Sunday, December 18, 2016

Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes

The case for political moderation requires untangling some misconceptions.

Moderation does not mean truth is always found equidistant between two extreme positions, nor does it mean that bold and at times even radical steps are not necessary to advance moral ends. Moderation takes into account what is needed at any given moment; it allows circumstances to determine action in the way that weather patterns dictate which route a ship will follow.

But there are general characteristics we associate with moderation, including prudence, the humility to recognize limits (including our own), the willingness to balance competing principles and an aversion to fanaticism. Moderation accepts the complexity of life in this world and distrusts utopian visions and simple solutions. The way to think about moderation is as a disposition, not as an ideology. Its antithesis is not conviction but intemperance.

Moderates “do not see the world in Manichaean terms that divide it into forces of good (or light) and agents of evil (or darkness),” according to Professor Craiutu. “They refuse the posture of prophets, champion sobriety in political thinking and action, and endorse an ethics of responsibility as opposed to an ethics of absolute ends.” This allows authentic moderates to remain open to facts that challenge their assumptions and makes them more likely to engage in debate free of invective. The survival of a functioning parliamentary system, Sir William Harcourt said, depends on “constant dining with the opposition.”

The charge that moderates lack courage is easily put to rest by people like the French journalist and philosopher Raymond Aron. He was a man of deep, reasoned convictions who possessed a sense of proportion. A nonconformist, Aron was fearless in taking on the leading intellectuals of his time, including his friend Sartre. (Parisian students in 1968 avowed that it was “better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”) Aron strongly defended liberal democracy when it was fashionable to denigrate it. Playing off the Marxist claim that religion was the opium of the masses, Aron argued that Marxism was the opium of the intellectuals.

For Aron, political moderation was a fighting creed. Allergic to ideological thinking, he conformed his views to evidence. He retained his intellectual and political independence throughout his life. Aron believed that history teaches us humility, modesty and the limits of our knowledge. He was also skilled at the art of dialogue, engaging those he disagreed with critically but civilly. “As the last great representative of a distinguished tradition of European liberalism,” Professor Craiutu writes, “Aron attempted to disintoxicate minds and calm fanaticism in dark times.” Aron put it this way: “Freedom flourishes in temperate zones; it does not survive the burning faith of prophets and crowds.”


Moderation is a difficult virtue for people to rally around, since by definition it doesn’t arouse fervor or zealous advocates. But in a time of spreading resentments and rage, when truth is increasingly the target of assault and dialogue is often viewed as betrayal, moderation isn’t simply a decorous democratic quality; it becomes an essential democratic virtue.

In this immoderate age, moderation must become America’s fighting faith.

- More here on the new book Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes by Aurelian Craiutu

No comments: