The Virtue of Moderation

Andrew Sullivan on moderation:

And by moderation, I don’t mean the mushy middle, defined by the center between two poles. I mean the capacity to tack left and right to resist extremes of both kinds, to retain principles that endure against the passions of the moment, to seek compromise rather than conflict, to prefer skepticism and slow change to “moral clarity” and revolution. Conservatism isn’t about opposing all change; it’s about finding the best ways to adapt to constant change while keeping the best of the past.

He then quotes from Aurelian Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes:

I don’t want to identify moderation with centrism. The way in which I think about moderation is that it can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. There are moderates on the left, in the center, and on the right.…

I think it’s one of the riskiest things to try to act as a moderate when passions run high, when reason is overcome by passion and most people just want to shout and express their dismay, their concerns and so forth, without concern for political moderation. It’s a virtue only for courageous minds. It’s a paradox. The image of moderation is that of a weak virtue. And I think that it is a difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk.

Both Sullivan and Craiutu describe moderation as a virtue in the sense of an ordered disposition of the soul—and they set this virtue of moderation against unreflective partisanship. In other words, the relevant kind of moderation is defined not by its ideological content—it can be found equally in those on the left, in the center, and on the right—but by its distinctive quality as an ordering of the soul. Partisans (or mere partisans) “shout and express their dismay” while seeking, or despairing of, victory for their side. Moderates (in the relevant sense) exercise their judgment by asking, what is the best outcome I can reasonably hope for in these particular circumstances? What outcome will best preserve or promote what I and those who agree with me value, while giving us time to persuade those who disagree that they are wrong? Or to find an even better compromise. I like it. This is how I’m going to use the term moderate from now on.

“no such thing as a Platonic system”

Josef Pieper, Enthusiasm & Divine Madness:

The fact is that there is no such thing as a Platonic system. Those who truly know Plato have time and again had to admit this. … the absence of a coherent system is not a sign of internal contradictions in Plato’s mind, but—as is the case with other great thinkers, such as Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas—a mark of tacit respect for the unfathomability of the universe.

Paper Comments

Alan Jacobs:

My own experience, for what little it’s worth, is that sometimes you get students who undergo dramatic changes in their academic performance, for good or for ill, but those changes have nothing to do with intelligence. Someone’s performance drops because of illness or emotional upheaval. Or, conversely: Many years ago I had a student who took several classes from me and never got anything better than a C. At the beginning of his senior year he came to my office and asked me why. I reminded him that I had always made detailed comments on his paper; he said, yeah, he knew that, but he had never read the comments and always just threw the papers away. So I explained what his problem was. He nodded, thanked me, went away, and in the two classes he had from me that year he got the highest grades in the class.

Mechanization, Monoculture, and Social Ecology

Alan Jacobs, writing at the Hedgehog Review, draws an analogy between biological ecology and social ecology. Reflecting on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s account of his visits to Caribbean rum distilleries and on Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, Jacobs promulgates several theses:

  • All illiberalisms are instrinsically mechanistic.

Jacobs’s example of biological mechanization uses Giedion to interpret Lévi-Strauss: “To replace ‘ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter’ with ‘white enamel tanks and chromium piping’ is to make the process of rum distillation less wildly organic and therefore less ecologically diverse. And this simplification is, as Giedion might put it, what mechanization wants: a regularizing, an elimination of the unpredictable—everything unpredictable and uncontrollable is designated as an ‘impurity’—and therefore a remaking of organic processes to render them something more inorganic.”

Analogously, it is the goal of all illiberalisms “for mechanization to take command—as long as mechanization serves their ends. It does not seem to occur to them to ask, with Giedion, whether mechanization ever actually does serve human ends. Which leads us, I think, to a corollary thesis”:

  • Insofar as illiberalism is mechanistic, it is inhuman.

Jacobs next makes use of a historical analogue: the Albigensian crusade. If the churchmen of that day—the illiberal mechanizers in Jacobs’s analogy—had succeeded in suppressing what they regarded as dangerously wrong ideas, “Thomas Aquinas could not have written his works, which engage ceaselessly with Jewish, Muslim, and pagan thought—even (especially?) thinkers he believed to be profoundly wrong exercised his mind and imagination. He—and therefore we—would have been profoundly impoverished without access to wrong ideas.”

Jacobs next turns to Oliver Rackham’s account in Woodlands of the deforestation of British landscapes and their replacement with plantations: “filling the land with a single species of tree deemed to be useful.” Here deforestation and the use of plantations is the example of mechanizing control. But such plantations rarely work because “like philosophers and theologians, trees need highly diverse, complex ecosystems in order to thrive.” These reflections lead Jacobs to two further theses:

  • Mechanistic illiberalism seeks to create a monoculture.
  • Any attempt to create a monoculture is necessarily self-defeating.

Finally, Jacobs summarizes Rackham’s account of the surprising result of deforestation and plantations: Often, the planted trees declined and native trees returned. “In many cases, the very species with which foresters had once filled plantations, only to see them decline or even die, ended up thriving in the midst of more ecologically complex and varied environments.” This leads Jacobs to a final thesis:

  • Complex, organic ecosystems—whether biological or social—are far harder to kill off than the mechanized makers of monocultures think.

I am grateful to Prof. Jacobs for this ecological perspective on culture. His essay has helped me formulate several thoughts and questions, which I aim to pursue in subsequent posts.

  1. What definition of “illiberalism” applies here? And what is its opposite? Initial thoughts: “Illiberalism,” as its name implies, must involve the absence or privation of “freedom” (libertas) in some sense, i.e. the kind of freedom that, in the case of rum distilleries, promotes more “wildly organic” and “ecologically diverse” conditions: the kind of freedom which mechanization’s command necessarily suppresses.
  2. But it seems that Jacobs does not intend his analogy to imply that “liberalism” or “mere liberalism” should correspond to the proper, ecologically responsible, attitude towards human culture.
  3. This makes me wonder if a three-fold distinction, of excess, defect, and virtuous mean, could apply to Jacobs’s examples: i. Illiberalism is the excess. ii. Liberalism is the defect. iii. Something like what the Greeks and Romans meant by “paideia” and “humanitas” or like what Wendel Berry means by the Kingdom of God would be the virtuous mean. Since illiberalism is “inhuman,” is the right, ecologically responsible, approach to culture a kind of humanism?
  4. A further thought closely tied to 3. and 1.: A synonym for the Latin ideal of humanitas is liberalitas, which shares the same root as libertas (“freedom”) but has more to do with freeness in giving—i.e. generosity—rather than freedom from constraint.
  5. How does all of this relate to Jacobs’s larger recent project which he calls “Invitation and Repair“? Specifically, how can invitation and repair counteract the malign effects of illiberalism?
  6. Finally, how should we understand Jacobs’s critique of illiberalism in relation to the call for an “illiberalism of the weak” made recently by Leah Libresco Sargeant? LLS and Jacobs seem to share many values and goals, but their terminology seems not to align completely.

a prayer for artists

From today’s Vespers:

Tu, qui artes coléntibus præstas ut splendórem tuum suo ingénio maniféstent,
mundum per eórum ópera cum spe gaudióque illústra.

Thou, who grant that those who cultivate the arts make thy splendor palpable by their genius, illumine our world in hope and joy through their works. Amen.

Christianity and Classics

Simon Goldhill over at Antigone Journal:

In recent years, scholars of Classics have often self-lacerated about how the study of antiquity has been mobilized in the service of imperialism, social and educational exclusion, and even violent repression. It is good and right to be highly critical of such mobilisations in the past and, even more pressingly, in the present – and to act against them. But it will not do to ignore how much such mobilisations are in tension with – and often in response to – the radical potential of the study of Classical antiquity to transform the contemporary world. The history of how Classics and Christianity interact, both in complicity and in aggressive difference, is a wonderful test-case for the complexity and richness and seriousness of the battle between radical and conservative forces in understanding the past – and in how understanding the past continues to structure understanding of the present.

Bookshelf Topography

Leslie Kendall Die on the significance of bookshelf topography:

I marvel that the complexity of the human heart can be expressed in the arrangement of one’s books. Inside this paper universe, I find sense within confusion, calm within a storm, the soothing murmur of hundreds of books communing with their neighbors. Opening them reveals treasured passages gently underlined in pencil; running my hand over the Mylar-wrapped hardcovers reminds me of how precious they are. Not just the books themselves, but the ideas within, the recollections they evoke. The image of my father at his desk. The sound of his diction and intonation as he brought each character to life and drove each plot twist home. In these things, I beheld the card catalog of the infinite library of his heart, the map of his soul, drawn with aching clarity in the topography of his books.

A Latin Hymn, with translation

Courtesy of my friend and former student Dominic Mosley:

1. Surgit in hac die
Christus Dominus,
Sustulit qui pie
Pro hominibus
Duram mortem crucis
Hostis a vinclis spolia
Trahens omnia.
On this day arises
Christ Jesus, Savior,
Who the Fall revises
And in Man’s favor
Bore the Cross so trying,
Enemies’ spoils, all their gains
Dragging off in chains.
2. Tyrannum crudelem
Jam superavit,
Paradisi portas-
met reseravit,
    Tartarea frangens,
Regna mortis cum gloria
Et victoria.
To the tyrant vicious
Defeat while bringing,
Paradise auspicious,
Its portals swinging,
    He uncloses, waking,
The reign of death His glory see
And His victory.
3. Virtutibus plena 
Prima omnium
Cernit Magdalena
Christum Dominum
    Potenter surgentem,
Christus solatus hodie,
Princeps gloriae.
Virtuous and holy,
The rest preceding,
Magdalene the lowly
Her Lord was meeting,
Gave to Christ her greeting:
Her weeping was, for glory’s Prince
Comforted her since.
4. Limbus atque mundus
Plaudant dulciter,
Adamque secundus
Nunc feliciter
Opere praeclaro,
Salutis, quam promiserat
Viam reserat.
Limbo, freed from prison,
Is sweetly clapping:
Second Adam, risen,
No longer napping,
In a deed death-braving
The way He promised us, in flesh
Opens up afresh.
5. Corde laetabundo
Nos alleluja
Carmine jucundo
Nos alleluja
Resonemus et can-
Insigni nunc sympnonia
Nos alleluja.
Sing with hearts made merry
We alleluia!
Joy is necessary
And alleluia!
Evermore in praising
Alleluiatic symphony
To the Trinity.
Magnis prophetae vocibus
venire Christum nuntiant,
laetae salutis praevia,
qua nos redemit, gratia.
The Prophets’ mighty voices tell
Christ comes, and His prevenient grace
By which He will salvation spell
They happily deign to embrace.
Candor aeternae Deitatis alme,
Christe, tu lumen, venia atque vita
advenis, morbis hominum medela,
porta salutis.
O warming brilliance of eternal Godhead,
Christ, Thou the lantern, Thou life and forgiveness,
For mankind’s sickness remedy, Thou comest,
Gate of salvation.

“heaven’s indulgence brooded on the ground”

John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s hymn to Spring in book two of his Georgics:

The spring adorns the woods, renews the leaves;

The womb of earth the genial seed receives:

For then almighty Jove descends, and pours

Into his buxom bride his fruitful showers;

And, mixing his large limbs with hers, he feeds

Her births with kindly juice, and fosters teeming seeds.

Then joyous birds frequent the lonely grove,

And beasts, by nature stung, renew their love.

Then fields the blades of buried corn disclose;

And, while the balmy western spirit blows,

Earth to the breath her bosom dares expose.

With kindly moisture then the plants abound;

The grass securely springs above the ground;

The tender twig shoots upward to the skies,

And on the faith of the new sun relies.

The swerving vines on the tall elms prevail;

Unhurt by southern showers, or northern hail,

They spread their gems, the genial warmth to share,

And boldly trust their buds in open air.

In this soft season, (let me dare to sing,)

The world was hatched by heaven’s imperial king—

In prime of all the year, and holidays of spring.

Then did the new creation first appear;

Nor other was the tenor of the year,

When laughing heaven did the great birth attend;

And eastern winds their wintery breath suspend:

Then sheep first saw the sun in open fields;

And savage beasts were sent to stock the wilds;

And golden stars flew up to light the skies;

And man’s relentless race from stony quarries rise.

Nor could the tender new creation bear

The excessive heats or coldness of the year,

But, chilled by winter, or by summer fired,

The middle temper of the spring required,

When warmth and moisture did at once abound,

And heaven’s indulgence brooded on the ground.

And even better, the original Latin.