Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 5: The Ethics of Avoiding Extremes

Teacher: The Greeks believed that the ideal of moderation, the Golden Mean, or "Nothing in Excess" should characterize everything about being human. What was most important in life was maintaining a healthy balance in everything by avoiding extremes and keeping to "the middle way." Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics felt that even the virtues should be no exception. Virtue was "midway between two opposite vices." Courage, for example, was midway between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness.

What I'd like to do today is to extend this way of thinking to other areas of our lives to see if the Greeks can teach us anything useful about being human in the 21st century. Take a few minutes and choose one of the following concepts and describe three different states of mind: first, someone who embodies a balanced view of the concept; then someone who carries that concept to an extreme; and, lastly, someone who embodies the opposite extreme by having no regard for that concept at all. Three points of view, then: one which is balanced; one which is excessive; and one which is completely deficient.

Acceptance by Others, Ambition, Being in Control, Commitment, Concern for Others, Conformity, Duty, Enthusiasm, Expressing One's Feelings, Family, Fitness, Friends, Fun, Hope, Humility, Ideals, Imagination, Inner Life, Knowledge, Love, Loyalty, Needing Others, Oneself, Patriotism, Personal Freedom, Popularity, Possessions, Religion, Reputation, Resignation, Self-Acceptance, Self-Confidence, Self-Discipline, Sense of One's Limitations, Sports, Success, Tradition, Trust, and Virtue.

Student 1: I'd like to talk about "success." I think a balanced view of success, one that's not fanatical, on the one hand, or totally absent, on the other, would be working hard for a goal in a way that would bring you a sense of fulfillment and pride in proving yourself and feeling good about what you've accomplished. The extreme would be doing anything to be Number One. That's all you think about every waking moment. You're so focused on that goal that you'll neglect everything else in your life as a needless distraction that would keep you from reaching the top of that mountain.

Being Number Two is being a failure and, as a result, being so ashamed of yourself that you can't live with yourself, so you use that shame to try even harder the next time. You'll do anything to get that prize. Nothing else matters - your marriage, your family, even having a life. You'll sacrifice everything. You'll even sell out your friends to reach the next rung on the ladder, and then you'll discard them for new friends to help you reach the next rung. You don't care whom you hurt because everyone is just a means to your end. What may have started out as a normal desire to do your best gradually turns into a sickness, a mania, a kind of psychosis where you become a slave to this inner compulsion that won't let you go.

The opposite extreme is having no interest in being a success whatsoever. You just do your own thing and refuse to take part in anything because you have your own agenda. You're not a "go-getter" or an "alpha type" since you don't want to get involved in a "rat race" that's not worth the effort. You just want to be left alone to go your own way.

Teacher: Okay. Nice job. Reactions?

Student 2: I just wanted to comment on that point about not wanting any parts of that "rat race." I have a lot of friends like that, but I don't really think they fit the category about not striving for success. True, they're more easy-going, laid-back, and would do anything for you, but they just define success in a different way. They also have focus, but not as an over-the-top kind of person who'd even run over his grandmother if she got in his way. [Laughter by the class] These guys just want to be left alone to do their own thing, They just define their goals differently and, whatever they do, they want to be good at it, but just enough to be happy and not go off the deep end or go down in any Guinness Book of Records.

Student 3: If I could offer another example that might be more in keeping with someone who has no interest in success about anything, it would be someone who's basically a slug, with no motivation, incentive or energy, almost catatonic, and who simply vegetates his life away. They could be loners, but not necessarily, because a lot of loners have volcanic drive and focus, but they don't show it in any extrovert way. The person I'm talking about might be depressed in some way, or maybe something happened to him early in life. Maybe there's something going on at home, or he's dealing with some kind of inner problem or tragedy, and is so preoccupied with it that all his energy is siphoned off by dwelling on himself.

Student 4: I'd like to get back to the guy who ran over his grandmother. [Laughter] I think the way he was described really hits the nail on the head, but I don't think that these people think that they're over-the-top at all. In fact, they think that everyone who's not like them is a slug! I think that they're very good at whatever they do, and that this is just their way of showing it and getting recognition. They're so driven that they're blind to how they come across to others. Or they could be aware of it, but simply can't help themselves or don't care because they're so trapped in their mindset 24/7 that they're on a permanent high.

Teacher: I want to start digging deeper now. Beyond what's been said, what might be going on with this person who will stop at nothing to be a success? [Long pause]

Student 5: Well, he might have some kind of inferiority complex, so that the lengths he'll go to is simply a way of proving to others that he's not only okay, but exceptional. Probably overcompensating, too, but doesn't realize how much he's hurting himself in the long run by becoming so one-sided and warped in the process.

Student 6: I don't think people like that care about what other people think of them. Sort of missing a gene or something, because all they care about is success-at-any-price and nothing about how they may hurt others as long as they come out on top. It's like those guys who bulk up on steroids, not caring about how it's undermining their health as long as they win! They just slowly go mad because they're so possessed by this inner demon and just don't care about wrecking their bodies. They figure, even if I die, it's a small price to pay for being Number One! Really sick! Those who know them probably sense they need professional help, but hesitate to get involved because they know they'll never change, so they write them off as a lost cause.

Student 7: I think we may be approaching this the wrong way. My older brother majored in sociology back in college and once mentioned that American culture itself probably has a lot to do with this craziness. It's the way it pushes success to an extreme where it's almost pathological. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, take all sorts of chances, so that it pushes them over the edge. It's a madness that gets into the bloodstream and makes people into over-competitive fanatics like Willy Loman or Gatsby le Magnifique

Teacher: Interesting comments. Anyone else? Now, what about the other extreme, the person who's just very passive, with no interest in anything? Is there anything beyond what's already been said that might explain this behavior?

Student 8: I think it's a fear of failure or being laughed at, so to avoid that they don't do anything that could expose themselves to criticism. They just shut down to play it safe and let life pass them by. Why they fear failing so much, I have no idea. After all, everybody fails at some time in their life, and when they do, they just get on their horse and try again. But something got to these people early in life, so that when they do fail, they think it's the end of the world.

Or maybe they're perfectionists, and if they can't do something perfectly, they go to pieces and withdraw from life. Whatever it is, it just feeds on itself and they feel themselves even more of a failure because they're going round and round and end up loathing themselves because they don't even try. But even if they wanted to, they'd be afraid to break out of their circle without drawing attention to themselves by trying, and so they retreat even more deeply into themselves and give up altogether.

Teacher: If this person were your friend, what would you say to help him?

Student 8: Well, I pretty much feel that they'd already know what I'd say, but I'd still say it because, coming from a friend, it might strike a chord and make them realize that someone does understand and cares enough to want to help them. I think that showing your concern might begin to thaw them out, so that they might want to come out of their shell. Everything would naturally depend on their willingness to try. You could talk them through it and be there for them, telling them that everyone fails, but the trick is not to let it get to you, and that, since they're still young, it isn't as though they're set in concrete. When you're still young, you haven't earned the right to give up! It would take a lot of work, but if they're your friend, you don't mind because they are your friend.

Teacher: Very nice discussion with lots of interesting points. Just a few thoughts in closing. This notion of moderation is mentioned so often in Greek antiquity that you get the impression that the Greeks were preaching to themselves. Even the myth about Icarus, who flies too high toward the sun and falls to his death, conveys the same message.

Why stress something like moderation or the Golden Mean unless you felt that there was a need for stressing it because so many weren't observing it? And if that were the case, at least they realized that they had a problem and were trying to correct it by such constant reminders. This very recognition of having a problem and taking steps to overcome it is itself an impressive quality and shows that they weren't into denial, but willing to look Medusa right in the face and deal with the problem.

As you go through life, look for other examples of people not observing the Golden Mean. This is not to say that the Mean must be located dead-center between two opposite extremes. There's naturally going to be some flexibility because we're all different and have to make allowance for these differences. Where the Mean is for one person may not be exactly the same for another.

What will strike you, however, is when someone is at either extreme of the spectrum. When this happens, ask yourself what would be the balanced way of behaving? And picking up on a point raised in our discussion, do you think that there is a high incidence of extreme behavior in our culture today, and, if so, is it caused by our culture and the times we live in? [Pause] See you tomorrow!"