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Faces of Moderation:
The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes

by aurelian craiutu
penn, 304 pages, $59.95

Everyone is orthodox to himself.” This famous phrase from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration might aptly be rewritten as “Everyone is moderate to himself.” For who really thinks himself an extremist? No doubt there can be cachet in identifying as a radical, but even the radical believes that his radicalism is the right position to hold. The world may have gone crazy, but each thinks himself the moderate, balanced survivor. If the person who passes me at 90 miles per hour is insane, and the one who creeps along at a glacial pace is clueless, then I am the good driver.

Aurelian Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes is a timely contribution to a small but growing movement to revive moderation as a social and political virtue. Many people agree with Craiutu about moderation’s importance. David Brooks often writes about it in his New York Times column, and Alan Jacobs’s new book How to Think is a sustained meditation on how to interact respectfully with people in an increasingly diverse world. Recalling Aristotle’s discussion of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics, Jacobs points his reader toward the mean between temperamental “rigidity and flaccidity,” observing that the temptations of rigidity will almost always win out, thanks to the “informational fire hose” of life at present.

But most of us have an ambivalent attitude toward moderation. At best, it’s a kind of urbane politeness; at worst, it appears as the mark of someone who lacks the courage to say what he thinks or who has no significant thoughts at all. As Brooks has put it, moderation often seems “too milquetoast.” It doesn’t offer the kind of adrenaline-filled excitement that comes with strong and adversarial positions. I know this from my own experience as a writer. Make a careful, nuanced argument and nobody notices. But write a polemical piece—why, then you’ll really get some letters!

Craiutu considers five twentieth-century thinkers in the book: Michael Oakeshott, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Norberto ­Bobbio, and Adam Michnik. Though they hail from various political perspectives, each exemplifies a certain way of being in the world. This is not simply political centrism, or choosing a middle between the radical extremes of the moment. Nor is their moderation generated by a lack of courage or by apathy. In fact, it takes more courage to maintain a moderate stance in the face of attacks from every side than to sign on to an ideology that purports to provide final answers. Moderation is therefore at odds with the extremism and zealotry of many self-described activists, who see themselves as righteous moral crusaders with the determination and persistence to change the world.

How might moderation counter such extremism?

Part of the answer lies in the moderate’s acceptance of the hard fact that some problems will simply never go away. As Craiutu notes, one must “acknowledge that there are certain structural tensions between values and principles that cannot be fully solved or eliminated forever. They are permanent antinomies, not transitory ones.” Pluralism and tragic conflict are facts of life. The moderate sees this and accepts it, even though he may still work toward improvement and reform where possible.

Craiutu also embraces an idea of authentic diversity, the kind that allows for principled and enduring disagreement about the things that matter most to us. “We must admit that some values will inevitably clash or conflict with others.” Human goals “are many,” writes Isaiah Berlin, “not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.” Yet without moderation’s closely allied virtues of civility and toleration, such diversity leads to perpetual conflict, as one sees so often in the present day.

Most crucial of all is the moderate’s willingness to look beyond individual desires and toward a larger drama in which other people feature, too. Moderation requires one to be sometimes willing to lose so that others might gain. Plato makes this point in the fourth book of The Republic by creating an analogy between parts of the body and a political community. “Suppose that we were painting a statue,” says Socrates,

and some one came up to us and said, Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body? The eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black. To him we might fairly answer, Sir, you would not surely have us beautify the eyes to such a degree that they are no longer eyes; consider rather whether, by giving this and the other features their due proportion, we make the whole beautiful.

Moderation is this art of proportion.

All of this is good so far as it goes. But do well-written, theoretical books about moderation really make any difference in the present moment? Scanning my Facebook feed makes me think that the answer is no. On the few occasions I’ve posted something about the importance of moderation, my most ideologically polarized acquaintances have piped up to say that they agree. When the least moderate people I know think that they are quintessentially moderate, it makes me think that encouraging this virtue in the abstract is a lost cause.

But there is one way to encourage the habits that Craiutu, Brooks, and Jacobs advocate. It is simply to practice moderation in conversation and thought. This is easier said than done, for it requires setting aside one’s own predilections, imagining not only counterarguments but ­counter-­ways-of-life. What does the world look like from my lesbian sister’s perspective? In the eyes of the ­Spanish-speaking employees who clean my office? From the standpoint of the director of the women’s and gender studies program? ­Appreciating the plural and ­competing goods that Isaiah Berlin has described offers a way of seeing our own ­limitations, even if our own views and commitments ultimately remain ­unchanged.

At its best, a college seminar class can offer practice in moderation. Here, even the loud-mouthed conservative and the dogmatic liberal may discover that they are not infallible and that there is something to be learned from others. This is best taught not in classes that are themselves “immoderate” and activist, as so many are, but rather in courses that emphasize old-fashioned, disinterested learning: studying Ovid or Hobbes, analyzing Byzantine art, reading the documents of the American founding. In contexts like these, moderation is not preached but lived out. It appears as beautiful and therefore desirable.

Of course, moderation may ultimately be a bit lonely. By definition, moderates will never emerge as members of a movement or promoters of a cause. And they always risk offending someone by failing to observe the accepted pieties of a group. As a friend put it recently, you’ll always be “too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.” But if we relate to people and converse with them as ends in themselves, not as instruments to be used in the pursuit of that favorite cause, at least we can never be accused of being immoderate. More valuable still, we come to possess a clearer understanding of the moral complexity of our world. 

Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.