Giving Moderation a Bad Name

Holt and McGinn

Giving Moderation a Bad Name

Holt and McGinn

Giving Moderation a Bad Name
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 17 1998 11:48 AM

Holt and McGinn

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For the record: the only sentence in my previous letter that was meant unironically was the one about the drums (just in case anyone was in any doubt--it's risky, irony).

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Thanks for informing me of that elementary point of logic (you learn something every day). It is quite true that a stone or a tree can lack virtue without thereby being vicious; and so logically consistent to deny that Socrates has virtue without thereby convicting him of vice. But in your original letter you went further than claiming a mere absence of virtue on Socrates's part; you imputed various faults of character and action to him, agreeing with Russell's negative depiction of the man. So my description of your estimate of Socrates was not based upon failing to grasp the distinction between contradiction and contrariety; it was based on your actual words. (Moral: philosophers of logic don't usually commit logical fallacies.)

About Bloombury: intellectuals tend to stress the more cerebral aspects of the good life, the bit you can do in your armchair. For G.E.Moore, weeding the garden was high action.

Okay, I'm going to do it. I'm going to give you my prescription for a good and happy life. This it. Showtime.

First, everyone should find some physical activity--for short, a sport--that they like to do. It should be vigorous, demanding, skill-requiring; preferably, it should involve some interaction with the elements. Of course, you can choose several such activities. The point is not merely to keep fit, though that is important. The point has more to do with maximizing the potential of your body. My teachers thought I would be a P.E. teacher, and I still have some of that in me. I love to teach people new skills (more than I love to teach philosophy), and I like to acquire new physical skills myself. Kayaking is my most recent activity of choice. So let me put my first prescription more concretely: Everyone should take up kayaking. 

Second, everyone should develop a serious intellectual interest in something (and I mean everyone). I don't think it much matters what it is, so long as it involves intense interest, even to the point of obsession (who was it that gave obsession a bad name?).

Third, everyone should maintain high moral standards. What these are is a matter for people to work out for themselves. But everyone should make a point of having them and sticking to them. By this I do not mean that the traditional virtues of some or other religion should be slavishly respected. I once wrote a book on this, called Moral Literacy.

Fourth, be sure to get a good night's sleep.

That's it. Not very hard really. I don't think much of the old 'Moderation in all things' prescription. Does it include moderation itself? If so, then I am allowed to be extreme about some things. Should one be moderate in one's virtue, one's intelligence, one's beauty? Absolutely not. And what is the definition of 'moderation'? If it simply means 'that which won't produce unhappiness' it is not very helpful. In fact, it only meaningfully applies to the appetites, specifically food and drink. Telling us not to eat too much and get drunk all the time is not much of a philosophy of life, though no doubt sensible advice.

Can I go back to Madonna for a minute? Seriously, what is it with the English accent? So far as I can see, speaking in an English accent is not necessarily part of the good life. Is it some kind of attempt to flee her previous incarnations? Will Bill Clinton, like Warren Beatty's Bullworth, start talking like a black rapper soon? It gives new meaning to the phrase 'speech therapy'.

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Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for
Lingua Franca and the Wall Street Journal. Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. This week they discuss...