I have remarked before on this blog that what we call “balance” is really more of a range, than a fixed point. That is to say, balance is achieved not so much by staying still on a fixed point as by moving within a fixed range on that point. In the videos below the tightrope walker is only able to survive by being able to move within a range. The same is true and even more visible in the unicyclists in the first video. The moment they stop moving, they will fall.
And in this is a picture of virtue. What is virtue? A virtue is a habit of doing good. St Thomas Aquinas, basing himself on Aristotle, spoke of virtue as the mean between excess or defect. The old Latin saying comes to mind: In medio stat virtus (virtue stands in the middle).
The virtuous act is one that is neither excessive nor deficient. So, for example courage is neither foolhardy nor cowardly, and temperance is neither total abstinence nor gluttony. Humility is neither arrogance nor subservience. Perseverance is neither obstinacy nor capitulation. (Art and Laraine Bennett, The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics, p. 83)
Thus, as a range of motion, the balance of the virtues is not something that freezes us, but is something that is better described as a range of motion within the golden mean.
It is true that in highly specified moral acts or settings, there is often only one valid choice, e.g. abortion, fornication, murder and so forth. But virtue here is understood more broadly as a general and habitual way of acting in accord with right reason.
Understanding virtue as the mean or middle between excess or defect is important for two reasons.
First, it helps us avoid being overly scrupulous. In life there is often a range of possibilities that present themselves to us and we need some flexibility to handle the unique circumstances of each moment. Thus we must act within a range of responses that respect what faith and reason require. Scrupulosity often freezes people on one aspect, and lacking balance limits the flexibility necessary to move in a morally graceful way.
Secondly, because life has many complex things that come together in varying combinations, it is not reasonable, possible or wise for the Church, or Scripture to speak to every possible moral topic and scenario. What the Church and Scripture do most frequently is to give us principles to apply along with virtue.
There are many critics of the Church, and of religion in general, who are dismissive of rules and “micromanaging” by Church authorities. Of course there are some rules, (frankly, there are rules in every walk of life). But more often, there are principles to be applied and it is quite impossible for the Church to micromanage every situation or have a rule for every possibility. The dignity of Catholics is respected by the Church, who, teaching us, then expects us to use our intellect and reason to apply them virtuously, that is, with neither excess nor defect.
Just brief reflection on virtue.
As you view these videos, note how balance is less a fixed point, and more a range of motion. Further, if the artist is not able to move within a range and adjust to circumstances moment by moment, disaster is sure to follow. Virtue is to move and act within the golden mean, within the range of neither excess nor defect. Virtue is a form of balance.
In this second video it is clear that a tightrope walker’s range of motion is much narrower, but still he must be able to move within that range to adjust. I also want to say I am not even sure if tightrope walking is moral. In showing this video I do not affirm taking needless risks. I know they train well etc. The point of the video here is just to illustrate the point. The morality of tightrope walking is uncertain to me, but I’d lean against it 😉