Tode had to walk the dog. I was visiting him from out of town and wanted to talk, so I went along. We found our way to the topic of What the World Needs Now.
Tode and I have known each other since high school. Tode earned a master’s degree in philosophy. I became a sometime teacher of rhetoric. So Tode expected to speak as the philosopher in our discussions, and knew that I would accept the role of sophist. Unlike some philosophers, Tode defended common sense. Like most sophists, in his opinion, I helped the dialog along by proposing uncommon nonsense in reply.
“So what does the world need?” I asked.
“Excellence, enthusiasm, and leadership,” he said.
“I would say mediocrity, apathy, and docility.”
“Oh? And why would you say that?”
The dog turned into the driveway and I never made it to a more serious exposition of the virtues of mediocrity, apathy, and docility. Many years later I still find myself thinking about what I could have said, what I should have said. I have decided to say it now. I do not plan to represent Tode’s views fairly: hard enough to present my views. Let him write his own essay.
How can we find out what the world needs if we ourselves belong to a culture that has gone wrong? We have lost many good things that we used to have. How can we find them again?
We can look for things presently considered bad that people used to consider good. We can look for words that have negative connotations that used to have positive connotations. We can look for names of vices that used to serve as names of virtues. We will find many candidates for study, among them mediocrity, apathy, and docility.
The English word mediocrity comes from the Latin word mediocritas. In Latin, however, it means primarily the middle way between extremes, and rarely has negative connotations. In the tenth Ode of his second book of Odes, Horace characterized it as aurea mediocritas, golden mediocrity, and advised a friend to steer his ship on the middle course away from the dangers of the deeps, avoiding also the hazards of the rocky shore. He pointed out that the tallest trees come down in a storm, that lightning strikes the highest ground, that a modest home favors happiness as neither a hovel nor a palace can.
But Horace did not come up with this idea himself. Aristotle most famously made it the basis of his ethics. Plato’s Socrates also supports it, as did earlier and later Western philosophers, and Confucians and Buddhists in the East. Moral philosophers tell us helpfully that morality consists in choosing to do good and refusing to do evil. For practical purposes, the principle of mediocrity may prove more helpful in that it gives us at least a hint of the nature of good as a rejection of extremes.
The virtue of mediocrity applies outside of moral philosophy as well. In any occupation, any craft, any delight, mediocrity can guide us to avoid too much and too little, into the happiness of just right.
Tode was not defending an unpopular proposition when he spoke in favor of excellence. I hear about excellence frequently in political campaigns, commercials for fast-food restaurants, commentary on sporting events, and cheer-leading from administrators in academic institutions. Excellence ranks high in the opinion of many.
Our pursuit of excellence makes us do strange things. Athletes take illegal steroids and shrink their sexual organs. Rock musicians turn the volume up on their amplifiers and damage eardrums. Parents spend long hours at work and neglect their families. In the name of excellence we sacrifice integrity, moderation, affection.
Aristotle et al. would have understood the English expression, “too much of a good thing.” Mediocritas means that too little or too much can make anything bad, that goodness lies in the middle, in moderation rather than excess.
Ordinary people who exercise moderately can achieve the health of mediocrity; star athletes who cheat with steroids cannot. Ordinary people who adjust the volume on their stereos to a moderate level can hold on to mediocre hearing longer than famous musicians who think that louder means better. Ordinary people who have time for their families practice mediocrity; successful workaholics can only claim to have achieved excellence as they sign their divorce papers.
A healthy respect for mediocrity can also foster amateurism. Amateurs do what they do out of love. In What’s Wrong With the World G. K. Chesterton says that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. But our mania for excellence undermines amateurs. In sports, in music, in art, we now have easy access to what the best among us can do. Those who take excellence too seriously understand that they cannot do it themselves. They no longer play sports or musical instruments. They don’t paint or draw or sculpt. They sit on the couch and watch their excellent contemporaries perform.
One of my professors in college, a poet named James Magner, once wrote on a paper of mine: “Next time put in more insights.” You might as well advise a baseball player who hits a single: “Next time hit a home run.” Or tell a modest Irish fiddler: “Next time play Bach in Carnegie Hall.” An obsession with excellence can only lead to failure for most people. If we do our moderate best without developing an obsession with excellence, we will probably end up happier than famous athletes or musicians.
A quick investigation of the etymology of mediocre reveals that it originally came from words meaning the hill (ocris) in the middle (medius). In the end I agree with Tode because I believe that true excellence actually consists in mediocrity, within the reach of all who dwell on bell-curve hill.
How Tode Got His Name
Tode and I met in high school at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. The faculty knew him as Ted or Theodore, but when he signed his name he wrote “T. Ode.” The students started calling him Tode—without malice. Tode treated everybody kindly, and did not inspire nastiness in his acquaintances.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I said Tode I thought Toad. Only later, after an elementary German class, did the German meaning, Death, intrude. Still, nobody pronounced it as the Germans would. We always said Toad.
The English word apathy comes from the Greek word apatheia. The word has two components: the second part comes from the Greek word pathos, which means suffering or passion; the initial a negates the meaning so that the word means no passion, no suffering. The ancient philosophers known as Stoics concerned themselves with the pursuit of happiness. They recognized that we have no control over anything outside ourselves, that we can fall prey to misfortune at any time. But does unhappiness necessarily come with misfortune, or can we cultivate a virtue that will allow for happiness regardless? The Stoics taught that unhappiness or suffering comes from our unhealthy passions, from our emotional disturbance as we react to tribulations or to what Christians would call temptations. The virtue of apathy consists in an inner tranquility that allows for happiness in spite of circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.
By definition, passion and suffering consist in what happens to us. The Stoics had a short list of passions for apathy to manage: fear and lust, pain and pleasure. At any time, and often unexpectedly, one of these might knock us off balance unless we have cultivated the inner tranquility that would allow for a rational response.
The early Stoics had nothing good to say about these passions, but later Stoics made the teaching less absolute. We should not let fear unbalance us, but the wise do not repudiate caution. We should not give in to lust, but the wise do not repudiate virtuous desires. We should not let pleasure rule us, but the wise do not repudiate joy.
The virtue of apatheia became part of the tradition of Eastern monasticism, and continues today as part of the formation of Orthodox monks. Later thinkers of various schools, including Christians, came to accept some of the Stoic doctrines, but often developed longer lists of passions. The early Christian monks of the Egyptian desert identified seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. All of these involve an initial passion, something suffered rather than something done, so all begin as temptations. They become sins only when apathy fails and we choose to commit ourselves to them.
We still commit all seven, but I’ll limit myself to two. Consider adultery and road rage. The adulterer experiences a temptation, meets a person more exciting than a spouse, falls in love (according to the account given later to the spouse). Didn’t plan to cheat. It just happened. But at the time of the initial temptation the adulterer had a choice, and apathy would have helped in the decision to resist the temptation. With apathy lacking in the adulterer, the damage spreads to the injured spouse and children, who find themselves overwhelmed with dark emotions unless they have apathy of their own.
Many of us heard advice from our parents about how not to lose our temper: count to ten. Our parents were unconsciously endorsing apathy, saying “Wait a minute: calm down. Don’t act in the heat of the moment.” Those who give in to road rage probably do not count to ten. They have not cultivated the virtue of apathy, which would certainly come in handy in their times of temptation. And so their victims need apathy to help them keep their balance.
In the pragmatic ethics of the Stoics, apathy can prevent any vicious action. When people behave viciously, their victims, if they have mastered the habit of apathy, can avoid acting viciously in response.
Most people today disagree with the Stoics. We do not view all emotion with suspicion. No doubt we want to avoid fear and pain, but we celebrate lust and pleasure. We like to be swept away by these passions, and expect them to bring us happiness. Come to think of it, we sometimes like to be swept away by fear. We watch horror movies. We visit haunted houses. We find terrorism fascinating.
In recommending enthusiasm, I think that Tode had a thoroughly secular definition in mind. He did not mean religious enthusiasm, but the ordinary kind expected of sports fans and civic boosters. We should all work and play with enthusiasm, according to this view.
But we can hardly ignore religious enthusiasm. It plays a major part in the history of war. Fanatics use it in their recruiting, to persuade people to send money, or to volunteer for suicide bombing.
Politicians have found enthusiasm useful in their campaigns. A man who speaks with patriotic enthusiasm about making his country great again, about protecting it against incursions of foreigners, about preserving it from alien races and religions, can arouse similar enthusiasm in the voters. Once elected such a man can maintain the enthusiasm of his followers by keeping his promises. He can build walls, wage wars, send his enemies to camps, justify torture. This enthusiasm arises out of fear, one of the four passions identified by the Stoics.
We read about riots at European football matches: enthusiastic fans. And those civic boosters—don’t they also want us to send money?
Sorry, I can’t see this one as an example of virtuous moderation. I’ll stick with apathy. Though it does not come from the philosophical tradition that recommends mediocrity, it can serve as a moderating influence when we find ourselves in danger of giving in to some nasty enthusiasm.
Perhaps, though, I merely lack enthusiasm for the word enthusiasm. I can see the value of engagement, and to the extent that Tode meant engagement when he said enthusiasm, I can agree that the world needs it.
How Tode Became a Lutheran
Students at a boarding school in Donaldson, Indiana, enjoyed weekend activities that allowed for a change of scenery. I remember playing soccer at Culver Military Academy, watching an intramural baseball game at Notre Dame, participating in the mania of Indiana high-school basketball at the lowest possible level, attending a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Saint Mary’s College, and going to many speech and debate tournaments at high schools and colleges around the state, including Valparaiso University.
For a debate or speech tournament we would have to get up early, sometimes as early as three a.m., drink bad coffee out of tall plastic tumblers, and stagger onto the school bus for a long ride in the dark. Tode had talent as a public speaker. He also had opportunities to hear speakers from other schools, and found himself particularly interested in one young woman from Hobart.
Once we accepted an invitation to the home of one of our competitors in Hobart, and I remember an especially pleasant evening gathered around the piano singing songs. For Tode these tournaments became mere background for his developing romance. In the summer after we graduated from high school, still teenagers, Tode and his young woman from Hobart got married. Their families did not approve. Tode came from a Catholic background, but his wife did not.
They settled in Illinois. Tode went to college. Together they raised two boys. They found that the Lutheran church in their town suited them best. And Tode became a close philosophical friend of their pastor, a man so wise that he admired my poems and sometimes used them in his sermons.
The English word docility comes from the Latin word docilitas, meaning teachability. The Latin word doctor means teacher. But no matter how much your doctor knows, it does you no good unless you listen and learn. If you do listen and learn, you demonstrate the virtue of docility.
Aristotelians consider mediocrity a master virtue; Stoics have a similar regard for apathy. But docility qualifies as nothing more than a minor virtue in anybody’s book. Yet without it, and the humility it implies, know-it-all youth grows into know-it-all age and runs for president without ever having discovered the need for modest consultation with the wise.
According to Lao Tze, the wise learn to unlearn their learning. Socrates knew that he didn’t know, and so knew more than those who thought they did. Docility implies the ability to give up what you think you know, to entertain arguments for other views.
Tode’s pastor meant to pass along the good news of Christianity, to provide Christian doctrine for his flock, to serve as a doctor of the church. But Tode liked him because of his docility, his willingness to listen to and learn from others, even from nobodies such as me.
I admit that we need leaders. But do leaders need leadership? This label has in my experience never had anything to do with what leaders need most. In the one business course I could not avoid, the professor, a master of the double is, would sometimes extend it to the triple or quadruple is. I remember her teaching on leadership because I recorded it word for word. “The most important thing about leadership is is is is followship.” She did not, however, define followship, and nothing she said made me think that she had docility in mind.
But we need practitioners of docility to lead us. A know-it-all might qualify as a demagogue, tyrant, or dictator, but would never make the cut as a philosopher king. And in a democratic republic, as in the business world, the chief executive needs to listen to underlings and learn from them.
All of this and more I might have said to Tode if we had gone walking with a younger dog, one with greater stamina in the philosophical enterprise. In high school we used to go for walks around huge rural blocks, and had time to solve the world’s problems in our sophomoric discussions. True, Tode’s solutions never resembled mine. But now, as always, I urge him to recognize that although I contradict him, we actually agree.
In his journal entry of May 24, 1853, Henry David Thoreau complains that he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who insisted on claiming to disagree when the two of them were really in agreement. In June, Emerson’s journal accuses Thoreau of much the same thing.
Kevin Cawley has been in charge of the manuscript collections in the Archives of the University of Notre Dame for over thirty years. Before he became an archivist, he taught English at John Carroll University, Cornell University, and Vassar College.