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History Political Philosophy Politics

The Spirit that Animated the American Experiment


[Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.]

Moderation [in the use of power] is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.1

So said Henry Kissinger, one in a long time of the power-hungry and the unrestrained whose sense of hubris led them to take unto themselves as much power as they could amass. It is on this point that Kissinger would agree with George W. Bush, with Mao Tse Tung, with Josef Stalin, with Maximilien Robespierre, and with radicals throughout history.

This sentence contains two fundamental insights about radicals and their approach to power:

  1. That moderation is a limit on power;
  2. That those who reject the seemingly unimposing virtue of moderation in favor of the more attractive quality of “moral clarity” or some similar sense of certainty are bound only by the limits of their power.

My preference is this prescription masquerading as a definition used by Plato:

Moderation, which consists in an indifference about little things, and in a prudent and well-proportioned zeal about things of importance, can proceed from nothing but true knowledge, which has its foundation in self-acquaintance.

This is the spirit animates the American experiment and liberal democracy and represents a truly fundamental achievement of collective wisdom. The past century has been the story of numerous ideologies that have challenged this spirit of moderation – Nazism, Communism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism. All have offered certainty and clarity and rejected moderation. So far, each ideology, certain as it may be, has been beaten back by the forces of moderation – often led by America.

It is the rejection of this fundamental virtue by the Bush administration that led to our own failed experiment in hubristic radicalism.

  1. This might be an unfair addition by me. I cannot find any information about the context in which it was used – only many sources attributing it to Henry Kissinger. I am interpreting it based on my understanding of Kissinger’s character and place in history. []