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Written July 16, 2008


Among the sayings carved into the pronaos of the temple of Apollo at Delphi were the words "nothing in excess" — meden agan.

According to Gerald F. Kreyche, “‘Nothing in excess — moderation in all things’ was the advice given by the ancient Greeks.  Too much courage produces foolhardiness, and thriftiness becomes stinginess.  Invariably, excess turns a virtue into a vice.”

But a dissenting opinion comes from Thomas Paine, the propagandist of the American Revolution.  “A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be,” he wrote.  “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is a species of vice.”

In the summer of 1964, I watched the Republican National Convention on TV.  It was held at the improbably named Cow Palace, originally a cattle exhibition arena, on the south edge of San Francisco.

Until then, the Republican Party had been a mostly homogeneous, not very ideological organization.  The most recent Republican to be elected President, Dwight Eisenhower, had been a general and a college president.  Both parties had tried to convince him to run for President of the United States in 1948.  When he chose the Republican Party for his 1952 run, he was to the left of Sen. Robert Taft.

Since then, moderate Republicans had dominated the party.  Their leading candidate in 1964 was Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York.  As far as I could tell, Middle Americans were uneasy about Rockefeller not because of any moderate policies he advocated but because he had recently divorced his first wife of 32 years and then married a woman named "Happy."

Meanwhile, a conservative wing had developed within the GOP, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  (When my parents and I made winter visits to Phoenix 15 years later, we sometimes shopped in his family's department store, Goldwater's.  And we often drove down Lincoln Drive past the Senator's home with its tall ham radio antennas.)

The moderates didn't like Goldwater's right-wing ideas.  They called him a dangerous extremist.

Nevertheless, Goldwater won the nomination.  He gave his acceptance speech on July 16.

War and Rumors of War

At the time, the United States and its NATO allies, and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact nations, were locked into a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, threatening each other's very existence with thousands of hydrogen bombs.  It seemed as though this Cold War would go on forever.

The Democrats joined the Rockefeller Republicans in implying that Goldwater was reckless, not to be trusted with atomic weapons.  In his speech, Goldwater refuted these warnings that he would somehow lead us into nuclear war by pointing out that, like it or not, we were at war already.  And, as always, it was the Democrats who had started it!

It has been during Democratic years that we have weakly stumbled into conflict, timidly refusing to draw our own lines against aggression, deceitfully refusing to tell even our people of our full participation, and tragically, letting our finest men die on battlefields, unmarked by purpose, unmarked by pride or the prospect of victory.

Yesterday, it was Korea.  Tonight, it is Vietnam.  Make no bones of this.  Don't try to sweep this under the rug.  We are at war in Vietnam.

The non-shooting Cold War was also in progress and would endure for more than 40 years.  In 1964, we hadn't even reached the midpoint.  Nevertheless, Goldwater told the delegates:

I believe that we must look beyond the defense of freedom today to its extension tomorrow.  I believe that the communism which boasts it will bury us will, instead, give way to the forces of freedom.

And I can see in the distant and yet recognizable future the outlines of a world worthy of our dedication, our every risk, our every effort, our every sacrifice along the way.  Yes, a world that will redeem the suffering of those who will be liberated from tyranny.

I can see — and I suggest that all thoughtful men must contemplate — the flowering of an Atlantic civilization, the whole of Europe reunified and freed, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world.

Now, this is a goal far, far more meaningful than a moon shot.  It's a truly inspiring goal for all free men to set for themselves during the latter half of the twentieth century.

At the time I dismissed this as pie-in-the-sky rhetoric.  It was highly unlikely that  the Communist regimes of eastern Europe would simply dry up and go away, and of course we could never afford to inflict a military defeat on them because of the terrible nuclear consequences.  Therefore, I forgot this part of what Goldwater said.

Thirty years later, I saw the speech again on C-SPAN and was astounded.  A quarter-century after these words were spoken, in the "distant and yet recognizable future" of 1989, Communism did indeed "give way to the forces of freedom."  The Warsaw Pact nations were indeed "liberated from tyranny."  European statesmen were indeed moving towards "the whole of Europe reunified and freed, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world."  Goldwater was right!


But I still think he was wrong at the end of his speech, when he drew long and loud cheers by refuting the moderates who had labeled him a dangerous extremist.

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

A worthy rallying cry, I thought, and I went to my room and wrote down the words.  But in pondering the matter later, I realized that these words went too far.

It is possible for extremism in the defense of liberty to be a vice.

In defending our personal liberty, if we go to the extreme of arming ourselves with assault weapons and killing any government tax collectors who dare to approach us, that might be a vice.

In defending our country's liberty, if we go to the extreme of invading and indefinitely occupying another nation just because we don't like the tyrant who rules it, that might be a vice.

And if our leaders defend our country's liberty by taking away our personal liberty, that too might be a vice.

Also, it is possible for moderation in the pursuit of justice to be a virtue.

In a criminal case, if the accused is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, this plea bargain ensures that he will be punished while saving everyone the expense of a trial with an uncertain outcome.  That might be a virtue.  You might call it "practicality" or "common sense."

And in avenging a wrong, if we accept a regretful offender's sincere apologies for what he has done, we can forgive him.  That might be a virtue.  You might call it "mercy."

We must use moderation and guard against excess in everything — even matters of liberty and justice.

The ancient Greeks might reformulate Goldwater's "reminders" like this:

Extremism in attacking vice is no virtue.

Moderation in pursuing virtue is no vice.



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