Of Moderation



    IT is not the safety of moderation but its beauty and power that make it so excellent and so desirable a virtue. A controlled and regulated force is an agent that may make for usefulness, for good, for happiness; an uncontrolled force can be nothing but a menace.
    At first glance we are apt to think somewhat slightingly of moderation. The good even seem somewhat tame and uninteresting in comparison with their more reckless and less responsible fellows. We are abashed at the presence of evil; we are horrified and confused that it should prevail; and yet we cannot altogether restrain a lingering tinge of admiration for its forceful procedure. We perceive that it does not restrain itself; that [Page 283] it demands and often secures free play for its energies; its exhibition of efficient and capable power dazzles us. We are put out of conceit with respectability, and become half convinced that the bad is not half so bad, after all. We are ready to sneer at moderation.
    But we make a mistake here, we mistake a supine and cowardly respectability for goodness. Now, respectability, mere respectability, is not goodness at all; it is only another form of weakness. The person who takes refuge among the respectable, without any further attempt to do actual good, to be actively good, is nothing but a poltroon, afraid to follow his bent. He will probably go to a worse place than is prepared for many a transgressor.

    But respectability is not moderation; it is stagnation. There is no virtue in respectability, for virtue is an active principle, and the essence of respectability is dull, stupid, selfish, timid inaction. If you are good you may be respectable; but if you set for yourself no standard beyond the negative blamelessness [Page 284] of being respectable you are on the highway to perdition. It is not goodness that fills your soul, but lethargy. You shudder at the criminal classes; you lull yourself with a cushioned chromo-Christianity, but your own spiritual and intellectual and material life is in itself a crime. You are an incumbrance to society, to say the least.
    Moderation is a very different thing. It is the conservation of power. It is the saving grace which sweetens conduct. It makes virtue pleasant and kindly; it makes beauty to be of effect in the world; it makes reason prevail. Moderation is the wisdom which never quite exhausts its reservoirs of power; which never permits depletion, and is, therefore, never exhausted. It always has forces in reserve, and so triples the impression made by the forces it has in use. Moderation is not a penurious aversion to expenditure; it is a sane and strong disposition of power. It means control and efficiency.
    The logic of extremes is notoriously uncertain [Page 285]; the beauty of extremes is even more doubtful. Note that in extremes you have energy enough to waste, spending itself in its last expiring effort. But beauty must always embody power and reserve. There is no beauty in exaggeration and overemphasis, nor in the weakness of imperfection. Beauty in sculpture, for instance, resides in the consummate moment; beauty in painting, in the balance of hues. In everything beautiful, I think, one has the sense of exquisite moderation, a sense of poise, of expectancy, of reservation, as well as of satisfaction. One feels whether in music or poetry, whether in art or life, in contemplating beauty, that here the great spiritual force of the universe was brought into play and arrested for a moment in mid career. There is no strain, but only strength. As perfect and competent strength cannot know strain, so perfect beauty cannot know intemperance nor overstatement. Haste, anger, bigotry, sloth, all these destroy beauty, because they destroy moderation. They make [Page 286] beauty in art and beauty in daily life alike impossible, for that one reason. They prevent us from living centrally and normally; they unhinge our poise; they cloud the mind, hamper the body, and make the spirit unhappy; they take away from us those rare moments of calm contentment, when the human soul stands on the brink of exaltation, half-way between hope and despair. They rush us into one extreme or another, so that we cannot come into full contact with the powers of the universe. They make us too emphatically our single selves, – petty, wilful, and unwise. They drive us to extremes. If I were a wave, I should belong most completely to the great surrounding sea, when I was at mid height between crest and trough. So my own human life is most nearly in accord with the greater life which, it seems, must infuse the universe, not when I am carried beyond the bounds of moderation, but I am at poise, a normal, undistracted being.
    The idea is easily illustrated in many ways [Page 287]. You may see many arts injured by lack of moderation. We build a large opera house, for example, not content with a moderate size. What is the result? The singers must strain their voices to the limit, so that shading and all delicacy of interpretation are lost. So, too, in human speech. How much more convincing our conversation would be, if it were more moderate, – more moderate in its diction, its vocabulary, its tones, its inflections. Speech is a means of expression and may be beautiful, comprehensive, full of delight and power. Too often we permit it to become either a mumble or a shriek. We exaggerate and emphasize and insist, until all is truth is lost and all power of conviction destroyed. Our personal expression becomes palpably false, frayed and worn thin by overstress. This is true of all physical habit; we rush and hurry, or we slouch and dawdle, regardless of the fact that by so doing we lose all spontaneity, all magnetism, all power which inherently belongs in beauty of motion [Page 288].