Where margins are thought of as something like the political left or right, I wonder whether Aristotle would have us default to a more centred position. I can hear him now… the centre as a virtuous place to dwell, and then the margins, which gradually tend to widen toward greater vice, be it a deficiency of too little or an excess of too much.
In fairness, I suspect he’d also grant that pushing and pulling from the margins is what steers the middle course, as in the margins are essential – albeit within the strictures of “a certain principled inflexibility” by which a centred majority maintains its stability. As such, any move from the centre would seem to oblige careful consideration of multiple perspectives and possible outcomes on behalf of everybody by which, really, I mean everybody.
But, as more people come to critique the milquetoast middle – do-nothings whose tolerance is negligence by omission – more people tend to vacate the central fringe. The margins populate and steer more massive moves – more volatile moves – in what must come to resemble the anomie of culture war.
At this point, I am assuming readers cast the stage with a host of their favourite players… and yes, well, need I say more.
From the centre, Aristotle would suggest, what can help a decision to vacate the middle for a margin is phronesis, our practical wisdom, which resides within us as a simultaneous dynamic: an acuity of discernment and a benevolence in the weighing of options, exercised in a process he called praxis, a committed act of doing informed by reflective thinking. In an instance of vacating the centre, practical wisdom – yours, mine, anybody’s – could help determine at the given moment which margin to favour for a particular reason.
And, as I said, if we’re right to inform any such decision by accounting for more than one perspective, then our so-called ‘best’ decisions would seem to be our most informed decisions, irrespective of an eventual outcome… albeit with a certain flexibility of principle to be weighed by pragmatics – ‘practical’ wisdom, remember? We’re not wisdom machines.
So here let’s grant margins beyond the fatuous dichotomy of political left and right. In fact, let’s think of anyone’s centred position as open in every direction to a sphere of infinite margins, where any one direction is uniquely no other, no matter how near or distant another margin may be: for some, this is nuance; for others, pedantic babbling and, for those, I have but two words: perspicacious circumspection. Ah-ha yes, well… for someone located in the centre, listening seems virtuous, too.
All this is not a matter of act but a matter of character. Practical wisdom informing decisions is a nuanced thing: why to act, why under the present circumstances to choose ‘this’ margin and not ‘that’ one. This kind of nuance we often call ‘the why’, and it’s distinctly different from some marginal course change that evacuates the centre – the latter strictly an outcome, the former a reasoned weighing of possible outcomes. In so many words: when a chosen course is an outcome of practical wisdom, it’s not the other way-round. But nuance is anathema to ideology whereas stupid is as stupid does.
When logic rests upon a false ‘either/or’ dilemma, act supersedes wisdom, and criticism can only be aimed at outcome because decision – while not entirely removed from our responsibility – is severely curtailed: your false dilemma is my ultimatum.
Character suffers at the hands of dogma, and if he were around today, I can only speculate that Aristotle would feel a little hard done by for being so alone. It’s never easy being the silent minority, not when your silence is really just a drowned out appeal that goes unheard.