I was in college when I first learned about Aristotle’s famous dictum that virtue (or moral excellence) is a mean – I suppose we may call it a “golden” mean – between the two extremes of “too much” and “too little.” Courage, for instance, is a mean between cowardice on the one hand and foolhardiness on the other. And generosity is a mean between stinginess and profligacy. And so on.
Well, my reaction on hearing this was not to admire Aristotle for his wisdom; rather it was to think less of him because, it seemed to me, he was doing no more than stating the obvious. “Who doesn’t know this?” I thought to myself. I had previously heard of Aristotle. I didn’t know much about his philosophy, but I was aware that he had a reputation for being one of history’s great wise men. “This is a cheap and easy way of getting a reputation for wisdom,” I thought, “by saying something as obvious as, ‘When driving an automobile, avoid two things: don’t drive into a ditch on the right, and don’t drive into oncoming traffic on the left.’”
That was many years ago. Since then I’ve had a great deal of experience of life, and I’ve both observed and had personal experience of the vices of excess and deficiency. As a consequence, my rating of Aristotle’s “golden mean” dictum has improved.
Along the way I remembered something one of my high school teachers had said – this man, a Christian Brother, having been the very best among the many good schoolteachers I was fortunate enough to have as a boy. He said that maintaining what he called “a sense of proportion” is one of the hardest things in the world. His dictum is similar to Aristotle’s “golden mean.”
It is not easy for us to keep our mental and emotional balance. Just the opposite: it is awfully hard. And it is hard not just for individuals but for groups; and not just for groups but for entire societies. For example, the United States of America.
America, it seems to me, has lost its balance in recent times – has strayed from the golden mean, has lost its sense of proportion. And when it has strayed from the mean, it has done so by going in the “too much” direction rather than in the “too little” direction.
Take sex for example – if I may be allowed once again to turn to a theme I have often spoken about here. I can understand why American society might wish to loosen the bonds of sexual puritanism that shackled it in the pre-1960s era. But I regard it as a great national tragedy that our relaxation of sexual morality didn’t stop at the necessity of tolerating a bit of that ever-present sin, fornication.
No, it rushed headlong past that, onward to the madness of abortion and same-sex marriage. And in the Catholic Church it proceeded to a widespread tolerance not only of priestly homosexuality but of the priestly seduction and molestation of adolescent males – plus a few adolescent females.
Or take, more recently, our great national preoccupation with racism. Now racism is a great sin, especially when it’s the kind of racism that keeps blacks out of jobs, out of colleges, out of residential neighborhoods, etc. to which they would be entitled were it not for their skin color. As for the other kind of racism – prejudice – while in itself deplorable, is a much lesser sin provided it doesn’t spill over into outright discrimination.
But to treat racism, even the lesser racism of mere prejudice, as the worst of all sins, which is what many Americans, both black and white, have been doing in the last year or two, shows a lack of balance. It tends to make all other sins, all non-racist sins, look relatively minor. Abortion becomes a minor sin (if a sin at all), as does the sin of child abandonment, committed by millions of irresponsible fathers and not a few mothers.
Making all this worse is the fact that we tend to treat all “racist” sins as approximately equal in their wickedness. And thus a TV personality who happened to use the N-word once many years ago is as bad as the college admission officer who, for reasons of race, rejects the application of a highly qualified black student for admission to an Ivy League college. (I leave aside here the probability that no such rejections have occurred for many years now.)
Worst of all, I think, is the quite un-Aristotelian idea, widespread in America today, that there can be no such thing as too much freedom. Just as racism is wicked, the worst form of wickedness, so we have come to believe that freedom is good, the best form of goodness. Our presumption must always be in favor of freedom; we must have good reasons – very, very good reasons – for any kind of social or legal restriction on this or that kind of freedom.
And so we have tens of millions of ordinary Americans, not to mention much of our mainstream media, most of our entertainment industry, and the President of the United States, supporting the really weird idea that an eight-year-old boy can choose to be a girl if he feels like it.
We’re passing through a period of collective insanity – let us hope and pray just a temporary insanity. This happened to us once before – in the 1850s when one mad decision after another drove us toward an appalling civil war: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, bleeding Kansas, the beating of Senator Sumner, the Dred Scott ruling, crazy John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
President Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural, suggested that the Civil War was God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. I fear that we may now be on the verge of God’s second great punishment.
*Image: Aristotle by Justus van Gent (aka Joos van Wassenhove), c. 1476 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]. Justus painted 28 panels for the palace study of Federico da Montrefeltro, Duke of Urbino. His Aristotle and 13 others in the series are now at the Louvre.