Two Senses of Moderation

Recently, a student asked me whether possessing the virtue of moderation can make a person happy. “What I can be sure about,” she said, “is that not being moderate makes me unhappy.” It does not follow from this, however, she observed, that being moderate actually causes happiness — unless happiness is defined merely as the absence of unhappiness. A Stoic or Epicurean might accept this definition of happiness, which is why I find the teachings of both of those Hellenistic schools ultimately limited and limiting. To define happiness as absence is effectively to define life as inactivity — an unsatisfying, not to mention logically unconvincing, conclusion.

So can being moderate make us happy?

My answer: That depends on what you mean by “being moderate.” If moderation is defined only negatively — “Not doing harmful or excessive or careless things” — then no, it cannot make you happy. It can prevent a lot of unhappiness that results from doing those harmful things, which is good of course, but this alone does not guarantee that you are doing anything really beneficial and meaningful in a positive way. Therefore, this sense of moderation may be a condition for living happily, because it prevents you from destroying yourself by undermining other, beneficial activities, but it cannot “make you happy” on its own. For example, you know that if you drink too much, you will be sorry. But it does not follow from this that if you never had another drink for the rest of your life, you would necessarily be able to say, on your death bed, that you had lived well.

If, on the other hand, “being moderate” implies not just a negative condition — self-restraint related to excessive and foolish actions or inclinations — but is more like redirecting your desire or energy¬†onto a beneficial and rational path, then yes, in this sense moderation can make you happy. For on this definition of moderation, you are overcoming weak and self-destructive desires not by deadening desire as such — which is much like choosing safety over unnecessary risk — but rather by transforming that energy into strong and self-developmental activity, such that the moderation itself is evidence of, or rather essential to,¬†living well, rather than merely a matter of avoiding the harm or danger of excessive pleasures.

I note that the two senses of moderation I have just outlined correspond roughly to Socrates’ profoundly important distinction (typically ignored or mangled by modern scholars) between civic and philosophic virtue.


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