Travelling the Middle Way

Two years ago I came across Lou Marinoff‘s book The Middle Way. There is much to dislike in this work, for there are no shortages of little twists, historical elisions and outright contortions of events to make political points that unfold throughout the book. Nevertheless, I find myself wanting to recommend it to you, despite its failings, for the core point Marinoff makes is one we should all be paying attention to.

Mind, if you stopped after the fifth chapter, you’d have almost everything you needed from reading it. When Marinoff turns from his exploration of his “A, B, C” thinkers — Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius — and how their ideas both integrate with each other and apply to the individual to rant about various political issues, the polemic leaves the very “Middle Way” of which he speaks. Chapters six onward do have some interesting notions, but they serve as well to allow you, the reader, the opportunity to set aside your own pre-judgements in favour of finding the “Middle Way” of Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius that eluded Marinoff when he turned to his own political views.

Why Should We Care About These Thinkers?

My own philosophic background similarly draws upon the three that Marinoff highlights (coupled with phenomenology, which he doesn’t put to work), for each of them were concerned with finding virtue by avoiding extreme positions.

This is not the wishy-washy approach it may seem: being radically centred, with a solid nod to tradition and avoidance of unnecessary impositions of change (the essence of the classical conservative), is hard work. It is not an ignoring of a problem or issue, but indeed the struggle to approach it dispassionately, clearly, rationally and with an eye to the impact not just now but well into future time of one’s actions, limiting the damage your changes would do.


Aristotle contributes the notion of a virtue-based personal and political ethics — and of the virtuous path as being the middle course between vices of omission and vices of commission. I’d strongly suggest that the modern thinker take from Aristotle that notion of virtue as lying between two moral errors — the classic way to describe it is found in the example “courage is the middle found between cowardice (omission) and fool-hardiness (commission)”. But I’d update the virtues cited: for them, turn to Walter Kaufmann’s four virtues in The Faith of a Heretic (ambition coupled to humility [humbition], love, courage, and honesty), for Kaufmann’s discussion of Plato’s and Aristotle’s virtues make it clear that notions such as “justice” found in the Aristotelian list do not stand up in practice.

Rooted in Aristotle’s work on causality and logic, there is a recognition that there is an implicit “to the best of my knowledge at this time” in every statement of “what is” — and that failing to act even in the face of incomplete and imperfect knowledge is itself a vice of omission. We are called, for instance, to have the courage to act when a failure to act (cowardice) would make matters worse, and yet, at the same time, to have the courage to resist action (or an excess of action) when such would be vicious toward the future (fool-hardiness).

One thing that in our modern world we have forgotten is that politics isn’t the game of elections, Question Periods, political committees and the like, but is morality in the social space: ethics is where we answer the question “what should I do?” and politics is where we answer the question “what should we do?”. When I was born, in Canada, someone studying politics at a university still studied philosophy, policy and economics. By the time I went to university, we had abandoned this in favour of the study of power and its uses that is political science today. Not all change is an advancement, and this is one that is not!

But it has had a pernicious effect. What passes for political rhetoric in our Parliaments, the opinion pages of our newspapers, the thousands of blogs and the like fails the Aristotelian middle way test almost all the time — as, of course, the largest block of citizens (the non-voters) fail as well through omission. So, too, the endless manipulations we now see. No quest for power can easily stay on the middle way, for power and its exercise must be limited by virtue; virtù, as Machiavelli called it, is not one.

Confucius (Kǒng Zǐ: 孔子)

Confucius is taken up next. Aristotle can be used to create a strong individualism, but Confucius sees — rightly, in my view — that merely stating “Man is a political animal”, as does Aristotle, is not enough. Instead, Confucius enumerates the virtues of societal bonds and makes clear, more than any of the others in the “A, B, C”, how our bonds are across time, with honour for our inheritance and stewardship of it into the future.

Confucius leans, in turn, upon the Taoist tradition, making it exoteric, or “out in the open” (as opposed to the more esoteric, or “inner-directed”, core offered by the Taoist scholars themselves). At the core of the Tao are two key notions: the first is that of the “Way” — life as a wandering in a landscape, and a quest to stay “on the path” — and the second is the “Yin/Yang”, which are not oppositions, but complementary, with each containing some of the other.

Complements are something we’ve often lost sight of. We normally think we must choose between things. This is called an “either/or” decision. On the other hand, complements open the way to a “both/and” decision: not a “splitting of the difference” or “a little bit for everyone” type of selection, so beloved of the politician who wants to make everyone love him, but the creation of a single choice that unites the apparent differences.

Even a moderate grappling with the notion of complements that swing around each other rather than binary opponents helps temper the desire to wrestle opponents from the field, a move which, were it ever successful, would stultify and ossify human society!

Confucius taught that ethical and political behaviour was grounded in self-cultivation, an emulation of moral exemplars, and the quest to attain skilled judgement as a practice rather than knowledge of rules to apply. Much as George Grant pointed out about Plato — the love of the Good begins in love of self, then family, then community, then nation, then the world — Confucius talked about a hierarchy of duties beginning with the family and working up, rather than to the state and working down. Choices with broader implications needed to blend in the needs of those they affected (both/and, or yang/yin).

Those of us who have been blessed to remember the core notions of common law and its roots in common sense — precedents and slow change over time, rather than the abrupt changes of legislation — live in the Western equivalent of what a Confucian training was designed to do in China.

The Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama, सिद्धार्थ गौतम बुद्ध)

The final “A, B, C” philosopher is the Buddha. His expounding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path return to the individual, but an individual in a social setting. (The Buddha himself wrote nothing; his traditional thought was passed on, amplified and written later by followers.)

The Four Noble Truths

  • Suffering is an ingrained part of existence
  • The origin of suffering is the craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity, and annihilation
  • Suffering can be ended
  • Following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this.

The Noble Eightfold Path
Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Many in the West have heard of the idea of detachment, a core outcome sought via following the Eightfold Path. But true detachment is not a denial of feelings — nor of reality. I do not pretend for one minute that I have mastered one bit of detachment, so I shall not attempt to teach it here. Certainly though, from my study, there is nothing here that conflicts with the ethical approaches of Aristotle or Confucius.

Many, especially in dealing with politics (the ethics of group action), see suffering in one form or another and seek to make change to alleviate it. Clearly if there is a change that would truly alleviate suffering, we would be fools not to end it by action. On the other hand, many forms of suffering are not so easily ended, or may cause much more suffering to others through the means chosen. This is why seeing the problem properly, having the intention to balance current and future pains, choosing the appropriate action and being mindful of signals, not putting your own identity (or your political party’s identity) into the change, etc. is a good expression of the middle way between tradition and change that needs to animate political life.

Why The Middle Way Matters

The twentieth — and twenty-first — centuries can truly be called “centuries of ideology”. Ideologies are inevitably imbalanced: even the better ones require attachment, propose “change for your own good”, “sacrifices”, and focus on perfectibility and perfection in a future state. (One might consider Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as an ideological outgrowth of rabid Aristotelianism; there are no shortage of ideologues deriving from Buddhist and Confucian thinking in like manner, especially in the West, where neither of these is indigenous to our long-term formation.)

Canadians used to be good at the Middle Way, through our common law tradition and the common sense shown by Canadian politicians, both reformers like Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, conservatives like Macdonald, liberals like Laurier or those willing to extend social assistance like Bennett. Through the 1900s we lost this, and adopted a public philosophy of “fixing the country” in a proactive way, whether this be the branch plant economy of Howe under Mackenzie King and St-Laurent, the removal of British Canada from public life under Pearson, the social engineering of a Trudeau or the economic engineering of a Mulroney. Today politics is total war, whether from one side or the other, as seen with the governments of Chrétien and Harper. Battles of ideology that have avoided middle way thinking are destined to become ever more extreme, ever more destructive, as they unfold.

In other words, the way to “right societal wrongs” is not to engineer outcomes, but to back off and live differently. This is what wrestling with Marinoff’s The Middle Way opens up to those who find ancient philosophic texts difficult to absorb. If we are to truly change our direction (personally, or societally), we are going to have to stop our “my way is right, absolutely, and yours is wrong, absolutely” thinking, leave either/or behind, and embrace serious doses of humble ambition, honesty, courage and love. Aristotelian ethics coupled to Kaufmann’s virtues, Confucian both/and thinking, and the Buddha’s eightfold intentional signals work well together to guide us to do precisely that.



Add yours →

  1. You lost me at Buddha . . . I’m not getting the whole detachment thing either but I never did have much patience for religion or philosophy . . . BTW, if your goal (and it may not be) is to reach a wider audience you’re going to have to simplify the language . . . and I don’t mean dumb it down, but rather use words and phrases that people without advance degrees but will understand . . . Your message is an interesting one and its something Canadians should be thinking and talking about but the way this is written it will be inaccessible to many readers

  2. Hi, B: I wrestle with that problem of writing constantly, and am still not much better. At least I’m no longer writing it the way it flows through my brain, with phrases in other languages mixed in, and with truly Germanic page-long sentences. But I’ve got a long way to go still.

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