The Shifting Middle

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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