The Wisdom of Proportionality

Greek runners protecting the torch
Illustration by Ann Ronan pictures, print collector/Getty

One of the common themes in ancient Greek art and philosophy is proportionality. For the Greeks, proportionality was the idea that there was an optimal mix of qualities or virtues that, properly harmonized, promoted human flourishing. We see and experience this idea in the beautiful statues and architecture that have survived in Ancient Greece. The idea of proportionality is a theme throughout Plato’s dialogues, especially The Republic, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics is constructed around the idea of a golden mean or “middle state” between two extremes.

Meden Agan (“Nothing in excess”) is one of the surviving inscriptions on the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. One of my favorite quotes in the ancient texts is from Tacitus. As a Roman patrician, Tacitus’s education consisted primarily of ancient Greek art, literature and philosophy. In writing about his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus says “he took from philosophy the greatest lesson of all: a sense of proportion.”

Another fine example of this idea is embedded in the ancient Olympic games. One of the competitions, know as the Lampadedromia, involved a relay race of runners carrying torches. The challenge was to win the race without extinguishing the torch. This meant it usually wasn’t the fastest runners that won, but those adept at running just fast enough (the right proportion) not to extinguish the torch in the wind while getting to the finish line first, before the torch oil ran out.

The idea handed down through the ages suggest that success, beauty, happiness and good judgment are very much the results of a wise proportionality.

A Quote to Note: Friederich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.

To Weigh and Consider

It seems almost beyond saying, but then human psychology seems never finished teaching us the same lessons over and over, that there is almost always more to something than we’re led to believe at first blush. We are, as Daniel Kahneman says, “a machine for jumping to conclusions.”

This is not to say we shouldn’t decide quickly when we must. When the situation demands it, then we must make a quick decision based on the what we know at the time. Hopefully, we can correct mistakes made as they’re realized along the way.

But in many instances we don’t have to make quick decisions. We usually have time to weigh and consider, to be thoughtful and morally responsible. We have time to do the work—and it’s mental work!—that someone who really cares about truth, or the pursuit of it, will do and take seriously. And this is so very important and responsible and noble where the lives and welfare of our fellow human beings are at stake.

Changing our Mind

I’m currently reading Robert Skidelsky’s single-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was one of the most remarkable economist, thinkers and writers of the 20th century. His letters and books are full of witty remarks and unique turns of phrase. Here’s some examples:

  • “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
  • “Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”
  • “If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.”
  • “There is no harm in being sometimes wrong — especially if one is promptly found out.”
  • “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”
  • “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
  • “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

One of my favorite Keynes quotes involves his reply to a criticism of him for changing his mind on a policy position he’d taken in the past. In a sharp and arresting retort Keynes replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Keynes was insinuating two things in this remark: One, changing our mind is naturally what we do as we become more educated on a subject over time. That’s just common sense old chap! And two, “What do you do, sir?” is Keynes’s way of asking his critic if he’s one of those people who prefers the “hobgoblin” of consistency over intellectual integrity. A question we should all be asking ourselves.

Changing our mind is something honest and thoughtful people must sometimes do. Changing our mind about various ideas and beliefs is something we should be doing over our lifetimes as we experience and learn. It’s the true sign of a mature mind. This is especially true in politics, where many people’s beliefs are based more on gut and party than a thoughtful evaluation of people, policy, facts, and sincere interests. “Life is,” as James Barrie said, “one long lesson in humility.”

The safest course is to always remain humble about knowledge and certainty while remaining open minded and intellectually curious.

A Winter’s Morning Walk

Walk in the Woods
Photo by Jeff Wills

One early winter’s morning, before anyone was awake, I went for a walk in the snow. For me, the wintery wonderland provides a unique chance to be alone with my thoughts and to do some deep reflecting and communing with nature. It’s a good time to just be. Henry David Thoreau would surely have approved.

I quietly put on my cold weather clothes, slipped on my snow boots, and gently opened the front door. My face was immediately flushed by the icy air and the prickly like chilly tingle of blowing snow. As I stepped off the porch into the snow, the sun was just starting to peer over the horizon. Its gentle caressing light pierced the air and shimmered the pale blue dawn with shades of soft amber. I could hear the wind gusts roaring through the tree tops. As I turned toward the woods, I could hear each of my footsteps as I tramped through the virgin white powdery snow. The air was sharp and crisp with the faint smell of wood from fireplaces.

I walked into the woods and made way toward the stream. The snow was deep enough to keep my pace slow and deliberate. It was at this time, along this path to the stream, that I slipped into a semi-meditative state. My mind cleared. I began paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the steady stream of impressions coming from all around me. It was calming and peaceful. I had drifted into a state of heightened self-awareness and total absorption in the present moment.

I briefly lingered at the stream and listened to the gentle flow of the water over the rocks. I then began walking toward the road. My mind was quiet, relaxed, and clear; yet focused and engaged. I began to think about life and the meaning of it all. A philosophical mind like mine can wander across a vast landscape of ideas trying to find some kind of coherent and satisfying answer. But sometimes the best answers come from just being in the moment, from just letting go. After reaching the unplowed road I stood and took a deep breath of the cool moist air and looked up at the morning sky through the mists of my exhale.

Thoughts and ideas flashed across my mind. The environment invoked awe and a sense of amazement and wonder. I thought of how many millions of other people over the centuries must have had similar thoughts while out on a quiet morning walk in the snow. Looking up at the millions of fading stars in the morning light made me think of just how mysterious it all is. I thought of just how impossible it seems that we (Man) will ever truly understand it all.

An old philosophical argument sprung into my mind. How can a finite mind understand the infinite? The very concept of something being infinite in nature, always existing, never having a beginning, whether you believe it’s God or the universe or just matter, is almost impossible to conceptualize or understand for a finite, limited being who resides on a tiny little planet, amongst a sea of planets, in one universe amongst thousands of other universes. Man’s presence on this planet has so far been a mere blip in time. Vast infinite time existed before us and vast infinite time lies ahead when we’re all gone. Are we, as Conrad Aiken said, “Cosmic Mariners, destination unknown?” Or is this short journey of ours somehow the plan of some divine providence?

Of course the simple truth is we don’t know with certainty either way. We know many small “t” truths about life and things. These can be answered mostly by science and reason. But we don’t have any sure answers for the big “T” truths about existence and the universe. Exactly how did conscious beings come to exist in a universe of lifeless atoms in the void? Having a scientific turn of mind, I can hypothesize and attempt to scientifically explain how this could have happened based on our current scientific understanding. But each possible answer I could give would only generate a number of philosophical and scientific questions that would cast some doubt on my scientific explanation.

And so it is with every big “T” truth in life, we live and believe by faith, religious or otherwise. The secular-materialist may shudder at the idea, but they’re as much a faith community as religious believers are when it comes to the big “T” truths about existence. The great question of existence asked by Gottfried Leibniz still remains unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Which brings me to an important understanding about faith. Genuine faith is always based on doubt. One commits oneself to an idea after having processed it, after having raised and analyzed doubts about it, after having applied it in the front trenches of life and found that the idea still lives and breaths. One rightfully has faith in such ideas. It has worked. It may not be “proven” true. More evidence may be needed to determine its truth. But despite these hesitations and doubts, one continues to live by the idea. That, my dear reader, is faith. “If doubt appears,” said Paul Tillich, “it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith.” In the general sense, faith is that courage that allows us to live by possibilities rather than certainties.

My thoughts were broken by the sound of a snowplow off in the distance. It was time to head back to the house. My wife and children would be getting up soon. I had enjoyed these brief moments of meditation and reflection and the chance to commune, Waldenesque like, with nature and the mystery. I cherish moments like these. We all need time to clear our heads and momentarily cast ourselves adrift in the flow of our thoughts.