Nothing to excess- some meditations on the 38° Delphic Law

“Our job as human beings is to use our rationality to find the golden mean in every virtue and then to practice and live it until it becomes a habit.”

38) Nothing to excess (Μηδεν αγαν)

This is a very renowned law that most people remember and use as a summa of the Hellenic ethic, as it has been often termed as the “Greek motto” par excellence; in fact it is one of the three inscription in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, so its renown is well explained. It is not simple at all to give an explanation of this law, since it covers almost all fields of human life; it is related to all aspects of life – in politics, ethics, aesthetics, culture, art, architecture, psychology and so on – defiance of which invites hybris, discord and catastrophe and amounts to the repudiation of what the Greeks aspire to more than anything – living with beauty and truth. The most clear example is this phrase of Socrates: “now we notice that the force of the good has taken up refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful. For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue.” From the more ancient times, the Hellenic Tradition stresses the virtue of sophrosyne (moderation, self-control) as the key to happiness and right living; its opposite is hybris, meaning pride, arrogance, and unbridled ambition.  The result of human excesses and lying at the root of personal misfortune and social injustice, hybris invariably provokes nemesis, or retribution:  inexorable law would cause the downfall or disgrace of anyone guilty of hybris. Sophrosyne is, in its initial meaning, very close to wisdom, as a moderation which is possible to reach by self-knowledge:  two of the imperatives written in the frontispiece of Apollo’s Temple give a suggestive expression to this major human value: “nothing to excess” and “know thyself” synthesize a deep wisdom about life, these adages express universal duties and define what is specific about human accomplishment.

As an experience of tension, but also of an admirable compromise, sophrosyne demonstrates an important role in making human life a moral one and, as a consequence, in making man grow in his dignity, with a clear conscience about his very own ideal of life: that of educating and of acting in good will, restraining his/her dependence on pleasures and pains, according to his strength; in other words, choosing what is properly his, what deserves to be fulfilled, being at the same time useful and rightful, and thus leading to that eudaimonia about which we have already discussed. Morality, like artwork, requires that one neither under‐do nor over‐do. One must hit upon the right course (steering between too much and too little). This requires practice, as virtues are good habits or dispositions to do the right thing developed by means of particular virtuous acts. Good judgment requires that one find the mean between extremes; in order to do that, one must have both general knowledge and particular experience. Practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue (intellectual virtues are higher than moral virtues), which governs deliberation and action. Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is well in keeping with ancient ways of thinking which conceived of justice as a state of equilibrium between opposing forces. Heraclitus conceived of right living as acting in accordance with the Logos, the principle of the harmony of opposites; and Plato defined justice in the soul as the proper balance among its parts. Like Plato, Aristotle thought of the virtuous character along the lines of a healthy body. According to the prevailing medical theory, health in the body consists of an appropriate balance between the opposing qualities of hot, cold, the dry, and the moist; the goal of the physician is to produce a proper balance among these elements, by specifying the appropriate training and diet regimen, which will of course be different for every person. Similarly with health in the soul: exhibiting too much passion may lead to reckless acts of anger or violence which will be injurious to one’s mental well-being as well as to others; but not showing any passion is a denial of one’s human nature and results in the sickly qualities of morbidity, dullness, and antisocial behavior. The healthy path is the “middle path,” though remember it is not exactly the middle, given that people who are born with extremely passionate natures will have a different mean than those with sullen, dispassionate natures. Aristotle concludes that goodness of character is “a settled condition of the soul which wills or chooses the mean relatively to ourselves, this mean being determined by a rule or whatever we like to call that by which the wise man determines it.”

Updating this value so praised by the Ancients on this topic seems to be profitable to the healing of bad habits that trouble human beings at the beginning of the 3rd millennium, guiding them toward well-being as a right measure in everything, as symbolized by the myth of Dedalus and Icarus, where the wise one tells his son to fly on the medium distance between the sun and the sea.


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