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The Stoic Range of Virtue: In Defense of Moderation


This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes who is a writer and software product manager based in Nashville, TN. Join his reading list for 5+ monthly book recommendations–with notes so you can start to dig in–and his latest articles.


As a society we pride ourselves on extremes. We flaunt how few hours of sleep we maintain, how insatiable we are in our careers, and how comfortable our lives are thanks to an excess of luxury goods. But the problem is that when we aspire to extremes, we also run the risk of taking our virtues too far, which collapse into their opposite–crippling flaws in character.

Qualities and virtues are not something you either have or you don’t. There are varying degrees of intensity. A dualistic attitude in this context proves dangerous, as two categories fail to capture the ambiguity that defines life. We should ignore the impulse to designate personal qualities as good or bad with no in-between.

Instead, it’s far more reliable to frame qualities in context of a spectrum using Aristotle’s “golden mean,” which explains that the range of virtue is found firmly in the middle, between excess and deficiency. Seneca offers a similar perspective when he observes that, “So-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments…”

The idea is that on one end of the spectrum, we see those who lack a specific quality and interpret it as a flaw. But virtues in their excess are just as prominent signs of weakness. You can in fact be too ambitious (insatiable), too empathetic (codependent), and too disciplined (repressed). Only those who embody moderation are able to identify this golden mean, guard themselves from the downside of the extremes, and establish an equilibrium in the delicate range of virtue.

Moderation (the range of virtue): Between deficiency and excess

Ambition: Between Lazy and Insatiable
Empathy: Cold and Codependent
Endurance: Fragile and Depleted
Self-confidence: Insecure and Arrogant
Adaptability: Rigid and Soft
Self-sufficiency: Dependent and Isolated
Discipline: Impetuous and Repressed
Composure: Frenzied and Stagnant
Calculated: Reckless and Timid
Euthymia: Nihilism and Grand Narrative

Ambition: Between Lazy and Insatiable
Laziness is an obvious enemy and sign of weakness. But the spectrum stretches further in the opposite direction than ambition. Calculated ambition is a virtue. It’s important to have goals, aspirations, and a purpose that you’re working towards. But when taken too far, we cross into the realm of insatiability.

It’s here where we burn out–unable to reconnect with the present and appreciate what we already have in our lives. Insatiability is a flaw in equal proportion to laziness. Without moderation in our ambitions, retaining personal sanity becomes an impossible task.

“Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory learn when to stop.” — Robert Greene

Empathy: Between Cold and Codependent
Empathy is more advantageous than coldness or indifference. If you’re in tune with those around you, the stronger your relationships will be and the better you’ll be able to navigate specific situations. However, if left unchecked, empathy can lead to codependence and deriving your self-worth from meeting the emotional needs of others while neglecting your own.

It’s critical to keep these extremes in mind so you can use them as a checkpoint to operate within the range of virtue. If you find yourself in situations where people are exploiting your empathetic nature, check yourself, but also make an effort to distance yourself from those relationships.

“Avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint…a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.” — Seneca

Endurance: Between Fragile and Depleted
Endurance is a common virtue among top performers. In this context, it’s interchangeable with mental and physical endurance. Those who lack the endurance to overcome life’s obstacles are fragile and will fail to demonstrate the persistence required to set themselves apart. However, there comes a breaking point at the opposite end–total exhaustion–when you have nothing left to give.

It’s important to prepare and build endurance. But in your preparation, know your breaking point and guard yourself from burnout. You have a limited amount of energy. It should be allocated only to things that fall in line with your personal aspirations and goals. Don’t run yourself into the ground.

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” — Epictetus

All Good Things Come in Moderation
We often hear people speak of wisdom, justice, and courage, but rarely do we hear people praise moderation. Moderation is the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society. It might not be the most exciting principle, but locating this middle ground—the golden mean—has the capacity to make the largest difference.

Consider your strengths and what you believe gives you a competitive advantage. You should leverage these as you learn and grow, but remember that there also comes a point where your best qualities should be kept in check. Don’t allow them to inflate your ego and grow into unnecessary liabilities. All good things come in moderation.


Alex J. Hughes is a writer and software product manager based in Nashville, TN. Join his reading list for 5+ monthly book recommendations–with notes so you can start to dig in–and his latest articles.


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