Aristotle’s sense of the concrete sheds light on many problems of human existence. He remarks wisely that we all can err by going to extremes: there is a “too much”, there is a “too little.” Common sense tells us that these excesses should be avoided.
The soup can be unbearably salty or totally tasteless. A sound can be too loud and deafens us, or it can be too weak, and remain unperceived. The list is endless, but the couple of examples given prove that Aristotle has a valid point. Excesses should be avoided. Practical wisdom tells us that there is a middle ground which is sound and reasonable.
My concern is the following: can common sense wisdom shed light on ethical problems? Is virtue a “middle ground” and “vice” some sort of excess? This is the famous Mesotes theory offered us by The Philosopher (as St. Thomas calls him) in his Nicomachean Ethics. The term “nihil nimis” (nothing in excess) sounds like harmonious music to the human ear. “Don’t exaggerate,” always aim at the golden mean. Any excess is to be anathematized. The “good” man is therefore also the wise man who finds the right middle, and adjusts his conduct to it.
But wisdom also teaches us that we should carefully refrain from “over extending” a truth in the sense of applying it to domains which have a very different structure.
Not surprisingly Aristotle did extend this valuable insight to the ethical sphere: avariciousness is an excess. A miser sits on his bag of gold; any money spent breaks his heart. A prodigal person, on the contrary, cannot keep a penny in his pocket. This was the case with Chesterton, as he himself confessed.
Both positions are “unreasonable” and for this reason are be rejected, but are they immoral and equally immoral? Who would not prefer Chesterton to Mr. Grandet in Balzac’s famous novel? Is prodigality to be condemned as much as it is “opposite?” Reason tells us that we should aim at the middle: spend when necessary; save when necessary. This is definitely sound economics, but is it a virtue? Is reasonability a key to ethics? If that were the case, we should consult a talented accountant to be our guide in many of our moral decisions. It is true that there are definitely cases when “unreasonable” (spending wildly and letting one‘s children starve) is definitely immoral.
But does not ethics require more than common sense?
Father Copleston remarks that this “virtue” plays an important role in Aristotle‘s ethics, but the question we dare raise is: can’t it also be a recipe for mediocrity? Why is it said in the Apocalypse that those who are neither hot nor cold, “will be spewed out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16) and Dante makes an explicit reference to those who, “mai non fur vivi” (Canto 3): those who “play safe” and never commit themselves to any truth. It might be the recipe of “successful” politicians.
In other words, should we unconditionally endorse Aristotle’s Mesotes theory? That virtue is a mean between two extremes: excess and defect? That we should move toward the center? But is the crucial moral question: too much or too little? Is it not rather a question of what we ought to do in a given situation independently of our subjective wishes?
The avaricious man does not spend when spending is called for because his “heart” is in his money. His motivation is dictated by what Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed, “the merely subjectively satisfying.” But the very same is true of the prodigal. He enjoys spending and he does not sit on his gold because giving it away is “fun.” Both men have the same identical motivation, but having different temperaments (today people would say “genes”) they make “opposite” decisions. They are “twins.” It should be luminous that the crucial question is whether a person is motivated by what he subjectively enjoys, or whether he is responding to a moral call.
Let us apply this approach to other types of “excess”: prudishness and pornography. They are opposites; but are they both to be rejected because in one case “one covers too much” and in the other, “one covers too little?” But in fact ethics tells us that both prudishness and pornography are both poisoned. The first by the Calvinistic conviction that original sin has so totally corrupted our nature, that everything in man is depraved and very particularly a sphere where innumerable men trip and fall as our Lady told the little children at Fatima. Pornography is detestable because the pornographer looks at a mysterious sphere (a divine invention) with Satanic glasses. Lucifer loves filth.
Both should be abhorred and rejected; it is definitely not a question of “finding a middle ground.” Which is worse? In this context, I will refrain from discussing it, even though it might be worth doing.
Prudishness offends a divine invention; pornography throws dirt on it. The right attitude will be found by asking: what was the Divine plan in creating man “male and female.” The question of “unveiling” then receives a radically different sense. When is unveiling called for and when is veiling called for? The answer to the first question is when with God’s permission having received the Sacrament of Marriage, the spouses, in trembling reverence, gratefully unveil themselves and generously give themselves to their loved one. Then unveiling is the theme: when St. Elizabeth of Hungary gave herself to her beloved spouse, we can imagine how the angels rejoiced: this unveiling was in “conspectu Dei” and glorified God. This is true of all saintly marriages, and there are many in the Church. Veiling is called for when the situation makes it clear that this secret is to be kept. Would it be proper for nuns to be in bikinis? The theme is then to protect the secrets of the King.
We now see how inadequate and misleading it is the question of “too much” or “too little.” The one question that we ought to raise is, “What ought we to do in this particular situation? What is God expecting from us – independently of our subjective wishes?
When facing a starving person, there is a clear call to help him generously. But to feel noble and generous in giving a most expensive gift to George Soros would trigger our laughter. In other words, the ethical question is, “What is the call of the moment?” In Christian terms, “What is the theme of Christ?”
When St. Francis chose “lady poverty” and gave everything away he certainly was not motivated by prodigality, but responding to a divine call to follow the One who chose to be born in a stable. From the point of view of the “mesotes,” he was highly unreasonable. He stood in front of nothing. But why? Because of his burning love of Christ that he wanted to follow.
To a secular mind, saints are shockingly unreasonable. “It is all well and good to be a good Christian,” they will tell us, “but to wear a coat in tatters and eat the left over from a garbage bin, is plainly an exaggeration.” A secular mind might reason that a prostitute should change her “life style” which ultimately is unhealthy and will not be beneficial to her. But at the same time they will strongly object to Mary Magdalene’s way of repenting : was it not a bit too extravagant? Alas, this question was raised by the Apostles.
But can one love God too much? Can one be too humble or too charitable? Flat footed reasonability sounds so convincing. It is the guide line of successful politicians. Yet, the saints while giving everything to God felt subjectively that they have given nothing. It is worth mentioning that this truth was already intuited by Plato, “a preparer of the ways of Christ.”
In one of Plato’s dialogues, Phaedrus, Socrates listens to a friend who shares with him the content of a discourse of a man who claimed that love is a sort of “madness”: the lover loses his head for the loved one, and inevitably will harm himself. The non-lover on the contrary, keeps his sanity, and will wisely use a relationship to his advantage, so that he will come out “the winner.” At first Socrates seems to agree with this thesis, but then he “hears his voice” and realizes that he has gone off track.
He cannot take another step: he must first correct the erroneous view he had adopted. He now tells us that there are two very different types of madness. There is a sort of madness that militates against reason. But there is also a divine madness which even though not following the “prudent” dictates of reason, transcends reason. Man then grows wings and is given to perceive that there are things of such greatness and beauty that they are worth giving everything to attain them. To trample on reason leads to disaster. To grow wings and go beyond reason is the road to all great things.
We are told in the Gospel that when a man finds a pearl of great price, he sells whatever he possesses in order to acquire it. This is the holy madness of the saints.
Let him hear, he who has ears to hear.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.