Last modified: Tuesday, April 10, 2012
IU political scientist's book examines moderation, a 'Virtue for Courageous Minds'
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April 10, 2012
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Moderation, as a political philosophy, just doesn't get much respect. Indiana University political scientist Aurelian Craiutu seeks to change that in a new book, arguing that moderation is a difficult and necessary virtue for the functioning of democracy.
He unearths support for moderation from a time and place where one might not expect it: France in the years before and after the French Revolution, when writers and political philosophers espoused moderation in opposition to the extremes of the Counter-Revolution and Bonapartism.
The book, "A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830" (published this month by Princeton University Press), provides a timely defense of moderation at a time when U.S. politics are increasingly characterized by appeals to ideological extremes.
Craiutu, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, challenges common clichés about moderation: for example, that moderates are indecisive or opportunistic, unable or unwilling to stick to strong principles. The book title references Edmund Burke, who wrote that moderation is "the virtue only of superior minds," one that "requires a deep courage."
"Moderation is not a concept that can be easily defined," Craiutu said. "It appeals to something in us, but at the same time, it doesn't satisfy our desire for heroic action."
He notes that moderation has "many faces." It is both an individual characteristic, related to reason, tolerance and tempered judgment, and a constitutional vision that eschews rigid ideology and embraces complexity and compromise. Moderates are usually thought of as political centrists, but they can also be found on the left or the right. They include pragmatists, classical liberals, skeptics and those who are motivated by opposition to zealotry and fanaticism.
"A Virtue for Courageous Minds" traces how moderation evolved from a moral virtue into a set of institutional arrangements calculated to protect liberty. Craiutu charts the history of moderate political thought from Aristotle and Cicero through the Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire, Burke, Hume and especially Montesquieu. He gives a closer examination to French figures in late 1700s and early 1800s, with chapters devoted to J. Mounier, Jacques Necker, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant.
While moderates differ in many ways, Craiutu writes, through the centuries moderation has been linked with support for institutional complexity and balance of power, with "checks and balances" between branches of government. Moderation isn't an ideology, he said, but it does have a clearly defined agenda based on the idea of complex, balanced government.
A compelling image for moderation comes from 17th-century English statesman and writer Halifax: the "trimmer" who balances between competing forces. "My ideal of a moderate politician is the captain who trims the sails to keep the ship of the state on an even keel," Craiutu said.
He adds that moderation is not a virtue for all seasons or for all people. There are times and circumstances that call for different forms of "creative extremism" rather than compromise. And some people are not temperamentally suited to the demands of principled moderation.
Craiutu's previous books include "Liberalism Under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires" and (with Jeremy Jennings) "Tocqueville on America After 1840: Letters and Other Writings." To speak with Craiutu, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.