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Moderation in all things: a useless phrase

“Moderation in all things” – I hear this phrase come up often in conversations and the first thing that comes to mind is Inigo Montoya’s response to Vincini after another exclamation of the word “Inconceivable”!

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” (The Princess Bride – do I really need to reference this?)

Likewise, I’ve often felt the same way as Inigo but did not know much about the origin of this phrase myself so I decided to do some research. First of all, this phrase doesn’t come from the Bible, or the Book of Mormon or any scripture for that matter, here is a little history behind its origins:

moderation in all things proverbial saying, mid 19th century; a more recent formulation of the idea contained in there is measure in all things. The essential thought is found in the work of the Greek poet Hesiod (c.700 bc), ‘observe due measure; moderation is best in all things’, and of the Roman comic dramatist Plautus (c.250–184 bc), ‘moderation in all things is the best policy.’ (Knowles)

So basically we have an idea popularized by pagans and used loosely by Christians. I see some problems with this that I’ll cover here in a moment. Now, the closest thing we have in scripture to this idea is 1 Corinthians 9:25:

And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown (1 Corinthians 9:25).

The word temperate here is from the Greek “egkrateuomaiand means to “exercise self-restraint (in diet and chastity)”. Inherent in the idea of Christianity’s self-restraint includes certain things that you much completely restrain yourself from; there’s no middle ground for moderation.

Courtesy of the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, let’s take a look at the word moderation:

MODERA’TION, n. [L. moderatio.] The state of being moderate, or of keeping a due mean between extremes or excess of violence.

  1. Restraint of violent passions or indulgence of appetite.
  2. Calmness of mind; equanimity; as, to bear prosperity or adversity with moderation.
  3. Frugality in expenses.

So moderation and temperance appear to mean pretty close to the same thing in that they convey the idea of self-restraint, but moderation tends to imply the idea of a middle ground or mean. Language changes over time and when it does, our ideas of things also change. Moderation and temperance used to convey the idea of self-restraint, but today, when we look at a modern definition of the word, we find that it means:

Moderation
  1. Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: a moderate price.
  2. Not violent or subject to extremes; mild or calm; temperate: a moderate climate.
  3. Of medium or average quantity or extent.
  4. Of limited or average quality; mediocre.
  5. Opposed to radical or extreme views or measures, especially in politics or religion.

Note that there is a subtle shift in the meaning. Today, moderate seems to stress the idea of “not being subject to extremes”. Here’s my problem with this: Who gets to define what the “extremes” are? One man’s moderate is another man’s extremist.

From a religious perspective, “moderation in all things” is a terribly incorrect idea. You can’t have a “moderate” level of adultery, pornography, theft, bearing false witness or murder in your life and expect to please God. Explain to me what the “moderate” level of rape in society should be? Remember we are talking moderation in ALL things.

To the world, living a life without any of these evil influences would certainly be extreme and outside of the norm. To the world, we most certainly would not be moderate in all things. Looking at the phrase for what it implies, why, other than the phrase sounding like it means something good, would we use it?

Maybe as Latter-day Saints, we give the phrase “moderation in all things” a pass because subconsciously we are relating it to the scriptural phrase “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). Maybe it is the “in all things” that is the culprit.

Can you imagine being moderate in kindness or generosity? Can one be too kind or too generous? Can one truly be moderate in righteousness or purity? It is said in one place that “the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Alma 45:16)” and another “I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect (3 Nephi 12:48)”. We are taught to stay completely away from sin and to be completely committed to perfection. Moderation suggests to me living in between the two, a compromise that seems to be a broad road in opposition to the narrow path we are commanded to walk.

I think the words of the resurrected Christ to John should be considered in this topic as well:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)

In things like ice cream or exercise, sure, moderation applies quite nicely, but the complete phrase “moderation in all things”, I find quite useless.

My wife recently pointed out a wonderful talk by Dallin H. Oaks called “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall” that contains a paragraph that focuses on the phrase “moderation in all things”:

The idea that our strengths can become our weaknesses could be understood to imply that we should have “moderation in all things.” But the Savior said that if we are “lukewarm,” he “will spew [us] out of [his] mouth” (Rev. 3:16). Moderation in all things is not a virtue, because it would seem to justify moderation in commitment. That is not moderation, but indifference. That kind of moderation runs counter to the divine commands to serve with all of our “heart, might, mind and strength” (D&C 4:2), to “seek … earnestly the riches of eternity” (D&C 68:31), and to be “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79). Moderation is not the answer.

I highly recommend a reading of his entire talk, it is very good.

Another way to look at things

Self-restraint and our attitude towards truth seem to be the more important and legitimate aspects that we should concern ourselves with when assessing the things of life. Perhaps next time, instead of just parroting out the phrase “moderation in all things” it might be better to consider first, what is true and second, what our obligations are toward that truth. Maybe a better alternative to “moderation in all things” could be “righteousness in all things“?

Email me your suggestions and if I like them, I might post them here as alternatives.

References

Elizabeth Knowles. “moderation in all things. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 10 Jan. 2012

Websters 1828 Dictionary

SpeedBible

Dictionary.com

  • Sister Capener

    Thank you so much for your contributions. It is precisely what I need. It is another
    source for truth.

    • oneclimbs

      You’re welcome, I’m glad that you found the information helpful :)

  • Janet

    Whoa! You are absolutely right! Thanks for thinking beyond the suface!

  • A.M.

    Thank you, very interesting and informative. I will now think twice before using that expression!

  • chabaru

    Yes one can be too generous. Too kind? We’d need to define the term better. I think it would be hard to be too kind or too loving but there is what is fair and sustainable to also consider.