The Pagan Virtue of Moderation
Article ID: 12785
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: January 11th. 2009
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The sun beats down as I weed my garden. It has been weeks since I’ve done this chore, and the excessive weeds begin to choke life out of the young tomato and basil plants. The heat is almost too much for me to bear, and I wish for more moderate weather. If I stay out much longer, I’ll overheat. It’s strange how the body can withstand temperatures fifty to sixty degrees below normal body temperature, but only a few degrees higher kills us. I wonder if the heat will scorch my plants or if they will live to bear fruit.
A shadow passes on the ground. Two hawks circle overhead, hoping that a small squirrel or bird will show itself and become dinner. It may be a cruel thought, but without their culling, there would be too many small animals for this land to feed. It is their job to ensure that the population of the foragers stays at a reasonable level so that all have enough provisions.
The hawks are beautiful and majestic. Their wings spread out wide as they make graceful, aerial loops. To be so high and free with the world laid out beneath them is envious.
I am reminded of the tale of Icarus. To escape the island of Minos, his father Daedulus built wings of wax and feathers in order to fly away. Icarus’s father warned him not to fly too high, for the sun would melt the wax, nor to fly too low, for the water would weigh down the wings. In the middle course of moderation he would be safe. Once in the air, Icarus felt the freedom and exhilaration of flight. Higher and higher he went, not heeding his father’s advice, until the sun melted the wax and Icarus fell to his death in the sea.
Can we see the lesson Icarus’s death gives us? The lesson is to seek the middle moderate way, for in moderation, by not giving in to extremes and excesses and letting our lives be ruled by our appetites and unchecked desires, we will be safe and happy. It was not that Icarus shouldn’t have enjoyed his flight; but that he should have let his head rule rather than his passion and realized that sometimes a good thing is not better in greater amounts.
The Greeks are wonderful teachers of moderation. On the gable of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi is written “Nothing in Excess.” The fact that the Greeks had several Gods and Goddesses of moderation stressed how important moderation was to their ideal character and to their daily life.
Apollo is often called a god of moderation since it is on his temple where the warning was issued to live a life of temperance. From Pandora’s box, the Goddess Sophrosyne came. Along with moderation, she was the Goddess of self-control and restraint, both essential elements if one is to lead a moderate life. Sophrosyn was not only the name of a goddess, it was also the term used for moderation and self-control, both of which the Greeks felt were needed to avoid misfortune – both misfortune from Godly intervention and misfortune from making bad decisions.
In modern day, we often think of the sins of an excessive lifestyle in terms of the physical. Overeating produces obesity. Overspending and living beyond our means generates debt and poverty. Overuse of alcohol and drugs creates an addict. To the Greeks though, moderation was not limited to the physical world. Their stories contain lessons of those whose attitudes are immoderate.
For example, the Greek concept of hubris warns us of the results of having an extreme attitude. Hubris is a pride or arrogance so great that it defies the Gods or the laws of the Gods. By exhibiting hubris, one says that they are better than the Gods. More than one Greek tragic figure met a bad end by being hubristic. It was not wrong to be proud, but pride in excess (deserved or not) was a sin to the Greeks. It can be a direct confrontation; for example when Arachne claimed that she wove better than Athena and was punished by Athena turning her into a spider. Regardless of whether it was true or not, claiming to be better than a god was wrong to the Greeks.
Hubris can also be an indirect confrontation such as trying to avoid one’s fate. The story of Oedipus is an example. When his father abandoned him, he was trying to defy the Gods by attempting to avoid the oracle’s prophecy, which was that his son would kill him. The story goes on to show other examples of hubris when Oedipus, due to his extreme arrogance, kills his father in a road dispute and begins his own tragic downfall.
Nemesis, a goddess often linked to hubris, was known as a Goddess of moderation. She was the Greek Goddess who punished the perpetrators of hubris. Her job was to maintain equilibrium in the lives of the Greeks.
The idea of transgressions by living or feeling extremes was abundant in Greek culture and literature, but moderation, as a virtue, does not apply only to those who lived in the past. I see moderation in my daily life. It rules the natural world. The laws of moderation produce the balance the Earth needs to stay healthy. If it is too hot, the plants wither and die. In extreme cold, vegetation does not grow.
Even the animal world seeks balance. In a healthy environment, the predators, such as the hawks I saw, keep the preys’ numbers low enough to survive with the available resources, yet high enough to reproduce and continue as a species.
My garden, my microcosm of the natural world, does not do well with excessiveness either. Too many weeds will choke out the plants. Yet, if there are no nutrients from previous vegetation, the soil will not produce healthy flora – a blighted area, where even weeds will not grow, does not make a good garden. With too little water the greenery withers, but too much water makes them limp and wilted. Only with a harmonious balance of its environment will my garden do well.
Through the lessons of the Greeks and the lessons of the natural world, I see the value of moderation, but it is as a modern Pagan that I feel the need to place moderation in my life as a virtue. I see my garden as a metaphor for moderation because it is Mother Earth who benefits most from a moderate lifestyles. Everything we do affects the world around us, and through moderate living, we can help repair the damage done to Mother Earth.
By decreasing our needless consumption, we decrease our impact on the planet. Buying less material goods decreases the production of items, the harm that production does to the environment, and the amount of needless things that will one day fill our landfills. By eating less and not overindulging in food, we tax our over-burdened soil less and food can be distributed more evenly around the planet.
There are so many tiny actions we can do in our lives to help our planet by employing moderation. From keeping our homes at a reasonable temperature in order to conserve electricity to driving less in order to conserve gas, these small acts build up to become large contributions, especially if everyone does them.
The Greeks practiced moderation as a way to show piety to their gods. We can do the same to honor our Mother Goddess.
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