Moderation and Extremism

There is a fascinating quote by Aristotle in his work Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses the idea of a mean, or average, in virtue:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

(Book II)

In other words, if you want to know how to increase a virtue (something that occupied much of Aristotle’s mind), you have to find a middle ground, and work on it. However, his middle ground is different for everyone. For example, a skilled runner, for example, will find one mile a day very paltry. If he only runs one mile a day, he will not develop, and may even backslide. But for a very beginner runner, one mile a day may be destructive; he’ll be prone to injury and pain, which will only halt his progress. But if he doesn’t run enough to push him, he will also never develop. Somewhere, there lies a happy medium, and this is the key to success.

I love this idea, but recently, I’ve been challenged by another great thinker, who wrote this:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

(Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Compound this with this recent blog by Winterbuzz at Feminist Mormon Housewives, where she writes:

What about Mormonism seems to demand balance? What about the Word of Wisdom suggests balance? What about our faith, our dedication, our worship, our study, our sacrifice suggests ‘balance?’ As Mormons, we were raised to be extremists. If we use our linear graph to gauge ourselves by the world’s terms, we’re so far to one side we’re almost out of view. Polygamy anyone? Mormons are some of the most extreme people on earth. (As a side note, it was also pointed out that Jesus doesn’t actually talk about balance very often, although he does say that if we are lukewarm then he will spit us out of his mouth.) When we Mormons talk about moderation, it’s kinda silly; we have no idea what that means.

She kind of has a point.

The thing is, I’m with Aristotle on this one, for the most part. When developing virtue, whether it’s virtuous basketball playing or virtuous honesty, a person must start small, and slowly work their way up. But, at some point, in order to improve, one must become a fanatic. A runner who only runs three or so miles a day will never become the fantastic runner my sister became one summer while training for a half-marathon, where she started running eight or so miles a day. In order to become a “virtuous” runner, you must begin to adopt extreme measures. In order to be a virtuous person in the Church, you must become extreme. After all, we follow, as Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly put, a fanatical Son of God, a being who during his physical incarnation told his disciples to sell everything they own and distribute it to the poor, who told them on the one hand to take no thought for the morrow, but then to scrutinizingly count the cost for their actions to make sure it has spiritual significance, who told them he would die for them, and then told them that he expected them to do the same for him.

We worship a guy who ran into the sacrosanct temple grounds and started upsetting tables and letting loose the animals. He made a whip, for heavens’ sake, to drive out the animals and moneychangers.

Imagine if a robed man with a big beard ran into the local temple and started upsetting tables and chasing people out with a homemade whip? I imagine most Mormons would look at him with shock and horror. How absolutely vulgar, we’d say. He has no concept of sacred.

Or maybe it’s us who don’t have a real concept of sacred? Are we like Jesus and extremists for love, or are we Aristotelean moderates, both individually and collectively as a society? I’m not so sure anymore.



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