8. Measure, Virtue, and Chaos

Many of us think that virtue is connected with measure.  Vice arises when people are excessive or deficient with regard to their emotions and actions.  For example, a character disposition to get excessively angry at the wrong time, toward the wrong object, and in the wrong way would be a vicious character trait without measure: it would seem out of proportion.  In ancient Greece, many thinkers saw that this view of measure applied to both the macrocosm and the microcosm; it applied to both the cosmos at large and the parts of the cosmos like human society and the human soul.  Here are some representative quotations to make these connections apparent:

Cosmic Measures

Anaximander, fragment:

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time. (translated by Nietzsche)

Heraclitus, fragments:

The sun will not overstep his measures.  Otherwise avenging Furies, ministers of Justice, will find him out. (translated by T.M. Robinson)

Society’s Measures

Plato, Republic 433ff:

Then listen and see whether there’s anything in what I say.  Justice, I think, is exactly what we said must be established throughout the city when we were founding it—either that or some form of it.  We stated, and often repeated, if you remember, that everyone must practice one of the occupations in the city for which he is naturally best suited…Moreover, we’ve heard many people say and have often said ourselves that justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own…Then, it turns out that this doing of one’s own work—provided that it comes to be in a certain way—is justice. (translated by G.M.A. Grube)

Individual’s Measures

Plato, Republic 572bff:

Our dreams make it clear that there is a dangerous, wild, and lawless form of desire in everyone, even in those of us who seem to be entirely moderate or measured. (translated by G.M.A. Grube)

Aristotle, Ethics, Book 2, chapter 6:

Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate.  Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue.  Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate. (translated by J.E.C. Welldone)

Euripides, The Bacchae, 386ff:

A tongue without reins, defiance, unwisdom—their end is disaster.  But the life of quiet good, the wisdom that accepts—these abide unshaken, preserving, sustaining the houses of men.  Far in the air of heaven, the sons of heaven live. But they watch the lives of men. And what passes for wisdom is not; unwise are those who aspire, who outrange the limits of man.  Briefly, we live. Briefly, then die. Wherefore, I say, he who hunts a glory, he who tracks some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose his harvest here and now and garner death.  Such men are mad, their counsels evil. (translated by William Arrowsmith)

Eternal Chaos?

Such a multi-layered view of virtue is certainly elegant and can teach us much.  Of course, as we contemplate it, we should also consider Nietzsche’s troubling excerpt from section 109 of his book The Gay Science (translated by Walter Kaufmann):

“The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos—in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms.”

Nietzsche, somehow, has placed himself in the position to make a judgment about the whole world. But how is this possible for a man? And isn’t such a vision of the whole an aesthetic vision that would bound the chaos, round it off, and bring a pleasing closure to the mind despite the madness within?  Despite these difficulties, it is important to ponder Nietzsche’s point for moment.  Perhaps our models of macrocosmic and microcosmic order are nothing but projections of our human need to see order where these is none. But I think the Greeks made a wiser choice in making room for both cosmos and chaos. For example, Plato, in his dialogue Timaeus, has his character Timaeus tell Socrates a “likely story” (eikôs muthos) about how our cosmos came to be. We learn that there was a very powerful and very good divine Demiurge (craftsmen for the people) who sought to bring unruly chaos into cosmos (order). Chaos was persuaded by reason and thus we have the cosmos we have; but chaos is never vanquished. Neither is chaos vanquished in the human soul.   Perhaps Heraclitus is an exception when he claims that “the most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random”.  But I think here, too, there is order emerging out of chaos: not pure chaos. For the Greeks, the key is not to deny chaos but to align ourselves with order and attempt to become virtuous.  This general approach seems right.  After all, it is hard to see how we could live without the existence of order.  Indeed, it is hard to see how we could understand Nietzsche’s claim that the world is totally chaotic if there was only chaos.  The task then becomes identifying various manifestations of order, deciding which ones should be followed, and how they can be followed.  Our analyses of order may reveal that the above connections between macrocosm and microcosm are in fact inaccurate. But I think it is wise to keep our minds open to the ways in which order in the whole is manifested in the part and vice versa. In doing so, we may open up ways in which we can participate in the measured unfoldings of our cosmic mystery.


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