The Case Against Moderation, the Good, and Virtue

“Moderation cannot claim the merit of opposing and overcoming Ambition: they are never found together. Moderation is the languor and sloth of the soul, Ambition its activity and heat.”
– La Rochefoucauld

“… under Socrates’ influence ethics ceased to be the art of living well in a dangerous world – as it had been for Homer. it became the search for a super-good that nothing can destroy, a uniquely potent value that defeats all others and insures those who live by it against tragedy.”
– John Gray

“Love and virtue, their self-conviction was an astonishing thing: a pantomime of wishes, a sham dream that made actual, detectable, dreamable dreams as real as rock.”
– Lorrie Moore


7 responses

  1. I’m not familiar with La Rochefoucauld, so perhaps I need more context to understand what he means by ‘ambition’ and ‘moderation,’ but I have an instinctive revulsion against this Ayn Rand-ish sounding statement. The Greek word for moderation is soprosune, which connotes self-control. I can agree that ambition is a kind of fiery energy in the human being, but like fire, it has to be contained and directed if it is to be used for good rather than simply destroying everything in its path. So moderation and self-control are not opposing forces, but rather moderation is the guiding force of ambition. Furthermore, worldwide industrial capitalism is replete with examples of individuals whose unchecked ambition – rooted in mere desire for self-aggrandizement – has caused great harm to human beings and the eco-sphere as a whole. We needn’t theorize about the effects of living immoderately – we are living them.

    John Gray’s comment reminds us that we should read Plato in the company of the Buddha, Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu, and the great spiritual seers of the world. The reason Plato was not content to simply endorse the Homeric vision of life is that it is a limited vision, and Plato was one of those humans who burned with a desire for the Absolute; for that which transcends the mere flickering of shadows on the cave wall. The energy of this burning desire for transcendence is essentially the same as the fire of ambition that La Rochefoucauld writes of. But the philosopher who examines this matter sees that worldly ambition devoid of any higher vision is simply the cultivation of what the Buddha called ‘dukkha’ – dissatisfaction and suffering. Therefore, it behooves him or her to channel their ambition towards bigger goals, or as Jesus said, to build their house upon rock, and not upon shifting sands.

  2. Thanks for your post, Joe.

    La Rochefoucauld’s point is that if we are able to control or moderate our desires, this is thanks less to the strength of our will than to the weakness of our passions. Self-control is achieved only by those whose passions are slack enough to be controlled. Of course, your point about capitalism and ambition is will made, but the counter-argument to your stance is that the passions are the better educators of human beings than reason. The anti-philosopher can say, with considerable justification, that philosophic moderation and the philosopher’s search for the absolute can only develop on an initial denigration of earthly realities. We may recall Nietzsche’s attack on Buddhism (and Christianity) as a form of resignation that seeks revenge against life.

    Your point about Plato’s desire for the Absolute calls to mind the Straussian view that the philosophic life is the highest and best kind of life. But not everyone can attain it, and so something else is needed to address the gap between the spiritual elite of the enlightened and the great many who are not called to a spiritual vocation. As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tells the returned Christ: “Canst Thou have simply come to the elect and for the elect? But if so, it is a mystery and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, we too have a right to preach a mystery, and to teach them that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience.”

    One need not agree with the harsh and extreme position taken by the Grand Inquisitor, but the point here is that education for most people, and perhaps even for philosophers, is an education of and by the passions. This is the great subject of the nineteenth-century European novel. The map of French society, for Stendhal in The Red and the Black, is not to be found in the cloistered life of the priests, but in the heroic life of the outsider of humble birth in the circles of the decaying and defensive aristocratic elite.

  3. Thank you for your comments.

    The statement about controlled desire being weak desire strikes me as disingenuous. We could invert it and say that if we are not able to control our passions, it is not due to their strength, but to our own weakness. Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, writes of the hegemonikon – the “ruling principle” – as something to be cultivated so as to allow greater freedom of choice. Normally, our passions arise as energy in our bodymind, and we act on them without even reflecting on them. As such, we are automatons. To the degree that we can cultivate the ruling principle – an awareness that is prior to the arising of any desire or passion, we become freer to make decisions about our course of action in life, and cease to be at the mercy of our endlessly arising, mostly trivial, desires.

    For example, if I habitually smoke cigarettes and become addicted to them, the desire to smoke a cigarette arises in me on a regular basis. It is a craving sensation in both the physical body and in the mind, both as thought and as emotion. So what do I do about the desire to smoke? Well, I can go with it, and smoke whenever the thought arises and congratulate myself on ‘liberating my desire’ and paint Situationist slogans on my bedroom wall. Or I can try to have some kind of discriminating awareness that can not only perceive the difference between good and bad habits, but which can exert an autonomous power over the bodymind to fight against its destructive and stupid habits.

    This is the traditional doctrine of the dual nature of the self, which many religious traditions consider to be comprised of a higher and lower self. Plato writes of it in The Republic. In the Islamic tradition, the imagery of war is used to describe the internal battle of the higher self against the lower self – the nafs. The Prophet Muhammad taught that this internal battle is the true meaning of jihad – holy struggle – and that fighting against external enemies is a ‘lesser holy war.’ I wish those Taliban guys would figure that out.

    I think teaching people to cultivate this kind of awareness is terribly important in our modern world of manipulative advertising and manufactured consent. I think both the flow of desires AND the unaffected prior awareness are aspects of the human being. But why does so much discourse prioritize the flow of desires as if it were the ‘truly’ human? Is this the influence of capitalism, which utterly fails as an economic system if people’s desires are no longer manipulable? It is interesting that the modern world has inverted the traditional understanding of human psychology, which has taught, in many different cultures and traditions, that awareness, and not the flow of desires, is the primary and higher element in the human being – the higher aspect of the self.

    Mind you, I’m not taking an anti-desire, pro-repression approach. That just makes people twisted and sick. My view is informed mostly by the approach to desire found in Buddhist and Hindu Tantric traditions. Nietzsche’s critique of Buddhism that you mention is based, to my knowledge, exclusively on the small number of Sutric Buddhist scriptures that were available to him at the time. The Sutric, or monastic, approach is based on the principle of renunciation. The practitioner sees that desire is craving and produces dissatisfaction, and therefore desire is renounced. This is not a workable approach for most people. The Tantric approach, in contrast, is based not on renouncing the energy of desire but on working with it intelligently, since after all it is the fire of life. The Tantric approach is the most ‘pro-life’ (in a Nietzschean sense) philosophy and praxis I know of.

  4. Also, what does it mean that the passions are better educators of human beings than reason? I would agree that the passions are more dominant in most human beings than is reason (which is due in no small measure to our style of culture). I would agree that the passions are an integral and important part of being human. But in what way do they educate us?

  5. “Philosophic moderation and the philosopher’s search for the absolute can only develop on an initial denigration of earthly realities.”

    Why “only?” Which specific earthly realities?

    P.S. Not trying to be a pest here. If you haven’t time to respond, I understand. But I do enjoy these discussions. 🙂

  6. Andrew Bird sings a great line on moderation:

    “I’m all for moderation, but sometimes it seems
    Moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.”

    Is that a category mistake?

  7. If I had a penny for every time I came to Great read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: