On the Moral Imperative Regarding Moderation

IN THE HARSH LIGHT of recent events, the term “extremism” has come to be much bantered about in our conversations, our speeches, and our public discourse. Though this is of especial truth in the United States, the phenomenon is evident as well in Europe, where populist parties, particularly of the extreme right, have slowly been gaining in power and influence, in a surprising number of different nations. Beyond the narrow circle of those who openly espouse “extremist” positions, the growth of extremism in the public sphere is felt generally to be an ill, and an ominous harbinger of as-of-yet unprecedented trends and troubles in society and in politics. It is feared, with a still vague and hesitant fear, that this extremism could finally culminate in, among other things, the compromise or even overthrow of our democratic institutions.
      It thus becomes of urgent moment both for the people of our Western democracies, and yet moreso for those who inform and guide that public, to comprehend the nature of extremism—and, even more essentially, that virtue through which extremism is mastered: moderation.


WE HAVE LATELY much felt the wont of moderation in the political sphere. It has begun to become apparent even to very sanguine observers, what the ancients already knew and expressed in terms clarion: namely, that democracies, save as they are strictly bound to well-crafted constitutions supported by moderate and law-respecting mores, are inherently unstable. They are prone above all to the malady of demagoguery, which in the worst case can bring them to the betrayal of their fundamental liberalism. They rely moreover on the opinions and desires of the majority of their citizens; but such opinions are not always well-informed, and such desires are often in excess of possibility. Extremism represents the first rash of these systematic weakness in any democracy. It is thus a most troubling sign when extremism begins to appear on the political stage as one of the determinants, either of the opinions of the citizenry, or of the decisions made by the politicians that the citizenry elects.
    Extremism is thought to be an evil by virtue of its consequences. These consequences can be comprehended only if extremism itself is adequately understood. Now extremism is, in its commonest form, nothing but a kind of morbid overreaction to often quite mild ills, resulting in or from an utterly unbalanced expectation as to what the social order can do for its populace, and how much can be effected through the simple exertion of political power. More generally, the extremist is actuated either by a perception of injustices perpetrated against his kind or—and this amounts to the same thing—by the wont of goods that have been unjustly denied to his kind. The vocal extremist has in the majority of cases abdicated the better part of his sense of personal responsibility, and has substituted for it an exaggerated conception of the role of government—government as nursemaid to his ills, government as the righter of real or imagined wrongs perpetrated against him, government as the equalizer of social inequalities, etc. These expectations are almost always unreasonable and are often quite dangerous, but the extremist in his grave and all-encompassing discontent, or in his surfeit of zeal, has distorted his sense and his goals, and has confounded society and government.
      If we are to take moderation in its classic form as the reining in of extremism, then moderation appears principally as a kind of practical wisdom—as the ability to qualify one’s hopes with reference to reality, and with full and assiduous awareness of the peril which attends to all political or social change. Moderation is above all the knowledge that government is not society, state not culture, and that it is with regard to society and toward culture that anyone ought to act, who has intention of truly altering the course of history.
      Extremism begins inevitably as intellectual extremism, extremism of thought: and it is characteristic of this intellectual abnormality, that extremist thought leads of a course to extremist, or immoderate, act. Extremist action works in almost all cases toward the erosion of the most politically moderate principle that has ever been conceived: namely, the principle of equality under the law. The extremist is ready to overthrow this principle, in order to effect any number of changes he considers to be of pressing urgency for the ship of state or the constitution of society. In certain cases, he is an outright enemy of the principle of equality, believing it to be unjust or prejudicial to the fullest flowering of human nature. In other cases, he is simply willing to suppress the principle of equality, in hopes of thereby attaining a more thoroughgoing equality (as, for example, in the canker of communism). And so a goodly part of the suspicion surrounding extremism is due to the democratic fealty to the principles of equality and freedom. We sense, with an excellently sound sense, that extremism is enemy to equality, and moderation is conducive to freedom.
      This human mind of ours is a delicate scale, and the balance of it so easily rides to one side or the other, and often with such violence, that the contrary weights are likely to fall off. And oh, but it is damnably difficult to set them back on again. Most humans are ever in danger, it would seem, of becoming lopsided beings, incapable of perceiving with justice those positions and philosophies which stand opposite their own. Even the most tentative movement toward the one or the other extreme too easily forces a violent, almost reactive contrary motion, such that many begin to sway precariously on these heights, until at last they come crashing down.
      This is a risk run as well by democratic societies as a whole, which tend to incline now and then strongly to the left or the right of the political spectrum, thus occasioning a stronger push to the other side, which in its turn brings an even stronger reaction again, until the equilibrium has been so swung out of balance that the whole system flies spiraling out of control.
    This kind of extremism, which we might call political extremism, is one of the foremost threats to democratic order, and it is for the existence of this danger that most thinkers should strive to occupy a central position in thought, embracing a most becoming moderation of thought, which permits them to avoid falling into the pit-traps gaping at either end of the scales. And indeed, a strongly entrenched tradition of moderation of thought, as we shall see, is one of the fundamental underpinnings of all stable democracies. It has been, moreover, a watermark of American society for the better part of its history, and a goodly part of its unprecedented duration and success. Its abandonment would almost without a doubt lead to a decline in American fortunes; it might culminate even in a catastrophic collapse within the American system, and a consequent destabilizing of the political makeup of the entire globe.


THERE IS AN ABNORMAL kind of human being who is capable of performing a balancing act in his own mind, traversing the beam as he please and will, being, as he is, strong enough for such dancing. We nominate him, in the noble tradition, as the free spirit. Bound to no iron doctrine, constrained by no hobgoblin’s manacles of a foolish consistency, imprisoned by no adamantine convictions, the free spirit—taken in the most fundamental sense, as a spirit who values interior liberty over exterior fortune—is a kind of juggler, a lover of truth or possibility. He comprehends that the realm of possibility is vaster than that of the moral, and encompasses all extremes. He will not sacrifice his sovereign view of reality for any limiting vision, no matter how edifying or socially beneficial such might be. His relation to moderation is thus a special one, and it is of the utmost interest to consider this relation. For, as we have already said—the true captains of our day must understand their situation as clearly as they may.
      We note before all that the free spirit in general favors moderation of speech, which we might call classic moderation, or moderation unqualified. This moderation may be even one of his especial virtues, for he above all others has the right to proclaim that “silence is golden.” This is with him a question of taste, but it is also a question of agenda: moderation of speech is in fact a kind of immensely protracted immoderation of act. For there is a basic discrepancy between the goals of vocal extremists and their achievements. Immoderate tongues, apart from the fact that they generally speak with a most disagreeable and vulgar harshness, pose a threat to that very ambient in which the free spirit subsists and in some ways thrives. Immoderate speech or vocal extremism leads to political extremism; and political extremism in democracy is never to the favor of him who holds unpopular opinions, for it is never the unpopular position which emerges triumphant when democracy crumbles, save by the intervention of ungovernable accidents that no one can count upon. The demagogue rides the people, but only by harnessing their passions and their rough vision of what outcomes shall serve; and the demagogue will almost certainly learn in the end that he has mounted a horse unbreakable, which will sooner or later buck him off for a more suitable rider, or even for no rider at all. The free spirit—again, save in the most fortunate of cases—will be favored less even by the tyranny of the many than by the tyranny of the few. The political instability which results of the extremizing of democracy is as maleficent to the free spirit, as democracy itself is, for the most part, innocuous, bringing as it does neither good nor ill (save as it is an ill to bring no good).
      The free spirit speaks thus as a friend of democracy. His great liberty is permissible in democracy, and he must never take this fact for granted. For democracy is wide indeed, wide enough even for its enemies. It can be likened to a great and extensive plain, broad and even enough to accommodate the majority of all small opinions. The free spirit, however, tends as well toward heights, and for this has eyes for the weaknesses of democracies. He above all others is thus inclined to seek out beneficial alterations to any society which does not promote the best in the human nature. Yet at the same time, he recognizes the danger of political change. He is conservative in proportion as he is philosophical, and “progressive” insofar as he is artistic. In him, indeed, these two attitudes, perhaps for the first time in history, gravitate toward a single star. He must learn to contend with this contradiction; and it is a sad fact that perhaps none of our modern artists have learned this, which is one of the most delicate juggling acts anyone may perform.


THE PRINCIPLE OF CHANGE in democracies is fraught with hazard. All rapid changes in democracies are effected via the people, and can therefore be brought about only by inciting the people to action. But to incite the people to action means to use inciting speech, and inciting speech, if it is not identical to extreme speech, at least cusps strongly upon it. He who wishes change in democracy thus seems caught at an impasse; he cannot forgo those tools which would bring about the alterations he sees as necessary or desirable, and yet in employing these tools he produces a most dangerous and unstable mood in the people, which might easily foment undesirable and even incalculable disruptions in the social order. This is a riddle: its answer is nothing other than moderation.
      Moderation appears here as a species of almost superhuman patience. It is a political will which is capable of protracted aims, which has a sense of long, even extraordinarily long time frames, and which possesses that foresight which has attended all the greatest political metamorphoses of the ages. The moderate human being recognizes the basic truth that extremism makes the soul obdurate. He poses instead the question of the seal: how does one soften the wax? The answer to this question, as demonstrated across the ages, is nothing more complicated than a persistent word on a gentle mind. But the full exploitation of this simple insight demands of one a strict self-mastery, a far-flung and far-sighted patience, a wide-eyed wakefulness and attentiveness, a stern binding of the tongue, and a perspective from the heights that loses none of its subtlety for its distance—it demands of one, in other words, virtues that are rare in our moment- and pleasure-infatuated day, and extremely difficult of the cultivation.
      Moderation, one may rightly say, is a “virtue for all seasons”—but its raison d’être varies from one season to the next. Its peculiar value in democracies resides in its inhibiting tendencies. Democracies, which are little inclined to appreciate moderation, are almost guaranteed longevity once certain kinds of moderation become the habit of their people. Moderation itself furnishes an indispensable brake on certain excesses of democracies. Moderation of thought leads invariably to moderation of act. Moderation of desires is a necessary counter to the democratic love of wealth; moderation of expectations is the only cure to democratic over-reliance and over-dependency on cancer-like bureaucracies. Political moderation, or moderation of opinion, is the basis without which all dialogue and all polite disagreement becomes not only difficult, but degenerates into fractious and barren squabbling. And it is essential for us to remember that moderately-minded democracies are less liable to persecute those who do not think democratically. Above all—moderation makes mild.
      By restraining the more dangerous outbursts of its people, and affording safety to those whose ideologies are non-democratic but whose deportment is benign, the habit of moderation renders ever more solid the exploitable foundations underpinning democracies, and reinforces those sometimes fragile institutions which are all too susceptible to manipulation at the hands of the reckless and unscrupulous charlatans.


IF THE ARGUMENTS above are attended to with due care, it will become clear that we above all have a moral imperative to exhort to moderation in democracies. So far as the internal life of democracies is concerned, moderation is unambiguously desirable. For it is but a step from the impatience of vocal extremism to the election of the “strong man,” and but a step from the election of a “strong man” to the imposition of a dictatorship.
      All of those attributes of our society prized nowadays as goods would prove utterly illusory and vain, were moderation of thought not to minister them. Moderation of thought is indeed the single most democratic virtue anyone may possess; it is moreover the defining virtue of America, whose left and right have been historically so much tamer and less divided than Europe’s. Moderation promises modesty of lifestyle, flexibility of mind, and civility of manner, virtues whose underestimation will lead our country to a rapid decline, and perhaps will result even in the premature termination of the American experiment.
      Without moderation of thought, what tolerance can there be, what openness to other ways and manners, what diversity or variety might we hope for or expect? The multifariousness and startling array of our democratic societies—the unheard of colorfulness of which it is so proud—would vanish without our earnest moderation of thought to bolster it: and with it would disappear all our pretensions toward equality, and all our hopes in a long and economically prosperous future for our country’s democracy.

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Here the reader will find a recent one of my essays dedicated to the subject of style, subject which is strictly related to the question of moderation.


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