The great Greek philosopher Aristotle counseled, “Moderation in all things.” The rascal playwright Oscar Wilde countered, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Who’s right?

It’s true that single-minded focus and unbridled passion can bring remarkable results. Consider celebrated artists or athletes or entrepreneurs or inventors or scientists: Complete devotion to a task can lead to stunning achievements. Moderation can’t hold a candle to excess in such things.

People remember Barry Goldwater’s most famous and oft-quoted dictum: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The equally important and neglected corollary to that in his 1964 presidential nomination speech was: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Yes, but was not Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon wise and merciful for the country in retrospect? And would not continuing on the same course in be foolish stubbornness?

Excess can succeed miserably, too. Excess of eating succeeds in obesity, while starvation succeeds in anorexia. Excess of work succeeds in relational losses; overdoing leisure succeeds in career failure. Excess of levity succeeds in shallowness, gravity in sadness. Excess of risk-taking succeeds in thrills and spills, caution in missed opportunities.

“Everything in moderation,” the proverb says. So what is it we ought to aim for, excess or moderation?


Aristotle proposed the so-called Golden Mean of virtue that seeks a midpoint in all things. Courage, for instance, is that virtue that lives between rashness on the one hand and cowardice on the other. Modesty forges a path between shamelessness and bashfulness. And proper pride lies between empty vanity and undue humility. He believed moral virtue must employ disciplined self-control in all feelings and action.

Wisdom learns to discern when to go full steam ahead and when to throttle back. Always being one or the other is folly. Wisdom knows when to speak and when to be silent. Wisdom understands that balance in life is not about doing something halfway but learning to work and play each in turn.

A ditty from the yesteryear “McGuffey’s Primer” taught children these lines: “Work while you work/ play while you play/ one thing each time/ that is the way/ All that you do/ do with your might/ things done by halves/ are not done right.”

Spiritual living requires total surrender to God, not a halfhearted effort. Moderation doesn’t dial down the heat of passion; it gives passion a conscience and a compass.