Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Thrill of Moderation

If there is any idea which does not excite, it is moderation.

Moderation lacks the pizzazz of excess, with all of its bells and fanfare, and even deficiency can arouse amusement by the shock of insufficiency. Even the ancient fonts of wisdom seem to avail us of little help, for how inspiring is the thought of the auream mediocritatem. Yes it says golden mean, but who can look at that phrase and not see mediocre! shining through Horace's Latin? It is perhaps the fate of this idea to find no easy selling point, no hook by which to snag potential moderates. Even those meticulous verses of Horace in which moderation comes to life in full grandeur and gravitas, even the meticulous logic of Aristotle which proves moderation wise, such persuasions do not excite one to moderation. We may undertake it out of emulation or prudence, but never out of enthusiasm. If one takes the leap of moderation, though, one finds its practice nothing short of thrilling. How is this possible?

First, moderation gets you thinking. It is not so hard to glob onto an extreme and pursue it toward appalling excess without thinking, but to be moderate one must examine both sides, as far to their extremes as possible. This process is not only stimulating but entertaining, and no small part of life's intellectual pleasure comes from the consideration of the absurd. More practically, in examining extremes we are arguing for and against the one which we prefers by inclination.

As such and second, moderation encourages self-examination by requiring us to consider alternatives to one's habitual or natural preferences. Thinking about oneself–not from a sense of narcissism but of humility–is typically an intense task, requiring repeated reflection and consideration.

Thinking of oneself then promotes, thirdly, thinking of others, a task which is likewise without end. How many and how happy are the moments of remembrance, calling to mind the wise and prudent with as much pleasure as the imbecilic. Of course this reflection takes the forms of empathy and criticism, which both lead back to considerations of ourselves.

Reflectivity aside, though, the pursuit of moderation makes each choice an exiting, vital one. Upon the precipice of each action moderation imbues us with purpose both moral and intellectual: Can I figure this problem out as a rational man? Can I negotiate these waters and find the just end?

Speaking of which, moderation makes us consider ends. When we considers the extremes of behavior we also consider their effects, likely preferring to avoid one. In a choice, for example, between upsetting two people, we may learn whom we fear to hurt, or perhaps which principle prevails in our heart. Absent considering alternatives, such knowledge remains obscure.

Of course all of these exciting effects are those of process, and as exciting as they are, I find the thrill of moderation chiefly to lie in its success. How often after I've chosen just the right word, just the right time to interject–or more often, to be silent)–or even the proper time to stop chowing down, do I feel that I've dodged a bullet. In contrast, failures of moderation in both excess and defect always find the same ends of shame and regret. Like walking out of a movie which is too short or slight, defect stirs feelings of disappointment, as one leaves an overlong film numbed insensate.

Finally, we see that apart from the salubrious effects of moderation we find that moderation seems to magnify the spirit. In examining a choice, viewing the alternatives, and then choosing what one deems prudent, we find the happy, just, and of course moderate joy in the exercise of our will. Not the will of whim, but of virtuously directed agency. Choices never seem so mine and I never seem so in control of myself and my life than when I act with moderation. In contrast, following instinct and habit, conniving or striving to get what I wanted before thinking about all sides, makes me feel small. I feel then feeble, as if I can only be happy when sated.

Contra expectations of stuffy, stodgy, mean-finding, moderation is nothing short of choice itself, for who can be said to choose who does not look to all ends, and whom do we say, of course, sees all ends?

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