ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ

Know Thyself - Nothing in Excess - Maxims from the Temple at Delphi

For thousands of years, travelers from all over the Hellenic and Roman worlds came to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in central Greece.  They came to make sacrifice, they came to worship, they came to participate in the Pythian games, and most of all they came to seek advice from Pythia, Apollo’s oracle.

And advice they got; each of these travelers was greeted by a slate of sayings writ large on the temple buildings.  Two of the most famous of these were ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ (“Know Thyself”) and ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (“Nothing in Excess”).  These maxims, I believe, are just as valuable today as they were then, hence the reason that a few years ago I decided to paint them in my kitchen above the sink.  And it is of course ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ that is the topic of today’s virtue essay on moderation, although both phrases are actually intricately linked.

We tend to think of moderation today primarily in the context of food and wine and possibly in regards to sex and drugs as well.  However, to the ancient Greeks the maxim would have been read as applying to all aspects of life.  Knowing your place as a mortal and avoiding excesses was critical in the prevention of hubris, which tended to be fatal in all cases if the tragedies are to be believed.  In the modern world this maxim can be expanded to modern appetites, in particular consumerism with its emphasis on obtaining happiness through increasing material accumulation.

Of course, as Nietzsche so eloquently described in The Birth of Tragedy, the Greeks knew better than any that Apollonian moderation had to be balanced with occasional Dionysian excess.  The state of ecstasy, which is the kindling fire of the bardic arts, is arrived at by the path of Dionysian excess which unshackles the human spirit from the manacles of existence.  Thus, as Nietzsche says, to be fully human we must ‘sacrifice at the temples of both divinities.’

So does that mean that we must practice some sort of Apollonian asceticism punctuated by the occasional Dionysian orgy?  I don’t believe so.  In fact, one of my favourite definitions of moderation comes from Michael Dangler’s “Nine tenets of Druidic Ritual“, in which he describes the virtue as ‘finding joy in the ordinary’.  This, to me, is the secret and mystery of moderation; it is not about living in a state of constant denial waiting for that next ecstatic festival fire drum circle.   It is about finding spiritual contentment and happiness in cooking dinner, in reading a book, in spending time with friends and family, and even in cleaning, commuting, and work.  In this regard make no mistake — moderation is harder than denial, but it also promises so much more.

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4 thoughts on “ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ

  1. I love the idea of painting them in your house…I may have to borrow that idea once I finish school and actually get to live in my house.

    I like your explanations of these maxims. I agree that moderation is more about the ordinary than asceticism and ecstasy taking turns. In fact, the latter could be interpreted in a way that actually leads to excess, going too far on either side and then balancing by going too far on the other. I see it as an extension of knowing oneself, paying attention to our attachments and being sure that nothing has gained control of our lives.

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