The Golden Mean

Written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley

The Golden Mean

From Stoic philosophers like Epictetus to the Nordic wisdom-tradition embodied by the Hávamál, moderation has always been regarded as one of the pre-eminent virtues. This is also one of the main strands informing the modern American political tradition, as the talking heads never tire of reminding us. In U. S. elections, or so the popular narrative goes, the deciding votes will be cast by the “moderates,” while any form of “extremism” is to be avoided at all costs. The one exception seems to be the marketing industry, where everything apparently keeps getting more extreme, from extreme snack chips to extreme laundry detergents, to lite beer for people who engage in extreme sports like rollerblading and “freestyle scootering.” (Somehow, these activities are more extreme than conventional sports like football or boxing, where men routinely suffer traumatic brain injuries and are occasionally killed.)

Now it shouldn’t be surprising that the people in power like the idea of the political moderate, and are quick to condemn anything that might be construed as just a tad too far left or right of center. Their job security—and possibly their lives—depend on the idea that we will continue to be satisfied with the choices that they give us, and won’t get any uppity ideas about blowing up government buildings or murdering politicians Hamas-style. If you were part of the Establishment, I’m sure you’d feel the same way.

Moderation is also an ideal that many people try to live by in their personal lives, but this can be harder to achieve than one might expect. Recently, an overweight acquaintance told me about his efforts to lose weight while mindlessly nursing a soda. I gently suggested that drinking carbonated sugar-water might be part of his problem. On the contrary, he informed me, he’d reduced his soda consumption down to just a few cans per day, rather than drinking the stuff continuously like he had done since he was a kid. So, in effect, he was being moderate. This is like someone who prides himself on watching only a few hours of television at a time, since the average American adult watches almost forty hours each week (while simultaneously drinking Big Gulps, no doubt). By comparison, it’s a moderate amount of viewing. But if you contrast this with someone living in a traditional society, or to our ancestors—who managed to thrive in a completely unplugged and off-line world—it’s a staggering amount of wasted time. And wasted time = wasted life.

There are similar problems with trying to be politically moderate, since the goal-posts of political acceptability keep moving around, and anyone can find themselves “on the wrong side of history” in a matter of a few years or even weeks. Just a decade ago, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed gay marriage, supporting some type of legally-recognized “domestic partnership” as an alternative. At the time, this seemed like a moderate position. Gay couples would get most of the legal benefits of traditional marriage, without violating what religious conservatives view as the sanctity of the institution. Today, anyone who opposes gay marriage for any reason will be shunned and ostracized from polite society. They will be branded an “extremist,” and, if they belong to a club or other civic organization that espouses similar views, they might even find themselves placed on a “Hate Map.” What might seem politically moderate today, could make you a Nazi tomorrow.

However, my point is not to argue against the idea that practicing moderation has value. As I mentioned at the outset, this is an idea with venerable roots, even if its true meaning has been obscured over time. The problem is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is “moderate” about the modern world. It’s a comforting delusion to tell ourselves that “things have always been this way.” They haven’t. Modernity is unique. Much of this is attributable to the technological upheaval which began with the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century (or maybe even with the advent of agriculture, if you follow the anarcho-primitivist line of thinking espoused by men like John Zerzan), and has built upon itself exponentially ever since. This has radically changed every aspect of human life, from the way we eat, to the way we work, to the way we interact with one another. Cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio have written extensively on how technology has colonized our capacities to think and imagine, and has re-shaped almost every facet of how we see and understand our world. Our ancestors may have faced more uncertainty about their health, or where their next meal was coming from. But they could be certain about one thing: that in its fundamental outlines, the life they were passing on to their children would be very much like the lives they had led themselves. For us, this is not the case. Somebody somewhere once made the point that we have less in common today with someone who lived a hundred years ago, than someone a hundred years ago had with someone who lived a thousand years before them. This “generation gap” is widening all the time, to the point where it might now more accurately be described as a generational chasm.

Moderation is conventionally defined as something like the median option between two extremes. But in the modern world, which is characterized by its hyper-extremity, what can this even mean? Is there a “moderate” position on replacing human beings with machines, or the complete extinction of the natural world, or the global displacement of human populations, or the erasure of every meaningful distinction of gender, and culture, and ethnicity?

We can still cultivate the virtue of moderation, but only if we take a long historical view. In practical terms, this means that we must become traditionalists. We don’t have to ride around in buggies like the Amish, or grow ZZ Top beards like the Taliban. Nor does being a traditionalist necessarily imply a fascination with folk costumes, or fiddle music, or growing your own food, or drinking mead (although these are all good things). For me, being a traditionalist means trying to think about things the way our ancestors did for thousands uponthousands of years, before the aberrant historical disruption that is modernity. Just as proponents of the Paleo Diet will tell you that our bodies have evolved to eat a certain way, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that our minds have evolved to think a certain way. And just as the modern diet creates men whose bodies are fat and flabby and weak, the modern way of thinking produces men with psyches similarly malformed. To be moderate in the modern world means that we must ignore the opinions and passing fancies of our contemporaries, and should look instead to the accumulated wisdom of the past. This is the only way to determine what “normal” really looks like. Edmund Burke described this traditional way of thinking—which represents true moderation—as “the democracy of the dead.”

Of course, none of this will gain you any friends among the living. Modernity is both a phenomenon and an ideology, and it brooks no dissent. Ironically, the man who tries to live according to principles which would have been considered timeless in any other historical epoch, may well find himself labelled an extremist by the standards (such as they are) of today. In the modern world, the wise man may appear as a thought criminal, the warrior will be branded an outlaw, and the shaman-priest will be counted among the mentally ill. Remember this when they chastise you for not being “moderate”—according to the terms that modernity itself has dictated. In the eyes of our ancestors, we are the moderate ones. It is everyone else who has gone insane.