Radical Moderation

A student who sometimes visits me in search of advice and direction for her life, and who has come to view me as something of a role model, recently asked, in an effort to understand how I maintain my peculiar form of extreme focus, “Are you moderate?” My immediate response was to reiterate an expression I have adopted as a kind of personal motto over the past few years, and that I often use in conversation with students who ask for help in seeking more unity or coherence in their own lives: “I don’t waste time.”

Let me begin again, and bring a little context to that answer.

“Are you moderate?”

The short answer is yes, but I would qualify that by saying that my moderation is not necessarily the sort of thing most people mean by that term, particularly in this era of “following your feelings” and “living in the moment.” For most people today, and particularly young people, the word moderation may carry implications of tepidity, lack of “commitment,” or emotional reticence (whether healthy or unhealthy). In fact, moderation, properly understood, implies none of those things, although the moderate man will almost unavoidably appear that way when viewed through the prism of late modernity’s spiritual desuetude.

Our age’s materialism has made us reductionists about rationality; reason, for us, means nothing but “science” or pragmatic calculation. But the dehumanizing element of scientific materialism, paradoxically, also fosters an animalistic aggrandizement of the feelings, according to which a moral concept like self-control is now seen as a mere “hang-up,” or as evidence of psychological “repression” — such modern pseudoscientific notions being the desperate attempt of non-believers in the soul to explain away all those aspects of human nature that don’t fit their reductionist paradigm.

Our combination of post-romantic irrationalism and psychological animalism might lead one to suppose we live in an era of great, unbridled passions. (That’s undoubtedly how we would like to see ourselves, since, having eschewed reason, we would not be much at all without great passion as an alternative way of life, now would we?) In fact, I do not believe this is the case at all. Our emotionalism, lacking all objective specificity or any connection to a sense of eternity or longing, is all surface, all empty lunging after transitory pleasures, all mindless diversion. An age of genuine passion would never succumb so easily to the nefarious charms of progressive politics, for example, since the man of passion is driven to distinguish himself, to separate himself — driven, as we say, to his mountaintop — and would therefore instinctively reject the milquetoast and fear-induced obsessions with equality and security that comprise the chief attractions of progressive collectivism and the primary political goals of our age.

Thus, the extreme immoderation, or rather wantonness, typical of our time strikes me as not so much a matter of being overwhelmed by feeling, as simply not caring about reason, which is to say about purpose.

My moderation, contrary to our late modern misperception, is not about “not desiring things,” but rather about not letting myself become distracted from the things I desire most. My motto, “I don’t waste time,” means this: I do what I have found to be relevant to my long-developed, rationally-grounded, historically-measured conception of the best life. Anything falling essentially outside of that conception, in the sense of diluting or contradicting it, would constitute a fissure (small or large) in the foundations of that life. So why would I choose it? “I don’t waste time” means I do not, in principle, choose things (activities, people, responsibilities, concerns) that have no justifiable role to play in the coherent picture I am painting. I do not claim to follow that principle with perfection, because humans are not perfect. But that is the principle, and I do follow it with increasing consistency and ease — not as a strict regimen or as self-denial, but rather as the most desirable and pleasant way of life.

What men call moderation in ordinary life — the quasi-virtue that Plato’s Socrates dubs “civic moderation” — involves quelling the riot of unreconciled and untamed passions that threaten to destroy our equilibrium and wreak havoc on rational order, both in our souls and in our cities. (These are the passions that, as I have explained elsewhere, are virtually dried up in our modern materialist age, leaving only the “twenty piddling little fountains” characteristic of progressivism’s ubiquitous happy-pill ethic.) Moderation in the truest, philosophic sense, however — the moderation of the man whose ruling desire is no threat to the rationally ordered (i.e., unified and meaningful) life, but rather its promise of fulfillment — is not primarily about struggling to beat back demons or resist random temptations. It is about disregarding or actively removing distractions and superfluities from the smooth, continuous arc that defines the most desirable path. In other words, moderation is not essentially a matter of subduing desire at all; it is rather a matter of editing.

Thus, when I answer the question, “Are you moderate?” by saying “I don’t waste time,” what I mean is that I am a good editor.

You may also like...