Saintly Thoughts

Meaning and Balance

Allow me to share an intuition with you: that the good life is a life of balance and moderation, a mean between extremes of behavior which moderates humanities's "wilder" tendencies.  This notion, I suspect, is not particularly controversial, nor is it unique to myself, nor is it very profound.  In part this is because the intuition, as presented, is largely bereft of content.  As with so many aphorisms, it can be twisted in a thousand different directions to suit the underlying moral prejudices of the interpreter.  But rather than cast aside the aphorism as a useless platitude, allow us to dig a little deeper.  Presumably, all persons have within their mind's eye an image of extreme behavior.  I suppose we may often assume that others share a more or less similar conception of what is "extreme" and I would wager that we are largely justified in our perception of a familial relationship of categories; whether they be extremes of violence, or of concupiscence, or of political sensibilities, or of religious devotion.  Most (though by no means "all") reasonable persons would probably agree that there are limits to all of these categories past which no moderately sensible person should wander.  But herein lies the difficulty, that a behavior or belief model which seems utterly insane and extreme to one person seems the image of balanced prudence to another.  Balance and moderation are thus not self evident categories.

Shall we ever be able to agree then on what precisely a "balanced" life should look like?  No, I don't think we shall.  Such a concept as balance depends too much on underlying assumptions concerning the nature of the good life.  The very concept of "balance" itself requires a sort of underlying "faith".  I think, though I can by no means prove, that this is true of most important categories concerning ultimate questions of human worth and meaning.  Therefore, before we can even begin to attempt some reasoned consensus concerning what we mean by the statement "a good life is a life of balance and moderation" we must first come to a decision concerning the question of whence our ultimate measure of extremism derives.  For we know implicitly that the very concept of balance and moderation presume an underlying dialectical relationship between opposing ends, but we have only just discovered that the nature of these ends themselves is something that we may not understand quite so well as we at first supposed.  I will provide you with an example: I suggest that one extreme which is to be opposed is the idea that there is no meaning, i.e. nihilism.  Such an idea is clearly unbalanced.  But do I counter this dialectical pole with the idea that "there is meaning"?  For if I do that, I have constructed an opposite pole which is itself as equally unbalanced as the nothingness of nihilism, but this would appear to negate the very thing which I am attempting to prove (a common trap).  The answer is, as any good logician knows, that the aforementioned construct is not itself the opposite pole of nihilism--the opposing pole of nihilism as presented is that "there is nothing but meaning."  Such a view is unbalanced in that it does not allow for even the possibility of accidental occurrence which partakes of neither the one nor the other category ("there is meaning" or "there is some meaning" it turns out is the mean position).  But this dialectical construct, it so happens, may not help us very much; for the ideas of both ultimate nihilism and ultimate meaning partake of an infinite variety of interpretations.  If we were to assiduously undertake to understand these concepts by such means we would become lost amidst an ever increasing spiral of unknowing spanning an abyss in both directions.  This is not to say that we should not depart some short distance upon this road, but that we must then allow ourselves to be drawn back again into the lived world of experience before we are lost--again, balance and moderation.  

It turns out, then, that the only way to determine the nature of balance and moderation is to set upon the course to discover the essential nature of the concepts themselves.  We cannot begin with the true answer nor can we attain the answer by purely rational means.  But we must begin with some concept of the answer, some language which allows us to set out upon the path in the first place.  From whence do we receive such language?  I don't think that you are going to like the answer very much.  For the language necessary for such an undertaking is inherently religious.  If this then is true, what does it say about those who attempt to comprehend this concept of moderation and balance without the benefit of religious language?  I do not mean to say that such a course is impossible for them, but I do mean to say that they are reasoning with a handicap.

This is the tragedy of the modern age.  That we have lost not only drive and desire to answer the important questions but that we have lost the very language which would allow us to attempt to ask the questions in the first place?  Which takes precedence, desire itself or the means to recognize such desire?