The Golden Mean in Everyday Life

This is an election year in Canada, and as is usual with such events confusion and perplexity attend the campaigning by the various parties and candidates who wish to form a government. As usual, the campaign is cast as a political struggle between “left” and “right”, even though there are now four parties vying for power. This polarisation of political terms is rather phoney, so with this post I hope to dispel some of the mental confusion associated with the terms “left” and “right”, or “liberal” and “conservative” viewpoints.

Now, “left” and “right” are rather contemporary terms and come from the French Revolution. The terms refer to those who happened to sit to the left of the Speaker of the National Assembly and those who sat to the right of the Speaker. Those of on the Speaker’s left side thought the revolution had not gone far enough. Those on the right side thought the revolution had gone quite far enough, and perhaps even too far. Those on the “left” became associated with “liberal” and those on the right side became associated with “conservative”, and so the former with “change” and the latter with “permanence” or “stability”.

So, in order to account for the meaning of “left” and “right” we have to dig down into the meaning of “liberal” and “conservative”, for these polar attitudes and moods are part of the abiding human condition and are connected to our interpretation of time in its two aspects as future and past times, or revolutionary (change) or evolutionary (stability). In effect, in speaking of “liberal” or “conservative” we are actually dealing with a “spiritual” issue also, but also tied in with the notion of energetics.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are, of course, Latin in origin. Liberalitas meant free in the sense of open and generous, or uninhibited, unrestricted, and so on. Conservare, on the other hand, is parsed out in the terms “con” (altogether or “thoroughly”) and servare — to “serve” and “to keep” or “keep safe”, and so is associated with the virtue of “loyalty” or with “prudence”, and a preference for the stable.

But there is also a double meaning to the word “conservus“, for servus (or serva) also meant “slave” or “servile” as much as “servant”. And in that sense you have the saying “loyal to a fault” signifying this implicit double-character of the conservative mindset, which is also reflected in the liberal mind-set, which we might call here “coincidentia oppositorum” as well. In other words, both “liberal” and “conservative” contain a paradox, in the sense that they have an “efficient and effective” side, as well as a “deficient” aspect, or what we call a “positive” and a “negative” polarity.

Being “loyal to a fault” will be familiar to those Canadians who are following the “Duffygate scandal” (the bribery, fraud, and breach of trust trial of disgraced Senator Mike Duffy) and the role of Prime Minister Harper’s former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, in that scandal. Mr. Wright succumbed to a moral dilemma of his own making in sacrificing “honesty” to “loyalty”. Mr. Wright even quoted Scripture (Matthew 6) during the trial of Mr. Duffy, and completely out of context, in an attempt to justify that sacrifice: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”. In other words, the “liberal” side of Mr. Wright (“honesty” or “openness”) was sacrificed to the “conservative” side (“loyalty”).

There is also a “generous to a fault”, in the sense of squandering or even libertinage. Libertinism is the deficient aspect of liberalism, while servility is the deficient aspect of conservatism. This is an example of hybris followed by Nemesis. The “Golden Mean” is the balance of the open and the closed (or the public and the private).

Aristotle used quite different terms for the Latin terms for “liberal” and “conservative”. He used the terms “megalopsychos” for the former and “mikropsychos” for the latter in his Rhetoric. It’s worth quoting his words to see how he represented this in “energetic” terms, and why the historical context (decadence of classical Greek civilisation) weighs heavily in his definition. “Megalopsychos” translates as “liberal” in the sense of “big-hearted”, “broad-minded” or “great souled”, while “mikrospychos” translates as “conservative”, but in the sense of “petty-minded”, “mean-spirited” and “small-souled”. Aristotle’s obvious preference for the former was a reaction to the hubris and decadence of the latter, in the context of the waning of Greek civilisation — an excess of “prudence” and “loyalty” to the old that had become itself hubristic.

“Because they have lived many years and have been deceived many times and made many mistakes, and because their experience is that most things go badly, they do not insist on anything with confidence, but always less forcefully than appropriate….

And they are small of soul because they have been humbled by life: for they desire nothing great or excellent, but only what is necessary for survival. And they are ungenerous. For property is one of the necessary things; and in, and through, their experience they know how hard it is to get it and how easy to lose it. And they are cowardly and fear everything beforehand – for they have, in this respect, the opposite character of the young. They are chilly, and the young are hot; so old age prepares the way for cowardice, since fear, too, is a kind of chilling… And they live for advantage and not for the noble, more than is appropriate, because they are self-loving. For the advantageous is good for oneself; the noble is good simpliciter … Their desires are gone and they are slaves to profit… And the elderly, too, feel pity, but not for the same reason as the young; for the young feel it through love of humanity, the old through weakness – for they think every suffering is waiting for them, and this inspires pity. For this reason they are given to grieving, and are neither charming nor fond of laughter.”  Rhetoric, Book 2, chapter 2, 13, pp. 174-6

So, Aristotle is really describing the conservative mood in its deficient aspect and in terms of energetics, and this was true in his time when the renewal and rejuvenation of Greek civilisation had become a pressing necessity, and when the conservative attitude of “prudence” and “loyalty” had become itself immoderate or hybristic, leading towards Nemesis. “Loyalty” can become a form of servility and mere mindless deference to authority and tradition.

This is much the same situation as we find ourselves in today, and which is being called “culture war” amongst other things. In contemporary terms, Aristotle’s “megalopsychos” corresponds to “revolutionary”, and mikropsychos to “reactionary”. “Post-Modern” means also, in some ways, “post-Moderate” — the unmeasured, the disproportionate, the loss of “ratio” that is irrationality and “the mental-rational now functioning in deficient mode” as Jean Gebser put it. Decadence is enervation, in some ways, and such depletion and diminishment takes many forms, including absence of inspiration or “vision” or “diminishing expectations” as synonymous with the contraction of all horizons.

At root, despite everything, it’s always the same simple question that needs to be answered: “too much, or not enough?” Both lead to nihilism, which is our present word for “Nemesis”. The zigzag path or “pendulum of history” is an attempt to give answer to that question. That zigzag path between the opposites, or rise and fall, is the working out of the karmic law in history — action and reaction, or hybris followed by Nemesis.

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