Aristotle and the Benefits of Moderation Virtue and Vice in the age of Populism
Many times, when moving from the descriptive of “what is” to the prescriptive of “what ought to be”, it is necessary to appeal to a shared knowledge of a moral framework that imbues the ideas presented with values, concepts and interpretations that are scarcely universal, but rather grounded in one specific civilization and possibly one specific tradition. In his article in The Market for Ideas No. 2, “Blurred lines: Good vs. Good. Evil vs. Evil.”, Dragoș Tîrnăveanu crowned his analysis with a twist on the ancient Manichean (dualist) vision of a conflict of opposites – light versus dark, good versus evil. He analyzed the uncertainty of our modern age, in which an asymmetry of information and of values gives rise to morally ambiguous situations, which he termed as “Good vs. Good” and “Evil vs. Evil”.
This article would like to propose another way of viewing the issue, grounded in a simplified version of Aristotles’ explanations of virtue and vice, which he, in addition to his philosophical explorations, also used as a teaching tool for pupils such as Alexander the Great.
The soul of a civilization
The Ancients, both in the heartlands of classical civilization and in the primeval woodlands of unconquered Europe, subscribed to different worldviews.
“Good vs. Evil” is an entrenched element of the Western canon, one of the most immediately recognizable motifs of our literature, philosophies, ethics, laws and folkways. It is so easily recognized that it has successfully transitioned into modern culture in many capacities, from a facile anchor for a recognizable story or parable for the young to fully realized explorations of the concepts in modern epics such as “Lord of the Rings”. For all our identification with Greco-Roman civilizations, the main force of “Good vs. Evil” comes to us via the later Christian tradition. The Ancients, both in the heartlands of classical civilization and in the primeval woodlands of unconquered Europe, subscribed to different worldviews, wherein Greek gods were as fallible and venal as the men they ruled over and Roman patriarchs were unflinching in the application of laws and pursuit of virtú. And let us not forget the Dacian and Druidic practices of human sacrifice…
Oswald Spengler, in his seminal work “Decline of the West”, saw civilizations as living things, imbued with a spiritual dimension that separates one from the other. To him, Antiquity and Western civilization were totally separate entities, the Apollonian and the Faustian civilizations, respectively, divided by a period of chaos, reestablishment and reinterpretation that also changed the ethnic map of Europe, as Gibbon portrayed in the magisterial “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. They were united by an ethnic kernel of subject peoples of the dwindling Roman Empire and the attraction that a superior civilization and its accoutrements exert on impressionable peoples, such as the Germanic and Gothic invaders. This force led to the Renaissance obsession for Antiquity in art and science and also to the rise of ancient ideas of democracy, as well as aesthetic choices, such as Napoleon naming himself First Consul, rather than First Caliph. The Faustian civilization, ours, was defined by Christianity and by a restlessness and boundless energy that lead to it breaking in an imperial march across the world and across the mysteries of nature.
A new civilization grows from larval stages taking on the forms dictated by the spiritual characteristics of its people(s) who are ready to embark on a new “spring”. However, sometimes, temporal or geographical proximity to a great civilization, often in decline, would lead to “pseudo-morphosis”, the acceptance of an alien element by a young culture, which accordingly strives to make its “Weltanschauung” (worldview) conform to a pattern that does not necessarily represent its inner nature. Spengler’s example is the indicated dichotomy between the “Apollonian” and the “Faustian” cultures which makes him consider the Renaissance an example of such a cultural melding.
The Faustian civilization, ours, was defined by Christianity and by a restlessness and boundless energy that lead to it breaking in an imperial march across the world and across the mysteries of nature.
There is, however, another example – Spengler recognizes the “Magian” civilization, named for the Mages visiting Christ, located in the Middle East and comprising, among others, the Semitic peoples. The Magian civilization gave us early Christianity (among dozens of other cults, including the Manichaeism referenced in the beginning), which, through the cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire, became ensconced in Rome and, following the political expediencies of Emperor Constantine, became the state religion of the Roman Empire. The frequent conflicts and internal heresies in the beginning were not only the growing pains of a transcontinental religion, but also the mark of the conflict inherent in superimposing an alien creed on people of a different civilization. Eventually, the various branches of the European family adapted Christianity to themselves, birthing new artistic traditions and interpretations, while also giving rise to schisms and to local religious elements. But what we also got from Christianity was the “Manichean” worldview, of Good vs. Evil.
Reclaiming a heritage
The sometimes arduous process of building Christianity as the center of a new civilization also involved “innovation” by philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and a continuous competition between the Church and temporal rulers. One of the factors was the reemergence of ancient knowledge, including Aristotle’s body of work, in the learning centers of Europe, mainly from the concurrent Golden Age of Islam and partly from the Christian European periphery, such as the monks of Ireland, the “isle of saints and sages”, who had not fully gone through the earlier theologically motivated purges and losses of “Apollonian” canon, as depicted in “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. The “rediscovery” of Aristotle and other important philosophers marked both the civilizational melding in the run up to the Renaissance and an opportunity for the reintegration of perspectives that still fit the European peoples.
For every virtue, there is a vice of excess and a vice of scarcity. Therefore, courage as a virtue is found between cowardice and rashness. Generosity is found between miserliness and wastefulness.
One of these was the principle of moderation. Aristotle held that, instead of good and evil in the generic sense, man should consider virtues and vices and, as befitting the later Christian doctrine of the fallen state of man and the world, the vices outnumber the virtues 2 to 1. For every virtue, there is a vice of excess and a vice of scarcity. Therefore, courage as a virtue is found between cowardice and rashness. Generosity is found between miserliness and wastefulness. A wise person knows the appropriate balance of things, since it is not always found equidistant between the extremes. Even Aristotle cautioned that courage is closer to rashness and generosity to wastefulness than to the lower vices. Later Christian teachings incorporated such ideas so as to justify the avoidance of excessive charity which is ruinous to one’s children and community, who are closer responsibilities. It seems that ruinous virtue signaling was a problem even then.
The virtue of moderation
The moral Good provided the ultimate public justification for powerful acts with long-term consequences that we can scarcely imagine yet, like the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Middle Eastern autocracies, and Germany’s welcome to over 1.2 million refugees in one year. Rather than Good vs. Evil, it would be appropriate for the complexities of our age to see whether Aristotelian virtue would be a more useful moral compass. Of course, seeing things in hindsight is always easier, but learning from past experience is paramount. As British Politician and Professor of Ancient Greek, Enoch Powell, once said:
“The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils”.
With this in mind and leaving aside the moral dimensions of non-interference in internal issues, was the United States’ drive to remake Middle Eastern societies in the shape of Western liberal democracies not rash and utopian, as opposed to a policy of steady support for economic development and stability?
Too many times the European authorities shelter both victim and victimizers together and then act surprised when predation continues, between the sexes, between various ages or between ethnicities and sects.
When thinking about moderation, how do Germany’s policies stand up to scrutiny? The “invitation” that Chancellor Merkel sent out and was answered by a throng of migrants posing as refugees was not an act of prudent statesmanship. The expense to sustain a refugee in the heart of the West is twelve times higher than it would have cost to sustain him in organized camps in safe countries, where he would neither have been culturally alienated, nor become a possible danger or resentful burden to his benefactors. Was it virtue on the part of the German leadership to let in more people than could be adequately processed for asylum claims, than could be controlled by police and many more than could be reliably deported should their claims be rejected? And what of the excessive generosity of the authorities, as they cast the net wide, receiving people who were obviously not Syrians, especially if they arrived via the Southern Mediterranean route, as well as not blinking when the sexual imbalance among the refugees became obviously skewed in favor of young men (who have, nevertheless, failed to become the promised economic boom, as only 32,000 out of 1.2 million people have found jobs so far). As reports of crime in refugee shelters show, too many times the European authorities shelter both victim and victimizers together and then act surprised when predation continues, between the sexes, between various ages or between ethnicities and sects. And this is without taking into account the predation on the host population, which is faced with higher crime rates, but especially the psychological specter of violence against women and terrorism.
Therefore, according to Aristotelian conceptions of virtue, the West is suffering from many vices of excess with regards to its conduct, vices which mirror those of the past, which interested parties propagandize for political and financial gain. From an imperialism of territory, Europeans have moved to one of political and economic systems, as well as a “one size fits all” universal morality that the rest of the world only feigns acceptance of. Instead of generosity towards refugees, they have veered into wastefulness, caring neither for the best interests of the true refugees, nor the responsibility of leaders towards their own peoples. And, at the moment when tolerance appears to be the greatest and last virtue (as Aristotle mentioned would happen in societies without anything else left to believe in), they have turned the full force of intolerance against dissenters within their own ranks, turning civil public discourse into witch hunts and Orwell’s “two minute hates”.
From an imperialism of territory, Europeans have moved to one of political and economic systems, as well as a “one size fits all” universal morality that the rest of the world only feigns acceptance of.
Even more alarming to people who are critiquing European reaction to the challenges around them is not the state of the European leadership, which is merely responding to the warped incentives (and absence of disincentives for bad governance) which characterize the West at this point in time. What is surprising is the reaction of Europeans (or lack thereof) to civilizational danger or simply insult to their symbols, homes, values and dependents – women, children, the elderly. The endless preaching against a backlash that never came might seem to have led to self-restraint. That would be a virtue, but not if it is the polite cover for listlessness, torpor or what the ancients called “acedia”, which is a passive state in which one is unable and unwilling to act.
Reaching so far into the past to bring Aristotle into discussions of present day issues might seem a pretentious example of the fallacy of appeal to authority. By social convention, the problems of today are said to defy the simplicity of the past and require new thinking, thereby obviating the need to look for guidance towards history, its moral exemplars and its wisdom. While opining on microchips is beyond historical analogies, human nature remains unchanged over the timeline of recorded history and Aristotle is as relevant as ever on political topics. In “A treatise on government”, he wrote:
“That state also is liable to seditions which is composed of different nations, till their differences are blended together and undistinguishable; for as a city cannot be composed of every multitude, so neither can it in every given time; for which reason all those republics which have hitherto been originally composed of different people or afterwards admitted their neighbours to the freedom of their city, have been most liable to revolutions; as when the Achaeans joined with the Traezenians in founding Sybaris; for soon after, growing more powerful than the Traezenians, they expelled them from the city; from whence came the proverb of Sybarite wickedness: and again, disputes from a like cause happened at Thurium between the Sybarites and those who had joined with them in building the city; for they assuming upon these, on account of the country being their own, were driven out.
And at Byzantium the new citizens, being detected in plots against the state, were driven out of the city by force of arms. The Antisseans also, having taken in those who were banished from Chios, afterwards did the same thing; and also the Zancleans, after having taken in the people of Samos. The Appolloniats, in the Euxine Sea, having admitted their sojourners to the freedom of their city, were troubled with seditions: and the Syracusians, after the expulsion of their tyrants, having enrolled strangers and mercenaries amongst their citizens, quarrelled with each other and came to an open rupture: and the people of Amphipolis, having taken in a colony of Chalcidians, were the greater part of them driven out of the city by them.
And, on the topic of the various foreign colonies established in Western cities, he goes on to say, while also underlining the importance of stability and good sentiment among the citizenry in today’s vast nation-states:
Many persons occasion seditions in oligarchies because they think themselves ill-used in not sharing the honours of the state with their equals, as I have already mentioned; but in democracies the principal people do the same because they have not more than an equal share with others who are not equal to them. The situation of the place will also sometimes occasion disturbances in the state when the ground is not well adapted for one city; as at Clazomene, where the people who lived in that part of the town called Chytrum quarrelled with them who lived in the island, and the Colophonians with the Notians. At Athens too the disposition of the citizens is not the same, for those who live in the Piraeus are more attached to a popular government than those who live in the city properly so called; for as the interposition of a rivulet, however small, will occasion the line of the phalanx to fluctuate, so any trifling disagreement will be the cause of seditions; but they will not so soon flow from anything else as from the disagreement between virtue and vice, and next to that between poverty and riches, and so on in order, one cause having more influence than another; one of which that I last mentioned.”
In the context of “populism”
Populism in Europe and the West is the pejorative term that the managerial classes that actually run Western countries use to refer to “democracy”. In the current context, populism seems to be a last ditch attempt at reacting against a troubling course of events via established rules and institutions. Since it is also mostly done under cover of anonymity, it segues well into the still passive nature of law abiding Western peoples who are conflict averse as a result of functioning in a “civil” society.
Aristotelian moderation and its emphasis on finding the right balance between shifting extremes neatly fits into the idea of diminishing marginal returns for policies that were successful in the past.
Aristotelian moderation provides us not only with a critique of the moral framework that led to and legitimized disastrous decisions on the part of the West (whose profits have been privatized and whose costs have been socialized), but also with a sense of the changing circumstances underlying the need to change policies. This is because Aristotelian moderation and its emphasis on finding the right balance between shifting extremes neatly fits into the idea of diminishing marginal returns for policies that were successful in the past. Western politicians should learn to embrace the rhetoric of diminishing and negative utility for past policies in order to be able to update their platforms and agendas without admitting that they were wrong. While this author does not agree with the assessment of past success, it is likely that many newly discovered “deplorables” who will vote for the National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party, or who were Trump voters, were recent converts to the populist cause who supported policies in the past which they consider successful but which they now oppose because they feel that they were taken too far. The moral arguments under which those decisions were first taken, the “Black & White” of colonial guilt, the responsibility towards impoverished peoples, the third worldism that views victims as morally superior and entitled – none of these have changed. What has changed is the perception of a sloppy cost-benefit analysis that people have had to run on their own in lieu of their feckless governments who have not had their best interests in mind.
And the virtue of moderation as expressed in corrective politics is the eleventh hour response to situations which, otherwise, might have provoked another lurch into the extremes, this time of open conflict and harshness.