Practicing moderation is probably one of the hardest things in a world that pushes us to extremes and encourages us to numb the senses with an incessant stream of stimuli. But for philosophers like Aristotle, the virtue of moderation is the cornerstone for a balanced and happy life. Without moderation we become leaves in the wind that swing from excess to defect, without finding the inner peace that the middle point offers us.
Why is it so difficult to be moderate?
The answer - or at least part of it - goes back to our ancestors. Our ancestors were more prone to what we would now consider excesses because they lived in particularly difficult conditions. For example, they had to use all their resources and energy to hunt or travel long distances, so they had to rest for longer periods of time to recover energy. This led them to alternate phases of hyperactivity and inactivity. Something similar happened with food.
Although those times are long gone, our brains are still marked by basic needs, so we tend to gorge ourselves on our favorite food and then start a strict diet. So we swing between extremes, never getting to moderation.
Even modern society encourages us to swing between extremes, sinning by default or by excess, because everything is configured in terms of opposites. The concept of family is an example of this lack of restraint. Just a few decades ago, the family was a sacred and inviolable concept, in which marriage was an essential and indissoluble bond. Instead, liquid relationships now predominate in which people transition from one relationship to another without feeling completely fulfilled.
The same is true in parent-child relationships. A few decades ago, parents exercised tight control over their children's lives, falling into authoritarianism. Today many children have behavioral problems, because many parents have developed an excessively permissive educational style in which they indulge all their whims without setting the limits necessary for a balanced development of the personality. In this way, moderation is an increasingly rare virtue.
Mesotheads, the practice of moderation
In ancient Greece, moderation was a very precious value. In fact, in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi there are two phrases, the first very famous and the other completely forgotten. “Gnóthi seautón”, “know yourself” and “Medèn ágan”, “nothing in excess”. The latter aims at the moderation of the senses, actions and words.
In reality, both aphorisms are connected because only a deep knowledge of ourselves can tell us how far we can go and know when it is time to stop so as not to overdo it. This is why Aristotle often spoke to his disciples about the “mesòtes” or the right middle point, which he also spoke of in his treatise “Nicomachean Ethics”.
For Aristotle nothing was good or bad in an absolute sense, but it depended on quantity. For example, having too little courage leads to developing a cowardly personality, but having too much courage leads to recklessness. By practicing moderation, we find the courage to do things that are worthwhile and common sense to avoid exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks.
However, we don't realize that many of the things we strive to eliminate from our lives as bad, are actually far less harmful than we think. The problem is not things, but their excess or their defect.
Often abstinence from something has the opposite effect, causing us to gravitate towards the forbidden. It is a phenomenon similar to the "Rebound Effect", according to which, the more we try to avoid thinking about something, the more that content will be activated in our mind. So, the more we deprive ourselves of sweets, the more we want to eat them. Defects lead to excesses. And viceversa. So we end up excluding moderation.
To understand the relationship between excesses and defects, we can think of our life as a rocking swing. When there is too much weight on one side, the other side moves in the opposite direction and pulls us further. Either we are up or down, tiptoeing through the midpoint.
To practice moderation, we must stop thinking in terms of all or nothing, black or white, good or bad. The key is to allow yourself everything, in the right measure. And getting to know each other well enough to keep us from pushing our limits.