Practicing moderation is probably one of the most difficult things in a world that pushes us to extremes and encourages us to anesthetize the senses with an incessant stream of stimuli. However, for philosophers like Aristotle, the virtue of moderation was a cornerstone for balanced and happy living. Without moderation we become wind-blown leaves waving from excess to defect, without finding the inner peace that offers the middle ground.
Why is it so difficult for us to be moderate?
The answer – or at least part of it – goes back to our ancestors. Our ancestors were more prone to what today we would consider excesses because they lived in particularly difficult conditions. For example, they had to use all their resources and energy to hunt or travel long distances, so that they then had to rest for longer periods of time to replenish that energy. This led them to alternate phases of hyperactivity with inactivity. Something similar happened with food.
Although those times are behind us, our brain is still marked by those primal needs, so we tend to gorge ourselves on our favorite food and then go on an strict diet. Thus we oscillate between the extremes, without reaching moderation.
Also the modern society encourages us to oscillate between extremes, sinning by default or excess, because everything is configured in terms of opposites. The concept of family is an example of this lack of moderation. Decades ago, the family was a sacred and inviolable concept, in which marriage was an essential and indissoluble bond. Instead, now predominate liquid love in which people go from one relationship to another without feeling completely fulfilled and satisfied.
The same is true in parent-child relationships. Decades ago parents exercised a tight control over the lives of their children falling into authoritarianism. Today, many children have behavioral problems, because many parents have developed an overly permissive educational style in which they indulge in all their whims, without setting the necessary limits for a balanced development of the personality. In this way, moderation is an increasingly rare virtue.
Mesòtes, the practice of moderation
In ancient Greece moderation was a very precious value. In fact, in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi there are two phrases, one of them very famous and the other completely forgotten. “Gnóthi seautón”, which means “know yourself” and “Medèn ágan”, which is “nothing in excess”. The latter aims at the moderation of the senses, actions and words.
In reality, both aphorisms are related because only a deep self-knowledge can tell us how far we are capable of going and know when it is time to stop so as not to overdo it. For this reason, Aristotle often spoke to his disciples about the “mesòtes” or just middle ground, which he also mentioned in his treatise “Nicomachean Ethics”.
For Aristotle, nothing was good or bad in an absolute sense, but depended on the dose. For example, having too little courage leads to developing a cowardly personality, but having too much courage leads to recklessness. By practicing moderation, we find the courage to do things that are worthwhile and the good sense to avoid exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks.
However, we do not realize that many of the things that we strive to eliminate from our lives, because we think they are bad, are actually much less harmful than we think. The problem are not those things, but their excess or their defect.
Often the abstinence of something has the opposite effect, causing us to gravitate toward the forbidden. It is a phenomenon similar to the “Rebound Effect“, according to which, the more we try to avoid thinking about something, the more that content will be activated in our mind. Thus, the more we deprive ourselves of sweets, the more we want to eat them. Defects lead to excesses. And vice versa. So we end up excluding moderation.
To understand the relationship between excesses and defects, we can think of our life as on a seesaw. When we put too much weight on one side because we overdo it, the other side moves in the opposite direction and pulls us further. Either we are up or down, tiptoeing through the midpoint.
To practice moderation, we must stop thinking in terms of all or nothing, black or white, good or bad. The key lies in allowing ourselves everything, in its proper measure. And knowing ourselves well enough to stop us from exceeding our limits.
Quicios, M. (2002) Aristóteles y la educación en la virtud. Acción Pedagógica; 11(2): 14-21.
Aristóteles (2001) Ética a Nicómano. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.