03 April 2017

Moderation is no virtue

Taken by itself, that is, in isolation from all the other virtues (or from virtue per se).

But wait, Matthew, you surprising man, I hear you cry. Did not Socrates, through his student Plato, and his companions in the argument, Critias and Chaerophon, sing the praises of sōphrosunē (moderation, not only in public affairs but also in habit and temperament) in the Charmides, even as they found themselves aporetically unsure what exactly it was?

Indeed they did, ever so much. Plato did want us to value sōphrosunē as highly as Socrates and Chaerophon did, as something beautiful and noble. But it’s impossible to read Charmides well, without the historical background knowledge Plato was depending on: that this ‘moderate’, soft-spoken, self-effacing, polite youth would end up becoming one of the Thirty, who ruled Athens with a bloody iron fist before they themselves were killed. From the irony in his choice of subject of, and participant in, this dialogue, it becomes clear that Plato wants to interrogate our assumptions about what moderation actually means, rather than merely relying on the received wisdom of the many, as Critias and even Charmides himself both do.

Starting on this question from a non-philosophical standpoint for a moment, and beginning as Chaerophon did with a tangible example: my personal model of the excellence of sōphrosunē has always been my late grandfather – a Vermont dairy farmer. He farmed, according to the best of his ability, a piece of land which was good for growing grass and maple trees and not much else; his farm produced both dairy and maple sugar, and he used that land with respect and care and patience. With regard to his personal habits, Papa was soft-spoken, careful and considerate in speech; he was impeccably well-mannered, very slow to anger, tirelessly hardworking, a Methodist who was both devout and intellectually-curious, never wanting in either intellectual or material generosity. He kept out of debt as best he could. He had no pretensions, no extravagances. But his home was always warm and welcoming to his neighbours, to his hired hands, to us his grandchildren, and even to strangers – no one ever accused the Doane home of being inhospitable!

But even though this moderation of habit sometimes translated to political quietism (particularly in an extended family with some fairly broad disagreements on politics), it never actually translated to political centrism. His emphasis on hard work and self-reliance made him the ideal Eisenhower Republican when my mother was growing up. But in his later years as he saw the society around him changing, and saw the shifts to the sugaring season in particular resulting from climate change, his very temperance, his very sōphrosunē, led him to take positions which were well out of the mainstream and well to the left of centre, on issues of foreign policy and of the environment in particular. Without any significant change in his views or habits, he became a convinced fan of Andrew Bacevich and Bill McKibben (both men now scoffed at by much of our serious, ‘moderate’ commentator class), and he participated in pro-environment demonstrations into his eighties.

Is this as drastic an irony as the eventual rise and downfall of Charmides? No, of course it isn’t. But there is an element of irony in it, and it is a modest illustration of how badly we can misunderstand a virtue when we fail to examine it, and allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that the average opinion among the many must be the correct one, since it avoids the ‘extremes’.

If it weren’t plain enough by now that I’m knee-deep into the Republic, Plato saw clearly, and wanted to demonstrate, that it was possible for entire generations and entire cities (entire ‘polities’, if we want to use a word that’s both etymologically-consistent as well as relevant to our experience within the context of the nation-state rather than the city-state) to be characterised by justice and moderation, or by a lack thereof. And for all but the most perspicacious, it is generally easier to understand justice within this political context than when it is devolved down to the individual level; in the case of a city which is plagued by a false sense of justice among its members, as Athens was: the most moderate man, the man who has most carefully developed his sōphrosunē, will not quietly and meekly go along with the many. Indeed, he will be seen as a nuisance and an extremist, and condemned even to death as ‘impious’ and as a ‘corrupter of the youth’.

It’s insights like these that I find particularly lacking when I read articles like the recent one by Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal, in praise of moderation, presuming a purely-political sense of moderation in which ‘man is the measure of all things’, without taking into consideration what moderation actually is or whom it is good for. How else, indeed, can one come to the conclusion that both John Adams and Ronald Reagan were comparable ‘moderates’ when the things they wanted for their polity – the same polity, in fact, in two separate points in time – were so divergent? For that matter, how are we to understand the vast, and indeed highly immoderate, inequalities in wealth and income that resulted from Reagan’s (and Clinton’s) ‘moderate’ policies? Or how else is it to be understood, that ‘vital centre’ politics are something to be praised by self-professed moderates within their own generation, yet condemned as impractical and extreme by some of the same moderates, when a man who deliberately and explicitly hails back to them and articulates them best in a way that appeals to a new generation of young people? Ought it to be considered ironic that a man who conducted himself with the greatest gentlemanly courtesy and circumspection in his debates during the campaign was the one to be written off as extremist? Is sōphrosunē something which can be cultivated across the course of a lifetime, or is it simply a knack for reading the winds?

Bringing this back to the personal level. I have a respect for thoughtful moderation. I would actually consider myself a ‘moderate’ of sorts on social issues, in that I don’t think the complete unvarnished truth, by which we must orient our understanding of the common good, lies entirely within the ambit of either of our modern political tribes. I was, after all, a Maturen voter. At the same time, my understanding is out-of-step with the common received wisdom of the American populace in a number of respects: I don’t believe (and have never really believed) individual political liberty and licence to be the definitive supreme good, for example; and I’ve always been highly sceptical of whether constitutional republicanism as a system of government is all it’s really cracked up to be (let alone democracy!). In this sense, I’m firmly of the opinion that a well-examined political sōphrosunē is among the greatest goods (even though I still don’t quite know what it is, and am still examining it myself). But a great evil is the semblance of sōphrosunē, the unexamined, triangulating self-satisfaction of political Clintonism and Broderism, particularly within the American context.


  1. I see that you voted for Mike Maturen. Interestingly enough, I am an avid reader of your blog, and the chair of the Illinois chapter of the ASP.