Our World of Extremes

Yesterday, I thought of all of you as I talked to a colleague about cell phones. I carry two of them — sad to say — and I dislike them both. One takes calls from the United States, and the other from the Italian locals. Neither of the two belongs to me, but people on both sides of the Atlantic expect me to answer them when they ring. So, that’s what I do.

Welcome to the world of extremes. It’s the world we live in, more and more. Meals are fast and oversized, work weeks are long and intense, vacation and sport — for those who can squeeze them in — are preferably exotic and extreme.

Is that OK?

A little over 2,300 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Aristotle was thinking ahead. He couldn’t have imagined our cell phones, multiple land-lines, and e-mail accounts, Blackberries, iPods, and all the other gadgets and activities that ratchet up the pace of life, but he had a good pulse on humanity and knew certain traits never change. He knew we tend to extremes, and he proposed a new ethic of virtue that, according to him, would satisfy our natural desire for happiness.

Here’s what he had to say:

"Now it (virtue) is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.” (Nichomachean Ethics: Book II, Chapter 6)

In other words, according to Aristotle, virtue can be found somewhere in between overdoing it and not doing enough. This isn’t mediocrity. It’s avoiding two opposing vices, or extremes.

This ethic almost sounds practical. Right? But who’s to say what’s extreme? My dad tells me about the arrival of the first television in his neighborhood. Extreme luxury! But today, an average American home has three! Is that luxury? Ten years ago, it was the rich guy on the block who had the cell phone. Today, my nephew carries one to grade school.

With “normality” changing so rapidly, it would appear living according to the “mean” (or virtue) is absolutely relative. But Aristotle would admit virtuous men and women may look and even act differently according to times and circumstances. It’s their criteria for decision-making that stays the same. They have as their reference point not what the majority is doing, but what is good for human nature, in the deepest sense of the word.

In other words, for some, turning off the cell phone (or phones) may be an act of virtue. It allows them to concentrate on real priorities, rather than reacting to external stimuli. For others, on the other hand, keeping the cell phone on is putting duty and the needs of others ahead of their own longing for a little peace and silence. In both circumstances, the action would be a virtuous one, and according to Aristotle, would make them happy people. He put it like this:

"Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”

The wording is a bit complicated, but the principle is clear.

I think, for now, I’ll keep my phones on.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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