The Wisdom Of Moderation, And The Danger Of Extremism


Plutarch’s lives of Phocion and Cato the Younger can be read as case studies on the contrasting features of moderation and extremism.

The successful, rational leader will know when to compromise and seek settlements; the extremist will not, and thereby brings himself and others to ruin.

Phocion (402-318 B.C.) was an Athenian general and statesman.  He was famous for his modesty, frugality, and longevity in the office of strategos (a high-ranking military commander), to which he was elected an incredible forty-five times.

One of the greatest challenges to his office was the rise of Macedonian power under Philip II.  He initially tried to resist its intrusions on Athenian independence; when this proved hopeless, he wisely submitted to the inevitable and arranged terms favorable to his city.  “We should not be without hope,” he said. “Our ancestors suffered similar episodes of subjection, but they carried on, and because of that both Athens and Greece as a whole survived.”

It is generally agreed that Phocion’s strategy of compromise saved Athens from ruin.  He tried to strike that delicate balance between telling the truth to his countrymen, but not speaking so bluntly as to alienate others from him.  At the same time, he refused to resort to flattery of the public or to follow the herd.  Many great men are forced to walk such tightropes over the cauldrons of danger created by the events of their day.

Some are successful in preserving the balancing act, and others are not.

Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.) illustrates the dangers of extremism.  He regarded himself as the protector and exponent of traditional republican virtues.  He could not accept that Roman republican institutions were no longer viable, and saw Julius Caesar as a dangerous demagogue who threatened to destroy the state.  He agitated constantly against Caesar, always resisting any attempt to find some sort of middle ground.

When his cause was lost, he was unable to compromise with the victor Caesar and adjust himself to the new order of things.  He was also too proud to allow Caesar the satisfaction of pardoning him, as Caesar had already done for many of his political enemies.  His inflexibility and extremism left him without any options but to take his own life, which he did gruesome fashion in 46 B.C.

And so here we see in contrast the difference between moderation and extremism.  Moderation provides the tools for the common good.  Instead of leading both sides over the edge of the cliff, it finds a way to grant both sides a face-saving compromise.  Of course, there will always be times when even moderation may need to be moderated; some situations require inflexibility.  But this is more the exception than the rule.

Some clues regarding when and how to show moderation are found in this wise quote from the Life of Phocion (Ch. 2):

So, too, in political affairs, a method of government which is too rigid and opposes the popular will on every occasion will be resented as harsh and overbearing, but on the other hand, to acquiesce in all the demands of the people, and share in their mistakes, is a dangerous, sometimes a catastrophic, policy.

The art of wise administration consists in making certain concessions and granting that which will please the people, while demanding in return an obedience and cooperation which will benefit the whole community–and men will cooperate readily and usefully in many ways provided they are not treated harshly and despotically all the time.

This is the style of government which ensures the security of the state, but its practice is arduous and beset with difficulties, and it must combine those elements of severity and benevolence which are so hard to balance.  But if such a happy mixture can be achieved, it provides the most complete and perfect blending of all rhythms and all harmonies.

This is an admirable statement of the challenge faced by him who would seek to govern either a nation, or his own soul.

You can find out more about moderation and extremism in my books Thirty-Seven and Pantheon.