“Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
Didn’t we already cover this idea with temperance? That was my first thought as I prepared to lead our Circle on the topic of moderation.
I read it again. Resentment? Injuries? That sounded pretty different from “Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.” Clearly, Franklin thought of this term differently than I was used to, but as a leader, I struggled to understand the difference between moderation and temperance.
Thankfully, facilitating a Ben Franklin Circle doesn’t mean having all the answers, and my own Circle helped me realize that Franklin is talking about this term as a particularly political virtue.
Here are some things I discovered about this virtue from our discussions.
1. Avoid extremes
Does being moderate mean being wishy-washy? Does it mean always taking the political middle ground? Certainly not. Some in our group brought up the great social reformers, especially those who used non-violence as a tactic. The Civil Rights movement was certainly not in the political ‘middle,’ and many people died for that cause. Clearly, there were strong convictions at work, but the Civil Rights movement still embodies Franklin’s virtue of moderation.
Another example of moderation that our Circle discussed were Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. These examples demonstrate the power of checking resentment without watering down conviction or pretending “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
2. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve
In contemporary society, we’re often taught that strong feelings guide the way to our inner convictions. Indeed, a deep passion to set things right is a positive thing. It energizes us and can embolden us to make sacrifices or speak up when we are afraid. But what if strong feelings aren’t always a reliable guide? What if instead, they are passions that could turn destructive and blind us to self-examination?
I think Franklin’s virtue of moderation also requires us to examine our own positions soberly. What’s the line between resentment for personal slights and a deep passion to set things right?
It’s not always easy to see. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, our feelings often come first and rationalization comes later. Haidt says we’re caught in a kind of “moral matrix” and there is a deep and pleasurable tendency to join “teams” with similar matrices (cheering for your favorite sports team is a great example of this). In this sense, our deepest feelings, even those we share with others who we admire, could be blinding us from open dialogue across values systems.
We will always have disagreements with others, sometimes irreconcilable ones. Yet we must live together and confront mutual problems, as well.
Moderation is about honoring the general norm that civic engagement–necessary for our life together–cannot continue without our ability to check and examine our own strong feelings. Cultivating this virtue, then, means listening to others better and seeing ourselves more truly.
3. Practical civility
Going through Franklin’s 13 virtues, I have come to realize that these civic virtues are not puritanical rules. They are norms we must apply practically, but not obsessively enforce. They are habits of mind and body we should try to cultivate in ourselves and encourage in others.
If you visited Micah Towery in South Bend, you’d probably find him hanging out with neighbors or engaged in a side hustle. He formed and lead the first Ben Franklin Circle in South Bend. He teaches occasionally at Notre Dame and Goshen College. He has a book of poetry called Whale of Desire.