Moderation in Some Things
- The essay below is by the late Neil Millar, from his 1981 book Shards of Light:
Moderation in Some Things
I have no moderate views on moderation. When it means tolerance and patience, I honor it
recklessly. When it means the moderate effort that produces mediocrity, I detest it.
"Moderation in all things" is a creed that binds our highest impulses as tightly as our
lower ones -- a restriction which produces mediocre lives in a mediocre society. Humanity
deserves -- and is -- vastly better than that.
My respect for humanity is immoderate. We are born into a world of mental
earthquakes and hurricanes; and we're subjected to pressures that no one should be
required to bear. Day after day our world tells us how small we are, how feeble, prosaic,
tired, stupid -- and yet we walk bravely, poetically, energetically, even wisely. In spite of
mankind's pettiness and cruelties, lusts and lunacies, we are magnificent.
Civilization, that tumultuous unfinished work of art, is built on sacrifices which
moderation would neither make nor require. Sill and sublime, civilization exists because
countless people have dedicated their thinking to it. This thinking has no known
counterpart in the universe; therefore I believe that humanity is not just magnificent: it is
Most of us, most of the time, are a credit to humanity, a fact which is inexplicable by
human reasoning. Where does our astonishing quality come from?
Where does our astonishing tolerance for mediocrity come from? what we are, in
general, is marvelous. What we do is often marvelous. What we tolerate is often venal,
fatuous, or tenth-rate. I think such toleration is charity run to seed.
Of course this little essay of mine may be once more mediocrity to tolerate; but if
so,that is because I have not succeeded in writing a great essay. I aim high enough. My
aspirations are wholly immoderate. If I don't achieve them -- well, I would rather aim high
and fail, than aim low and succeed. Besides: I have inherited the ages; why should I not
aspire toward greatness? Why should I despair if I miss my aim? There are always more
splendors to pursue tomorrow.
So I shall go on trying to write greatly, regardless of the risks. This is the safest
course. In all the arts, nothing is more dangerous than the refusal to take risks.
Great art is miracle and exultation. The artist has grasped the wind or nailed the
thunder down. Or he has smiled at a rock and the rock has laughed. Or she has cupped a
sorrow in her hands, warmed it, and let it fly away. This kind of magic dies in the common
sense of moderation.
Of all the arts, none is greater than friendship. That glorious and immoderate bonding
is not tethered to its own convenience; it plunges or soars. It feels most blessed when it
blesses most. No task is too menial for its high pride, no goal too lofty for its royal
humility. Its essence is never common sense.
In general, I admire common sense. It restrains and balances; it allows the human
world to work more or less predictably, more of less efficiently, against heavy odds. It
establishes every establishment -- and ultimately traduces every tradition; and these are
no small accomplishments. But it also urges us to conform to the norm and accept the
unacceptable. If love makes the world go round, common sense makes the world go
Square is not a bad thing to be, if one is two-dimensional. It means predictable on all
sides, stable, but with no depth. It means something less than full humanity; it means
moderation in all things.
Some things are ruined by moderation. Compassion is one of them; let it have no
boundaries. Honesty is a second quality in which moderation should never come to flower;
and purity is a third. A moderate purity is impurity; a moderate honesty includes
dishonesty. Moderate compassion belongs in institutions rather than in families; and
humanity is a family,not an institution.
Lastly, in the ultimate affections -- love of sheer goodness, of the perfect, the divine
-- moderation is deadly. "I know thy works," says the Book of Revelation, "that thou art
neither cold nor hot; I would that thou wert cold or hot." In those immaculate and
shadowless passions, I pray that I may never be lukewarm.
In lesser matters, however, let me judge moderation soberly, by its effects.
And then let me loathe it or live it.
From SHARDS OF LIGHT: Fables, Essays, Sonnets & Humor, by Neil Millar. Foursquare
Press, Cambridge MA, 1981 [out of print, but still found online thru used book lists such