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The Golden Mean

By Roger Scruton |  January 20 2020

Raphael, School of Athens. Photography by Serato / Shutterstock

The confusion in many modern minds of moderation and mediocrity has reduced the emotional and intellectual appeal of balance as an ideal, with disastrous results for many aspects of our culture and society, including wine. We would do well to return to the ancient wisdom of moderation and the avoidance of extremes

Two curt maxims were inscribed above the gate of Apollo’s temple in Delphi: “Know Yourself” and “Nothing to Excess.” The maxims are connected. To know yourself you must control yourself, and to control yourself you must keep the mean. If you want to be happy, Aristotle argued, you must cultivate virtue, and to be virtuous is to avoid extremes. This does not mean that you should be ascetic, puritanical, or timorous, since those, too, are extremes. It means that you should match your passions to their objects, feeling anger when it is right to be angry and joy when what is called for is joy. That is what Horace meant by the Golden Mean, the aurea mediocritas—not the absence of passion, but the balance among passions that leaves the self in charge.

That ancient wisdom was applied to the moral life, to manners, and to the arts. Vice meant the eclipse of reason by desire. Bad manners meant the disregard for others that comes about when appetite takes over. Bad taste meant vulgarity, coarseness, and emotional disarray. To achieve happiness and equilibrium, we must discard all such excesses and put reasoned discrimination in their place.

This ancient plea for moderation is a reminder that virtue should be cast in human form if it is to be humanly achievable. Saints and monks may practise total abstinence, but to believe that abstinence is the only way to virtue is to condemn the rest of mankind. Better to propose the way of moderation and live, thereby, on friendly terms with your species. So it seemed to Montaigne, at least, and so it seems to me. Moderation is the life choice over which we can all agree. It is the Tao, the true path of Confucius, the road to Enlightenment. Even Kant, the stern advocate of Reason against Passion, recognized that it is better to put passion to Reason’s use than to deny it entirely. The Golden Mean is achieved through balance, rather than denial, and is as foreign to the health fascists and the puritans as it is to the bingers and whorers of the modern city.

Needless to say, however, the bingers and whorers have the upper hand. Each new film, exhibition, pop song, or reality show strives to outdo the last in trampling on what remains of moral restraint. We live in a culture of excess, and that means a culture on the edge of self-destruction. But we are also aware of this: if there were an easy way back to the world of moderation, we would take it. But there’s the rub: balance needs discipline, be it the discipline of the tightrope walker or that of the impartial judge.

Balancing act

There is no easy way to equilibrium, since in human affairs, equilibrium means rejecting easy ways—it means not giving way, not going under, not being swept along. And when people are swept along by their appetites, the desire arises to put an absolute brake on them. In the wings of modern society, therefore, you see the swelling bitterness of the Islamist puritan, who will oppose excess of one kind with excess of another. It could fairly be said that our society needs nothing so much as balance, and that unless we regain the path of moderation we will lurch from one excess to another until nothing of value remains.

The balanced acrobat is the one who allows none of his movements to outweigh the others, who remains aloof from the conflicting impulses of his limbs in pursuit of a harmony of the whole body. The balanced painting is one in which all the lines of force within a picture are resolved in the ensemble. The balanced judgment is the one that listens to all sides and strives to choose reasonably between them, rising above the contest of opinions in pursuit of knowledge.

In every area, it seems, balance requires two things: contrast and resolution. The contrast might be one of opinions, of feelings, of movements, of appetites. But the resolution comes about when we rise to another level, so as to exert some kind of rational discrimination or control. We achieve balance when we refuse to be led by any one opinion, desire, appetite, or movement, and work, removed from all of them, in the interests of truth and harmony.

When we speak of excess, therefore, we don’t mean to refer to the strength or urgency of our appetites. It is not the strength of sexual desire that makes a rapist; it is not the strength of bodily appetite that leads to obesity or binge drinking. In every case, excess means lack of control, and lack of control means a failure to give due weight to all the many reasons that tell against your impulse. What makes a soldier courageous, Aristotle argues, is not the lack of fear—that would be mere stupidity. Nor is it rage against the enemy—that would be rashness, which is as much a vice as cowardice. Courage is the ability amid both fear and rage, to stay at one remove from both of them, doing what is honorable. Virtue does not mean suppressing our passions, but rising above them to the point where reason can prevail. The courageous person is the one who overcomes fear, not the one who doesn’t feel it.

The pleasure of the new

Excess is by its nature addictive. The coward starts by running away and soon acquires the habit. Likewise with the rapist, the binge drinker, and the bully: each does something that makes it more likely that he will do it again. When you give way to an impulse and allow no countervailing consideration to stand in its way, you weaken your capacity to resist it. Hence excess leads to excess, and bad habits get worse.

Moreover, human interest depends on contrast. Pleasure achieved through contrast and variety never repeats itself and is always new. Pleasure achieved by giving way to an impulse is on the path to repetition, hence it is quickly jaded and must be constantly reinforced. We see this in the case of violent and pornographic films, where pleasure derives from allowing free rein to the base desire to be shocked. Audiences advance quickly from the softer to the harder versions as their pleasure palls. Only constant shocks to the system can maintain an appetite that derives from shocks to the system. That was why censorship existed in the days when there was still a system to shock—for once we are on this path, there is no stopping before the end, which is one of total degradation.

We find something similar in music. In a well-wrought piece, whether a movement by Mozart or a song by Cole Porter, we recognize that melody, harmony, and rhythm are all moving together in balance. We admire the way in which no one of them prevails but each contributes to the form and completion of the whole. But rhythm is easier to follow than melody, and melody easier than harmony. The temptation exists, therefore, to simplify melody and harmony to the point where rhythm lakes over. That was what happened with rock’n’roll, and the change created an appetite. Rhythm took over, becoming ever more emphatic, ever less subtle, ever less musical, and ever more repetitive. Balance gave way to excess, and by the time we get to modern dance music, we discover a virtually melody-free, harmony-free soup, into which more and more beat is stirred like some pungent spice, in the hopeless attempt to retrieve the vanishing flavor.

Seeing the light

All this has a great bearing on the appreciation of wine. Here, too, virtue resides in balance, and balance means the resolution and transcendence of contrasting qualities. My own career as a wine lover took an enormous step forward when, after training in cheap Riesling and Mateus Rosé, I was offered a fairly ordinary Puligny-Montrachet from Nicolas. I say “fairly ordinary” now, but the first thing that struck me then (40 years ago) was that this was no ordinary wine at all. Something more than grapes and sunlight had gone into the making of it, and this something more, I realized, involved knowledge, skill, patience, culture, and history. If I was asked now to say what it is that distinguishes a properly made white Burgundy from all other versions of Chardonnay I would, without hesitation, say “balance.” This is a wine in which no one quality eclipses the others, but all seem to work together and resolve into an inclusive whole. That is why the pleasure is always new, as one or other of the many layers shines through to the surface and momentarily steals the light.

Now it is possible, with a little thought, to diagnose contributory flavors in a great wine: for example, the lactic acids in the Puligny that impart their distinctive nutty flavor; the hint of vanilla from the oak; the malic acids that laugh on the tongue; the mineral resonance of marl and limestone; the length of the taste, both in the mouth and afterwards, that makes each sip into an unfolding sequence of flavors. You can pull the taste apart—up to a point at least—and take an interest in some disaggregated strand of it. And you will discover that some strands can be imitated and amplified so as to become strident contenders for immediate and exclusive attention.

Thus, by amplifying the oak in a Chardonnay, you can brand the wine through its taste rather than through its geography or history (both of which are eclipsed by such modern excesses). Soon you have created a popular taste that, because it depends upon loudmouthed self-assertion, leads quickly to the extinction of all contrasting flavors. Oaky Chardonnay can be produced as well in New Zealand as in Sicily, as well in South Africa as in California. Some producers even dispense with the oak baskets and put oak chips into the steel vats, which is rather like making Retsina by adding turpentine.

The case perfectly illustrates the path from balance to excess. Balance is hard to achieve, requires training to appreciate, and transports you to a realm of harmony, serenity, and discrimination. Emphasize one feature, one appetite, one clamorous impulse, however, and you will no longer have to trouble yourself with balance. You will create a taste based not on restraining something but on letting it rip. You will have launched a new form of excess. And because excess breeds excess, you will find yourself more and more driven to emphasizing the feature that distinguishes your product, be it oak, resin, high alcohol, the intense forward fruit flavors that can be squeezed out of Shiraz or the gooseberry mouth-spray of fast-fermented Sauvignon.

But why should we aim at balance in wine? Surely, de gustibus non est disputandum, and there can be no harm in allowing these democratic flavors to displace the aristocratic breeds of France and Germany. I feel some sympathy for that argument, but in the end I cannot accept it. For I sense a connection between the excesses of the new branded wines and the excesses of the culture to which they minister. Take the case of Germany, where the Riesling grape has been trained over centuries to produce slow-maturing wines of immense subtlety. These wines, which come to us in beautiful bottles bearing the names of historic villages of the Rhine and its tributaries, owe their aromatic complexity and their seemingly immortal freshness to an alcohol content so low that maturation is only just achieved. The new culture of excess has as little time for such wines as for the music of Mozart, which they resemble. Hence the Germans have begun to manufacture dry Riesling forced up to 13% and sold under brand names, advertising the product with posters in which English yobbos egg on their fellow yobbos to get drunk on it. In the old German wines you could taste all the virtues that distinguished the German people: their industry, restraint, precision, scholarship, and Heimatsgefühl. In the new wines you taste only the vices that they share with us, their erstwhile enemies.

And that, surely, is why we should aim for balance. Excess removes distinction. Binge drinkers, gluttons, sex fiends, and druggies are the same in every climate. Live by the Golden Mean, however, and you become a free individual. Where there is balance, there is also distinction. And that goes also for wine.

This article was originally published in WFW 3 (2004) and is shared online as a tribute to the late Sir Roger Scruton. An obituary by Professor Barry Smith  appeared in WFW 67 (March 2020).

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