As I watch Logan and Kaia gleefully investigate their piles of loot (Dad, what’s a Milky Way? Mom, I have FOUR Kit-Kats!) I remember my own gloriously gluttonous nights of sugar-induced satisfaction. I remember my bag filling with each trick-or-treat until it was so heavy I had to switch hands every few steps. And I remember my eyes getting bigger as I sat on the living room floor and dumped the contents of my bag into an ever-growing pile of chocolate-covered decadence.
Sometimes excess is just plain fun. Sometimes.
I was reminded of a Philosophy Bites podcast where scholar Roger Crisp explains that we’ve done a great job of mucking up Aristotle’s idea of moderation by repeating something he never wrote but is now credited with: “Do everything in moderation.” According to Roger, Aristotle didn’t advocate the kind of moderation we now associate with the statement: a constant striving for a “middle ground” with no variation. Instead, Aristotle took a longer view, one that suggested our extremes should balance out over the course of our lives, that the “mean” of all our actions would be a moderate, or virtuous, life. For Aristotle, too much austerity was just as immoderate as too much gluttony, and a day-to-day search for moderation would probably result in immoderation.
It’s analogous to good driving: if we’re looking at the bumper of the car right in front of us and making adjustments every few seconds, we’re reacting to inconsequential events and actually doing a pretty terrible job of driving; however, if we’re also looking ahead, appraising things from a distance, and reacting to events that are of consequence, then we’re doing a good job of driving. Incidentally, the drivers behind us will love us, too, because we’re not hitting our breaks every 25 seconds or swerving for pebbles.
There are practical and psychological sides to this idea as well. What fun is life without a little bit of over-the-top? And how do we know what excessive is unless we’ve experienced it? Roger’s example from the podcast had to do with righteous anger. Aristotle, he said, wouldn’t want us to moderate our response if something made us angry; we should express ourselves, even if the response might be immoderate. If we’re living a moderate life, then the immoderate release of anger would be balanced at some point by an immoderate use of compassion or some other balancing action. Of course, we can have excessive responses, or have an immoderate response at the wrong time. Aristotle’s thoughts on this are a bit more complex than I’m getting in to, here. Best to listen to the podcast if you want a full explanation.
So why am I boring you with Aristotle when I should be peeling my sugar-hyped kids of the ceiling? Because another thought came to mind as I watched Kaia and Logan bartering a Kit-Kat for a Butterfinger: our modern emphasis on “moderation” has resulted in an immoderate lifestyle. Those who would live a modern “moderate” lifestyle are living consistently gluttonous lives. Ever-expanding waistlines are most apparent evidence of this. I’m afraid many kids are not as excited about Halloween as I was when I was young because it’s really no different than a normal day for them.
No less immoderate are the lives of those who seek a countercultural “moderation” rooted in austerity. These kids have apples and carrots on Halloween. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll get a “chocolate” cake made with carob and applesauce. Yummy.
What we need is a new definition of “moderate,” one that takes a long view and allows for excess. We won’t know “too much” unless we experience it. Likewise, we won’t know “too little” unless we experience that as well. Having experienced these excesses myself, I think the “moderate mean” needs to trend a lot closer to what we would define as austerity in our modern, overly consumptive world. Then we’d really appreciate events like Halloween; it would mark a departure from our normal lives. A bag full of candy would again be something to get excited about.
But it has to be a bag full of real candy. Just say no to carob.