In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described virtue not only as a mean between two extremes that are vices, but also as the means to a good and flourishing life. The cowardly and the brazen can know no real happiness, for those vices bring along other trials and tribulation. Only the courageous can face troubles and peace in a way that can be helpful for themselves and others. Proportion is everything. This Aristotelian teaching was also embraced by Church Fathers like Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Dorotheos of Gaza to name but a few. For instance, Saint Basil writes, “the upright in heart have thoughts that are inclined neither to excess nor to deficiency, but are directed towards the mean of virtue” (On the Seventh Psalm, PG 29b.244d).
In our day and age, psychology has taken over much of the province once held by ethics. Interestingly, the Aristotelian (and patristic) understanding of virtue as a mean and as a means to the good life has some bearing on our discussion of self-control and the lack thereof. A complete lack of self-control and its counterpart, a rigid, unyielding control are both unhealthy approaches to life and obstacles to emotional and spiritual growth. For our own well-being, we need to discover that “golden mean” and implement it in our lives.
Referring to a longitudinal study by Block and Block (2006), Natali Efstathiou writes in her doctoral dissertation, “There are downsides to self-control at extreme ends. On one hand a person who applies over-control may miss an opportunity by delaying immediate action, may experience constricted affect and may experience an expressionless and routine-based life (Block & Block, 2006). On the other hand, insufficient self-control may be necessary for openness to experience, flexibility, creativity and interpersonal warmth.” In other words, over-control can become shackles that can prevent us from living life, experiencing joy, and being free. With those shackles in place, we may start avoiding anything that makes us feel those shackles, avoiding this person and that, this situation and that, this emotion and that. And though this may be better than the bane of impulsivity gone awry, it is still another extreme far from the robust balance and beauty that characterize virtue and is associated with the Saints.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov once advised: “One should go by the middle path: ‘turn not aside to the right hand nor to the left’ (Pr. 4:26); and one should render unto the spirit what is spiritual, and unto the body what is bodily; for the maintenance of temporal life, one should render what is necessary, and for life in society, that which is lawfully demanded by it, in accordance with the words of Holy Scripture: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Mt. 22:21)” (“Spiritual Instructions,” 33, Ascetic Labors, The Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. 1). In terms of the present discussion, this means that there is not one mode that we must be all the time. We respond to the richness of life with all the riches of our inner world including the ability to exercise control and the ability to become open vessels for the Lord to use. There is a time for the work of self-control and a time for rest in the trustworthy hands of God. And sometimes, both can be equally present in the same person, that is the beauty of the mean, that is the beauty of proportion in the Christian way of life.
Saint Paisios the Athonite echoes the sentiments of Saint Seraphim when he counsels, “A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes. Quite often, people begin with good intentions, but look where they may find themselves! This was the case with the ‘icon-worshippers’ and the ‘iconoclasts’ of the past: both cases were extremes! The former had reached the point of scraping off icons of Christ and placing the scrapings into the Holy Chalice in order to ‘improve’ Holy Communion; the latter, on the other hand, burnt and totally discarded all icons. That is why the Church was obliged to place the icons in higher places, out of reach, and, when the dispute was over, lowered them so that we can venerate them and thus confer the appropriate honor to the persons portrayed therein…” (Elder Paisios the Athonite, The Letter of the Law). Saint Paisios’s counsel reveals some important truths: people who rigidly control themselves and people who can’t control themselves at all do not really know themselves and rely completely on themselves, which leads to the failures of over-control and lack of control. The solution is a third way, but not exactly that of the mean.
Instead of controlling everything or not controlling anything, the believer can ask God to control what we cannot, “Thy will be done.” In that prayer, one invokes the power of God to control all things; in that prayer, one discovers a freedom from the compulsion to control as well as the compulsion to anything that triggers our desire from lack of control. Even further, one further finds a love that is neither suffocatingly rigid, nor blithely unconcerned with the consequences of one’s actions. With that love, we grow, we change, we “attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).