On the slopes of Mt. Parnassos is perched a balcony of land known as the Sanctuary of Delphi. In the center of the sanctuary is the Temple of Apollo where the Pythia sat on a bronze tripod above a chasm in the earth, inhaling the gasses and ecstatically prophesying the fate of kingdoms and rulers.
Carved over the door to the temple were three maxims:
γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself)
Ἐγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη (a pledge comes from folly – basically, don’t make a bunch of legally binding promises)
μηδὲν ἄγαν (nothing in excess)
This last one was attributed to Solon the Lawgiver, an archon of Athens who was famous for canceling all the debts of the population and who brought the stories of Atlantis back to Greece from Egyptian Tempels that were already ancient in 590 BC.
Nothing in Excess became the foundation of the Golden Mean – that ideal harmonic balance that was so appreciated by the Greek philosophers. It was echoed by Socrates when he said people must know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.”It was Aristotle who really picked up the idea and developed it in his Ethics. For example, Aristotle saw courage as a virtue, but if taken to excess, courage would become recklessness, and when courage was deficient then you were in a state of cowardice. True virtue was walking the right balance between EXCESS and DEFICIENCY and to have the right measure for the moment at hand.
Note that excess is not the same as A LOT, and deficiency is not the same as A LITTLE. You can have A LOT of something without it being enough. You can have a little of something and still have it be too much. Extremes are okay, as long as they are appropriate to the situation. Aristotle was not afraid of strong emotions. Anger and physical force had its place to the ancient Greeks, who were constantly fighting for territory or defending against invaders, but it was important to know when to put down your swords and come together to play Olympic games and soak in the baths.
These ideas were also echoed in Kabbalah in the structure of the Tree of Life. The two pillars of either side of the tree were the pillars of Severity and the pillars of Mercy. The center pillar was Equilibrium. Mercy is the expansive power that wants to let things be, Severity is the editing power that wants to cull the herd and reclaim the energy.
A Hermetic maxim states” Unbalanced Mercy is weakness and the fading out of the Will. Unbalanced Severity is cruelty and the barrenness of Mind“. It was required that a person use logic and intuition to measure correctly between two polarities. Dogmatic fixation on an ideology work AGAINST anyone trying to attain this kind of virtue. One would need to measure every time in the context of a constantly changing environment with constantly changing needs and humans.
One would need to explore their range between two extremes to find out where the ideal harmony of energies would lie. If you’ve been driving your car for a week and the gas gage is constantly leaning against either the E or the F for a week, you wouldn’t trust the instrument. You would assume that it had shorted out and the needle was just leaning to one side no longer sensing the changing status of the tank. I see so many people having conversations from that leaning-to-one-side fixed point. Aristotle wouldn’t have had any problem with the needle leaning to the far right or far left, but he wouldn’t have trusted a needle that never moved. In some ways I think that we become mesmerized by the most famous polarity of all – Good Vs Evil and we fit everything into it’s pattern.I’ve found that exploring my range in a number of polarities has been vital in keeping me creative and fresh, and to thinking critically about everything.
Some of my polarities are:
the obvious – politics – Conservative vs progressive
Being extra prudent vs taking a huge risk
Leading vs following
Being the center of attention vs observing
Being promiscuous vs being chaste
Sober vs psychonautical
Offering my advice vs letting people solve it on their own
Socializing vs being private and introspective
Being inclusive vs creating spaces that really focus on one thing.
Protective vs being porous.
Being carefree vs extra responsible and detail-oriented.
Making peace vs sticking my elbows out and defending my boundaries. Entertaining conspiracy theories vs trusting the official narrative.
The list could go on all day. I’m seeing nations have to deal with these polarities in their politics. Closing a border vs opening it. Creating an expensive safety net vs a lightweight but more risky environment. I’m seeing my communities deal with it in a big way: Creating spaces that make it safe for an affinity group, vs trying to be inclusive. Being politically correct vs being irreverently authentic. Resist vs finding common ground. Either end of these polarities has its value, but the trap is in believing either side is the BEST value, ALWAYS. According to Aristotle, the virtue is knowing where to place yourself on the spectrum NOW, and then NOW, and then…. NOW. I have to allow myself to slide around and explore my range, to become flexible and responsive to life.
I am often surprised that my fixed position that I’ve been stuck at isn’t my most comfortable or natural place anymore. It’s just become automatic thinking, devoid of analysis, sensitivity and critical thinking. It’s a well-worn groove.
How does one explore your range?
Try something new. Read a blog with a contrasting opinion, switch news channels, pick an option you haven’t picked before, don’t decide that you don’t like something before you try it, try to see things from the other side’s perspective.
I’m curious what polarities you’ve been sliding around on? What polarities do you see your communities grappling with?