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We're All Moderates Now

By: Deborah Malamud
December 18, 2017

oderation isn’t exciting. Indeed, as Harry Clor notes in On Moderation, “an author who is excited by the idea, as I am, might be thought a bit eccentric.” But that eccentricity has gone mainstream in our atmosphere of heightened partisanship. Moderation is evoked in opinion columnists’ titles and political rhetoric, and its allure has inspired calls for a new, centrist political party. Saying of just what moderation consists, however, is difficult, but Aurelian Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation defines it and shows it in action through five vignettes.

In his earlier work, A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830, Craiutu, an Indiana University political science professor, argued that moderation resembled a “submerged archipelago,” a cogent and complex tradition of political thought that has yet to be thoroughly examined. Moderation remains relevant because it enables us to approach the paradoxes that make up our regime’s core and “to defend the pluralism of ideas, principles, and interests against its enemies.”

Faces of Moderation’s aim is broader: Craiutu raises questions about moderation’s limitations and characteristics, its contingent relationship with political radicalism, and its agenda. He assumes “the role of a tour guide,” navigating us through the writings of Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Norberto Bobbio, Michael Oakeshott, and Adam Michnik.

Craiutu begins by rehabilitating political “trimming,” or the art of political deal-making, a term first appearing in the 1680s. Then and now, “trimming” was synonymous with fickleness and opportunism, but Craiutu advocates it as capable of diffusing tension to create dialogue and adept at synthesizing diverse opinions into a practicable compromise. Craiutu’s respect for trimming shows in his portrayal of Raymond Aron. Aron’s three years in Germany (1930-1933) colored his political understanding and shaped his international relations theories and moral philosophy. Hitler’s rise taught Aron that saving civilization from barbarism would require an examination of totalitarianism’s causes. Fascism and communism were secular religions whose leaders depended on believers’ “permanent mobilization” and promising “collective salvation” in return. Aron’s recognition of this strategy’s effectiveness and danger led him to eschew Hobbesian-style rationality. He urged political writers and researchers to begin their investigations by asking, “What would I do if I were in the place of the statesman at the helm of the State?” Sharp political thinking, and neither materialism’s bluntness nor Manichaean ideology’s hue and cry, would result in strategies for addressing dominant public problems.

Aron supported pluralism through political reflection that forbade policymakers from allowing neutrality or sentimentality to obfuscate a potentially clear-eyed view. Policymakers ought to consider a wide array of public goods, including economic growth, justice, and division of labor. Rather than harmonizing these elements, they should be acknowledged and accepted into an imperfect, temporary compromise.

Craiutu’s thinkers differed in their political leanings—Bobbio was a liberal socialist, Oakeshott a conservative—but they shared a common view about the end of politics: there is no comprehensive political solution to all societal problems. Following Leo Strauss’s view that progress promotes the false belief that there exists a moral floor under which no man can sink, Bobbio tells us that human beings “may be technologically literate but many of us are still morally illiterate.” There are irresolvable moral tensions sown into human nature. In Craiutu’s Oakeshott discussion, Edmund Burke looms large: the proper political undertaking is not to guarantee that every life will be made great but to provide infrastructure for “the gradual readjustment of human relationships…by fallible men.” Incremental, imperfect change is necessary and possible for political health; messianic ardor is not.

Moderation, which Camus called “nothing but pure tension,” is a political attitude that helps  facilitate a focused, principled fight against society’s wrongs and persuades us against the temptation of a comprehensive, tension-free paradise. The political moderate is not resigned to inaction during an “age of extremes;” he is restrained from assuming the “all-or-nothing” crusader position by his own proclivity for balance and nuance. Accordingly, Berlin, a Russian-born political theorist, emphasized the importance of fighting against Communism without being “hypnotized by the blood-curdling threats of the enemy into a frame of mind similar to his own.” Such a position was not limited to the Cold War; American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr downplayed the frequently romanticized struggle against the Axis, calling it a state of “momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.” Both men affirmed the significance of these conflicts while abating the glamour and zeal associated with them, which they saw as one-dimensional and potentially dangerous.

As Craiutu points out, many intellectuals reject moderation in favor of overly ambitious political projects. Indeed, Craiutu writes, Plato traveled to Syracuse to advise Dionysius, a tyrant and would-be philosopher king. Others sought their own “Syracuse” (Craiutu offers Moscow and Havana as contemporary examples) or “visited Syracuse” within their mind’s confines, “choosing authenticity and adventure over humility, decency, and moderation.” But Plato’s conversations with Dionysius have a moderating effect; after Plato’s third visit, Dionysius suggests that he has developed a distaste for tyranny. In his conclusion, Craiutu states that one of the book’s metanarratives is a veiled critique of moderation. Are there times when visiting Syracuse is the best option, and moderation should be ignored, either for its own sake or something else’s? Craiutu acknowledges, somewhat ambiguously, that sometimes this is the case, but a clear position on moderation’s shortcomings is wanting. The book suggests that an awareness of moderation’s limitations is key to a successful moderate agenda, but more clarity is needed about those limits’ content. Which battles should we forfeit to immoderation in order for moderation to win the war?

For Craiutu, much of the world seems to be under Machiavelli’s spell, inspired by the ferocity of lions and the cunning of foxes. Faces of Moderation provides not only a meticulous account and spirited defense of moderation, but also a guide, complete with examples, for the reader who wants to pursue it. If the moderate man is a tightrope-walker performing a balancing act, Faces of Moderation provides a safety net: it is possible to walk the thin wire, as long as one can see the final destination and has the acuity to continue moving forward. Such encouragement is necessary when forming a contemporary moderate. In a world of lions and foxes, to be lamblike involves courage, grace, and very good balance.