The Catholic Thing
The Shifting Middle Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 24 June 2009

In the Aristotelian tradition, virtue stands in the middle, between two extremes, a too much and a too little. Aristotle thought that a non-arbitrary middle could be found. Prudence arrived at it, but did not constitute it. Aristotle’s good man lived virtuously, not just any way. Our actions were judged midst the actual circumstances in which we lived our lives.

But suppose I have an argument about what is half of thirty. One man says it is twenty, the other twenty-five. Thus, their mean is twenty-two and a half. But all three views are wrong, though twenty is closer to the right answer than the other two.

Individual and political ethics today are full of ponderings about the “mean or middle.” The going view is this: No real “mean” exists. Lacking a stable standard, the “mean,” said to be “rational,” is placed anywhere on the line from zero to thirty.

The state defines both the line and the mean. It enforces its law. The extremes become increasingly possible as the implicit “goal” of the shifting middle. “No enemies to the left,” became a cry out of the French Revolutionary tradition. Its logic became inexorable. The line becomes a circle where extremes meet.

I think of these things in watching the president. On a platform or podium, he serenely looks now one way, now back to the other, on the one hand, on the other. He stands above the fray forever surveying the in-betweens. He judges not, lest he be judged. No beam in his own eye obscures his vision.

Between the Ayatollah and President Bush, his extremes, he is “in-between.” He cannot act because he is on no “side.” On abortion, he wanted as little of it as possible. In practice, he finds no limits. He sees no problem. He agrees with everybody. On this scale, anyone who claims limits becomes an “extremist.” To maintain limits is “hate” language.

If Socrates hated anyone, it was the “sophists” – wise gentlemen who, among other things, accepted teaching fees. They equitably explained whatever the young man wanted to know. They took no stands themselves. If someone wanted to become a politician, a warrior, or a poet, they would teach that. Words were more powerful than deeds. Without words, deeds lapsed into insignificant silence. With soul-moving words, the world could be changed, while it remained what it was.

Brad Miner recently remarked on the disappearance of the vocabulary of sin. (The Catholic Thing, June 22). It is only the word that has disappeared, not the reality. When we lose a sense of sin, we are confident that all our problems are caused by someone else, preferably by “structures” and other impersonal things that, indeed, cannot “sin.” We want to reform the world not by becoming virtuous within ourselves, but by reconfiguring what is outside of us.

Re-reading Huckleberry Finn the other day, I realized that Huck’s life was a struggle with his conscience about why he did bad things. It “warn’t” his fault, of course. He was born that way. Even if he “felt” he hadn’t done “nothin’,” his dang conscience kept a-bugging him. “But that’s always the way; it don’t make no difference whether you do right or wrong,” he says to himself, “a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him anyway…. It takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides, and yet ain’t no good, nohow. Tom Sawyer he says the same.” In fact, Huck’s “no-sense-conscience” led him to do some mighty good things. The room it took in his “insides” was worth it.

Joseph Ratzinger gave two lectures on “conscience” that were published in English (Ignatius Press 2007). Huck was often a victim of ill-instructed conscience. But his conscience was itself vivid. “Conscience is understood by many,” Ratzinger wrote, “as a sort of deification of subjectivity.” This deification is what remains after we deny any objective cause of our own being.

The “shifting middle,” when spelled out, describes the sophist who teaches us to do whatever we want. It is the legislator or judge who passes or interprets a law on the basis of what he thinks we need. It is the executive who enforces the middle between shifting extremes but takes no stand on right or wrong.

“A person’s conscience ain’t got no sense and just keeps going for him anyhow.” It “goes” for him is because his soul won’t let him alone.

“There is a reason for being,” Benedict remarks, “and when man separates himself from it totally and recognizes the reason only of what he himself has made, then he abandons what is precisely moral in the strict sense.” He is left with “on the one hand and on the other,” with nothing solid in between.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
Organic Tory
written by Stephen MacLean, June 25, 2009
Fortunately for us, Aristotle too rejected sophistic relativity for objective truth: While acknowledging that ‘it is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the mid-point (Nicomachean Ethics, 1109a)’, he asserted that ‘in all our conduct it is the mean that is to be commended. But one should incline sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency, because in this way we shall most easily hit upon the mean, that is, the right course (1109b).’
written by Ryan Haber, June 25, 2009
Well said, Fr. Schall. Politically, it is ingenious because the shifting middle shifts in the direction desired by whomever sets the question. So it becomes possible to label "extreme" what had seemed to everyone only months before to be moderate. So it is that allowing gays a civil marriage is being framed as the moderate view - with dissenters (51%+ of CALIFORNIANS... certainly higher elsewhere) being labeled as extremists and exclusive. Thus the debate is not won, but undermined.
You can do better
written by Bradley, June 25, 2009
Crude and superficial: a priest/professor can do better than this! Fr. Schall concludes - from abortion and Obama's speaking style - that he is a sophist without a conscience. This is the latest attempt to reduce the President to a crude stereotype, while ignoring the fact that he is also human, baptized (though still a sinner), a devoted husband/father, and in agreement with many church positions (poverty, immigration, income distribution, Iraq War, health care, the environment, etc.)
The best
written by Matt, June 26, 2009
Schall is just the best, a great read. I love him in this forum.

I don't deny that President Obama appears a good man individually, but it is not easy to deny that in the public sphere, he is unable to take a stand. He appears our first modern President.
written by Achilles, June 27, 2009
Bradly, to characterize this essay as crude and superficial can be little more than a projected reflection of your own understanding of Obama. Fr. Schall is like a mirror, if we don't like what we hear from him, it behooves us to take a long hard look in the intellectual mirror. Obama appears to be a lovely person, but even a superficial analysis of his statements reveal a mass of cognative dissonance. To say otherwise is crude and superficial. Compare Fr. Schall's sources to your own.
written by RD, June 28, 2009
Bradley...Obama is in agreement with many Church teachings? I have one word for you: subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity Under Attack
written by Chris from Maryland, June 30, 2009
RD is absolutely right, Subsidiarity is under attack by Obama, aided by Catholics like Biden and Pelosi, who have shown publicly over-and-over that they really don't know much about their faith. It is unlikely that most college-educated Catholics even know what the word means.

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