is itself of moderate proportions but such is quite a feat. How might we fare weaving the thread of one of Western Civilization's oldest ideas throughout all of its history? And not just through its treatment at the hands of philosophers but by authors and in the lives of political figures?  And then presenting it in a clear and useful form for any reader? Quite a feat.

Why attempt it, though? Why be moderate? To answer this question we obviously must define the idea and Clor divides the task into three categories: What does it mean to practice, 1) political moderation, 2) personal moderation, and 3) philosophical moderation. In each Clor seeks out the the proponents and examples of moderation and issues which seem to present challenges to moderation, i.e. people and problems who urge or seem to require some more extreme course of action. Present throughout is the author's own moderation. In particular Clor is always attentive to the alternative sides of an argument, the limits of what one may know of particular circumstances, the potential to gain insight from a position that seems generally wrong or unreasonable, and lastly that there exists a multitude of goods and one may not always attain them all.

Political Moderation

Clor begins discussing political moderation with a frank question. "Isn't political moderation just splitting the difference?" This is depressingly plausible, isn't it? We don't seem to be off to a great start. He then continues with an inviting and elucidating anecdote:
Once while teaching a course on the American Founding I thought it appropriate to stress the virtues of political moderation. An outstanding student (and congenital debunker) responded with a challenge: "So you would have been against the American Revolution or you would have looked for some compromise to avoid it!" At the time the question threw me embarrassingly off balance. [Clor, 11]
First off, anyone who has taught for any duration can spare a chortle for his experience. More to the point, though, Clor (citing the late Martin Diamond's amusingly-titled essay, "The Revolution of Sober Expectations") observes that the revolution was moderate as far as revolutions go. Unlike the French and Bolshevik ones it did not seek to overthrow all of society, to change man's nature, or to attain a massive list of rights. No one marched in the streets chanting, "We will have equality or we will destroy civilization," as in the French Revolution. Clor uses this example to demonstrate how moderation in political life consists in part of putting up with defects or limiting aspirations in order to bring about some good (presumably enough so that the defects are bearable.) Some may find this approach unsatisfying and tantamount to a revisionist approach in which certain events are demonstrated really to be moderate, yet another of the author's points provides a corrective to this criticism: that perspective and an impersonal distance are required for political moderation. One must step away and examine the issue, and its extreme positions, in order to perceive the moderate position.

Another aspect of political moderation Clor identifies is that of acknowledging a multiplicity of principles. Not mere conflict and strife, he points out, but multiple values deserving of your attention and which must be balanced, though preserving one may damage the other. Similarly, Clor identifies the principle of proportionality as appropriate to political moderation, finding it in the American system of government which achieves the balance of "constituted representative democracy" in contrast to "radical populistic democracy." Applying Burke's words to the American system, one may say that it "tempers together those opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work."

In contrast to the aforementioned principles of moderation Clor finds the so-called "value pluralism" unpersuasive as a force of moderation, for while its toleration is preferable to polarized struggles for control of the state, "tolerance by itself does not produce the sense of community on which it depends." [Clor, 20] That is, toleration is really only plausible when some underlying fundamentals, often unspoken, exist. Too, value pluralism, extolling diversity itself as a virtue, requires one to praise all walks of life and actions as good without recourse to any particular understanding of a "good life." Well how can they all be good?

One of the most important aspects of political moderation Clor picks up from Aristotle, who argued that we "ought not expect more precision from our study than the subject matter permits." This means not that there are no universal truths but that prescriptions to bring them about or abide by them may only be offered in outline because particular instances are variable. A few obvious examples follow, namely the two which philosophers have wrangled with and tried to, once and for all, proclaim as evil: lying and murder. Are they not sometimes the lesser of evils, for example if they prevented mass devastation? Too, does power really "always corrupt" or is it sometimes necessary as a force to counter evil? Clor infers two points from Aristotle's observation: 1) do not attempt to turn politics into an exact science, and 2) don't turn ethics into a body of categorical imperatives. Do so, and every political decision you make becomes an intractable one without any hope of negotiation. If all issues are moral ones, then no societies are possible except for ones in which everyone agrees about everything or about nothing. Most societies reach some degree of moderation, permitting some things and forbidding others.

A "moderate" political citizen then, with these "situational ethics" in mind, has much to observe in trying to negotiate what is and is not acceptable. Yet what happens when something is finally decided upon? It is usually made into some kind of law. How useful is this? Clor, again channeling Aristotle, notes that on the one hand laws are made by fallible men and thus may be biased and imperfect, and on the other they are still more dispassionate than any human judgment would be on the spur of the moment by virtue of their distance from the event in question. Again, on the one hand the law provides an impartial standard for a situation and on the other there are times when a "judgment call" is needed. It is hard to foresee every circumstance. Sentencing someone to life in prison for violating a rule which has been superseded or rendered defunct would be "excessive legalism." The rule of law itself, then, is a moderator in need of moderation.

Finally, then, the politically moderate man must be able to balance the demands of various principles, to calculate reasonable goals, to admit a degree of uncertainty to the situation, to refrain from moralizing, to be diligent about obtaining the facts, and maintain capacity for disinterested examination. Too, he must remember that all men are subject to passions and that even reason may find itself passion's instrument.

Personal Moderation

Nietzsche contest with the ancients for man's nature is at heart of this chapter. For both parties man may be of two natures, of reason and chaos, but in which does his ideal state exist? The former sees in  chaos the will to create and the latter in harmony the happiness of man. Does reason reveal the path to prosperity or does it simply saddle and devitalize one's passions and inner drive? After laying out the arguments for passion and reason, for order chaos and order, Clor makes a recommendation for moderation all the more powerful and sensible for its brevity: Are we not reasoning and social creatures, do we not carry various imperatives and entertain different claims upon us? Is an energetic or happy human really one in which many of these claims lay undeveloped? Relax control, maybe here and there, but only if you have a moral constitution as the norm. Clor concludes, "the demands of rationality may be relaxed by a mind in which reason retains a prominent voice." [Clor, 58] Such moderation feels almost like a relief from the extreme claims.

The author begins his discussion of love without much hope that he will find room for moderation. Who wants to be loved moderately? To recommend a "temperate ecstasy" is to invite parody. Yet if moderation has no place here than its overall usefulness to us is considerably less. Clor weaves through the extremes, though, noting, "if you don't want happiness and unhappiness to be a kind of lottery, you had better be in some position to judge the qualities of the person you consider giving yourself to and cherishing." [Clor, 60] As in political moderation, self-restraint and a rational consideration of character are called for. Yes, the act is the act regardless of whether it is good, but it cannot be fitting for man or you without some deliberation about life, self, and other. Love requires both dependency and independency. Love requires dedication, but general happiness requires investment in many pursuits, of which the attachment of love is but one. Clor finds in Freud just such a sort of pragmatic injunction for moderation. "Any choice that is pushed to an extreme will be penalized by exposing the individual to the dangers which arise if a technique of living that has been chosen as an exclusive one should prove inadequate." [Clor, 63]

While discussing man's capacity for passion Clor makes an interesting stop to discuss compassion. Yes, of course it maintains certain personal and social benefits. Yet is it somehow overrated? Perhaps, but perhaps one simply ought to distinguish more finely just what it is.  Sometimes compassion is simply rooted in a fear that the same thing could happen to you. Second, you may feel pity and empathy for someone's suffering but such is not the same as persistent concern for his well-being. Neither of these instances of "compassion" are quite so laudable as we might think. Lastly, one may indeed be deserving of compassion but also of anger or indignation. Compassion is not a virtue, something that refines a passion toward some good end, but a passion itself. As such, it requires guidance and consideration of goods since it can be properly or improperly directed.

Concluding Clor's discussion of the nature of man's passions he asks: are they wholly benevolent or do they need to be vigorously squelched? On the one hand we may consider if they are wholly benevolent, a position which Clor finds supported in some modern psychologies in which in which one needs to "grow" and "be oneself" and be "open to possibilities." In this thinking one must forge "contacts" through which the self will reconfigure and very little can be seen to be determinedly wrong. Though clearly unpersuaded by this immoderate approach, Clor, persistently moderate, accords gestalt psychology its due noting that, "the idea that personality develops through the experience and incorporation of connections with others is a sensible one as far as it goes, but the other side of wisdom is full recognition of the fact that not all contacts are good ones."[Clor, 74]

Yet if some passions are moderated, how is this accomplished? It seems foolish to think that one can "temper impetuous impulses by remonstrating with them." To Aristotle, one's habits and dispositions, the ways in which the passions are incorporated into one's disposition, moderate otherwise unrestrained desires. Repeatedly choosing an action, under whatever guidance or communal pressure, slowly makes that way of dealing with the passion part of who you are. Personal moderation, like political moderation, would seem to require much of the individual. In fact it requires nothing less than an awareness of self and society. It requires rationally choosing values but also understanding those which one has unconsciously acquired through habituation. It requires building a character but also understanding the values one has inherited as an individual in a particular family and country and even those one has by chance. It requires measured introspection and accordingly corrective action, not dogmatism or unlimited "openness" to any outcome. It requires having a character, which necessitates the ability to perceive a situation and reason what the right thing to do is, and then the will to temper oneself. One might say it requires both wisdom and virtue.

Philosophical Moderation

We have several times spoken of reason and therefore must defend it as legitimate. We must defend reason if we are to justify the habituation, education, and self-discipline that moderation calls for. A defense of reason is necessary, as Clor puts it, because, "one who has no respect for reason is ill-disposed to listen to argument, entertain viewpoints differing from those one currently holds, and cultivate that capacity for deliberation that is part and parcel of a self-controlling character." [Clor, 86]

Clor takes on a number of the postmodernist attacks on reason and his first is surprisingly simple. If it is so that "everyone is coming from somewhere" and that no one can escape his influences and circumstances, why bother with structures of any kind? Why bother with a liberal education, for example, if reason and debate are meaningless? Why bother with structures for legislative deliberation if it is really just a contest of wills? Clor makes an excellent and subtle observation about Plato's Republic
The persons Socrates encounters in the Platonic dialogues assert opinions that reflect their (diverse) personalities, backgrounds, or aspirations, and the encounters are designed to show the attentive reader both who difficult it is to make them entertain challenges to their received opinions and that it is sometimes possible to do so. Platonic dialogues recognize that everyone is coming from somewhere, but that where you are going is, at least on occasion and with the right person, open to effectual discussion. [Clor, 87]
Indeed, postmodernist anti-reason ideologies do not promote questioning traditional thought so much as they "render the injunction 'know thyself' virtually meaningless." [Clor, 88] Such attacks on rationality of course also affect all norms and standards, which "are dissolved under the acids of a critique that pronounces them to be groundless if not fraudulent." Clor refers to this as an "ultra-libertarianism," quoting Dostoevsky's disapproving observation, "everything is permitted." The postmodernist position also unravels society by rendering all lifestyles equal. Clor makes less than he could of the disconnect between these postmodernist ideas and the positions of some contemporary liberals that "equal respect is a categorical imperative." (Never to us a straw man, Clor uses Dworkin's 1977 Taking Rights Seriously as an example.) As with political moderation, there must be some recourse to values which transcend particular circumstances lest the whole enterprise of moderation be equally relativistic. Using Clor's example, a terrorist leader who compromises amongst the extreme demands of his followers cannot be considered a moderate.

At last Clor tackles Nietzsche's epistemology. If we take Nietzsche's philosophy to be true, with its conclusion that  philosophy is not reasoned inquiry but creativity driven by the will to power, then what do we make of it? If we do believe it, how can we believe it? Clor seems slightly offended by Nietzsche's own response to the question, that if you realize this conundrum, "So much the better." So much the better?" asks Clor. Truly? Yet Clor's moderation restrains him and he seeks a moderate view of Nietzsche, culling from the bluster that from Nietzsche's perspectivism we learn that our understanding is often only partial, that seeking the truth is not precluded but rather no one can presume to have grasped the whole of it.

Despite such observations about epistemology, which Clor, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, calls "contributions to moral relativism," Nietzsche's philosophy itself praises something and discourages others. It affirms zeal over enervation and struggle over complacency. In Nietzsche Clor does not find the philosopher of "anything goes" but of "a demanding spiritedness." "What is to be admired is "energetic commitment, which is, at its pinnacle, self-creative." [Clor, 93] Whether or not one agrees with this reading of Nietzsche, it certainly is allows a moderate person to learn something from the philosophy without committing to its extreme prescriptions. It also casts considerable doubt upon it as anything workable on its own.

Perhaps the most novel attack on reason, though, comes not from Nietzsche but from Rousseau, who argued that reason (and imagination) produce desires which are distinct from our natural, necessary, inclinations. "Sensual desires are inflamed into lusts. . . thought makes possible egoism." [Clor, 99] Nature's impulses are simple, inescapable, and able to be sated. Appetites rooted in thought may not be. Clor counters:
Without thought, "know thyself" is impossible, and it is even quite doubtful that without thought you could come to have a self at all. . . Rousseau's original man has no ego about which to be egotistic. Who among us would want to trade places with that "man" and pay that price? [Clor, 100]
There is in this a bit of a challenge to the Rousseauian, Nietzschian, and post-modernist programs: if you want to live like that, go ahead, but you'll end up tempering it with something anyway.


On Moderation is a terrific and spirited read. It makes the task of living the good life, navigating its extremes, seem challenging, rewarding, and even noble. The text starts with simple examples using famous political figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill and eases the reader into more complex discussions of Rousseau and Nietzsche. It is judiciously footnoted with a short suggested reading list of recommendations ranging from Jane Austen to George Will. Clor is so consistently even-handed and concerned with useful learning over proving, the book is as much a model for moderation as a discussion of it. One may tire of the many "what ifs" and "on the other hand" but such scrutiny and even-handedness, such work, well that's moderation.

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