Classical morality has often been described as the finding of a Golden Mean or Happy Medium between two extremes. We find this concept in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and again in St. Thomas Aquinas, that virtue is the mean between two extremes of vice. So courage is the mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. Temperance is the mean between luxury and abstemiousness. Fully integrated sexuality is the mean between profligacy and what we might call “prudishness” for lack of a better word.
I like the theory of the golden mean as a working model for morality. It appeals to my conservative nature. I have a natural bias towards the safe, balanced and sensible. It is appealing on the moral level, and perhaps even more so on the political level, given our current polarized ideological milieu. Who doesn’t want to see a little more moderation and compromise in our political sphere?
On the other hand, I can’t help but notice that the law of moderation, if taken to an extreme, can suffer from its own critique. It is a safe route, leading to a tendency towards fence sitting, mediocrity, and complacency. The decent sort of man can easily become obsessed with his own decency, and keep the middle way as an end, rather than a means.
I have found it more useful in my own life to consider the balance of extremes to be the true Catholic way, rather than a balance between extremes.
I first ran into this concept in C. S. Lewis’s great essay “On Chivalry” (reproduced in part here.) He was the first one who spoke to me of the balance of extremes in the person of the knight, who chose to embrace both extremes of his society rather than walk the safe way between them. Chesterton also spoke of it, this time referencing the Catholic Church, in “Orthodoxy,” which I beg permission to quote at length below:
“As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind–the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.”
The “Odd Shape” of Christianity emerges from the very fact that its enemies can attack it simultaneously from every side, each accusing it of an opposite vice, and each with equal justice.
Christ Himself predicted as much, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Luke 7:31-35.
I have come to think that maybe errors and heresies and sins are not often, or at least not always, so much wrong in what they assert as in what they deny.
(I should point out here that I am putting this forth as a model, open to discussion, correction and rebuke, not as a dogma.)
I don’t think it is possible to have too much of a virtue, or to believe a truth too fiercely, or to love someone too strongly. You cannot outdo Jesus, at any rate. What is possible is to lack the opposite virtue, to ignore the opposite truth, or to despise another person. Politically, it is not that the left or the right is wrong about what they positively assert, but they are very wrong in what they deny. So when the left proclaims the value of the individual, concern for the poor and needy, and proper care for women in difficult pregnancies, they promote legitimate values that Catholics of all stripes should be 100% behind. When the right proclaims industry, personal responsibility, and defense of the unborn, they also proclaim legitimate values. As Bishop Barron said, subsidiarity is a value, and so is solidarity, and they either oppose or balance each other, depending on your attitude towards them.
Parenting is another great example. To take one such, some parents value teaching children empathy, sensitivity and a sense of emotional connection with other people. Others emphasize incisiveness, critical thinking and independence. Neither of these sets of values is bad. I don’t think it is possible to care too much about others, or to think too clearly. When there is an imbalance, my first instinct is not to look for the exaggeration but to look for the deficit.
I see this in physical pursuits, as well. I don’t think I have ever seen an athlete who was too strong or too flexible. I have seen many athletes who were not flexible enough to prevent their strength from becoming pathological, or not strong enough to keep their flexibility from becoming instability.
I think that as a model of holiness, this balance of extremes rather than between extremes is more helpful, since it includes all that is good in both sides of the debate. This is the nature of the Church in the world; and the nature of Saints, who always shattered the expectations of the world; and of Jesus who was meek and humble of heart, but fierce and unpredictable in debate, gentle with the humble and dangerous to the proud.