Sunday, April 5, 2009

Virtues - Moderation

There are a few distinct ways of applying the term “moderation.” The primary context I want to focus on is its association with “temperance” or “lacking excess.” This is most often applied to consumptive acts like eating and drinking (alcoholic or otherwise). However, it is equally applied to other human endeavors, usually enjoyable leisure activities.

Moderation is often applied in the maxim, “Moderation in all things,” which is a contradiction in terms. One must be careful not to practice excessive moderation. Someone moderate in all things risks being an extreme bore. There will inevitably be some things each individual does more than is “normal.”

Normalcy is a strong component of moderation. Moderation relies upon social or cultural norms in order to determine the definition of “extreme.” However, one culture’s extreme is another’s norm, and vice versa. In a culture where no one drinks alcohol, even a sip is intemperate. In fact, the American “temperance movement” opposed all alcoholic beverage consumption, even going so far as to enact Prohibition. This seems like an extreme to me.

The preaching of moderation is sometimes thinly veiled opposition to indulgence. Moderation that calls for sacrifice and self-deprivation is not moderation at all. Moderation should allow room for enjoyment. Moderation should not call for self-denial, but self-control. Restraint and discipline, not avoidance and austerity, are the hallmarks of proper moderation.

Moderation is not a struggle; the term for the struggle is addiction. Addiction is an interesting phenomenon, with a fairly modern emergence (in name, not existence). I hesitate to apply it to anything beyond chemical dependency. However, all emotional responses to activity are chemical reactions, and are not that dissimilar from those of drug use. Add to this that humans are driven by habits, and one can see that addiction could a perfectly common human behavioral disorder.

Everything can be done in moderation by someone. William S. Burroughs was a “heroin addict” for over 50 years, and lived to be 83. He did it by staying gainfully employed, something most people can’t accomplish as a heroin user. Evel Knieval broke a record 37 bones and risked his life several times for attention, but he died at 69 of pulmonary fibrosis, completely unrelated to his daredevil profession. If moderation is a struggle, you’re doing something wrong. Hopefully, your standards are set too high. Worst case scenario, you found something you’re too weak to moderate.

Picture right now the person you respect most. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Socrates, Einstein, Mohammed, the Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard, Kurt Cobain, whoever: they’re all “immoderate” in some way. They’re all radicals. They all opposed something and sought to redefine norms. And all of them had weird personal lives. Moderation sounds great, but the results don’t lie: the world remembers weird people.

Moderation would be a wonderful teaching if everyone was the same. If we were all born as clones living in the same environment and we all had the same preferences, tolerances, opinions, and life experiences, then there would probably be a set of guidelines that applied to everyone. Instead, we determine what we think works “best” for people, and we marginalize or criminalize those who disagree. We censor our actions as well as our words. I wonder how far we’ll go to appear moderate when what we need is an extreme correction.


  1. Another very interesting perspective.

    So, perhaps moderation is not a virtue after all, huh?

  2. I would say... moderation is good as long as you're still willing to take chances. You have to take risks for happiness, right? Even love is a radical act: cleaving to one person, sometimes for life.


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