It has been widely asserted that pride is the mother of all the other seven deadly sins. If so, is there a candidate for the mother of all (or most) virtues? Perhaps anti-pride, like humility? Humility is arguably a Christian virtue, but abject humility is at the opposite end of Aristotle’s golden mean fulcrum. To Aristotle, any virtue resides in the center, the golden mean. Its opposite at one end is a vice, and so is its extreme at the other end. The classic example is the virtue of courage, its opposite being cowardice and its extreme being foolhardiness.
I would suggest that realistic self-awareness is the virtue in the center between the extreme of pride and the opposite of humility But I do not assert that a healthy self-awareness is necessarily the mother of all virtue (although one could make a case).
Rather, I see the underrated virtue of temperance as the core virtue, because it calls us to the middle of that Aristotelian fulcrum on every score. No, not the temperance of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was only about drinking. Temperance is much broader, practicing many forms of self-control, seeking the middle ground. A better contemporary term might be moderation, especially in a world where both political parties are driving away their moderates and making compromise impossible. But since Aristotle listed temperance among the four cardinal virtues (along with prudence, courage and justice), I will yield to his authority. The thesaurus actually lists moderation as a synonym. Who knows what the term was in Greek, and what is the best translation?
I voted in my first presidential election in 1964. Barry Goldwater insisted that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Had I not already committed my vote to Lyndon Johnson, that would have done it for me. I am temperate. I am a moderate, a proud moderate, a humble moderate. I am proud to call myself a moderate because I believe that moderation or temperance enables us to dwell together in a somewhat civilized fashion. I am humble to call myself a moderate because I know how imperfectly I live out that virtue in my daily life.
Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, defined neurosis as retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas. By that definition, we live in a neurotic world. It’s time to step out of our carefully defended fortresses and step joyfully and courageously to the middle of the road, knowing that we thereby open ourselves to attacks from both sides of the road.