IU political scientist's book argues for moderation in 'age of extremes'
Feb. 8, 2017
Aurelian Craiutu is a champion of moderation in an era of extreme politics. The IU Bloomington political scientist argues that moderation is a virtue for all seasons, but that it's urgently needed in times of polarization.
His new book, "Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes," pushes back against the idea that moderation is a weak virtue or a philosophy for people who lack conviction.
"I find that moderation is actually a virtue that has a political agenda behind it, and I think that its political agenda is relevant to us today," he said.
Craiutu explores the virtue through the writings of 20th century political philosophers who represent different faces of moderation. They include Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott of Great Britain, Raymond Aron of France, Norberto Bobbio of Italy, Adam Michnik of Poland and Judith Shklar of the United States.
He writes as a historian and analyst of political thought, but he believes the book, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, is timely and relevant to current political debates. In fact it has received considerable media attention: Peter Wehner devoted a column to it in the New York Times. Craiutu discussed moderation on NPR's "On Point" and wrote about it for The Daily Beast.
Craiutu likes to quote the American founder John Adams, who said that, without moderation, "every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey." "We've seen that over and over again," he said. "We've seen it in the last weeks, and I am afraid we will continue to see it."
Moderation is often defined by what it isn't -- extremism of the left or right. But Craiutu describes it as a coherent political philosophy that embraces cooperation and compromise, limits on excessive government power, and a style of discourse marked by civility, dialogue and respect.
"One thing I've noticed is that moderates don't view the world through lenses of good and evil or light and darkness" he said. "There are always shades of gray. They don't talk or think in binary terms.”
This has important implications. Moderates, Craiutu said, “admit their opponents may have a point. They try to see the world through their opponents' eyes. They don't engage in moral posturing, but they don't shy away from speaking out when it matters."
Craiutu points to the intellectuals whose writings are explored in "Faces of Moderation" as evidence that moderates can be bold and decisive. All of them wrote during the Cold War era and wrestled with difficult issues of state power and personal freedom. They were engaged in important political debates and some were active in politics.
Berlin and Shklar experienced having their families uprooted and exiled by violence and despotism in Europe. Bobbio served in the Italian parliament and helped steer Italy in a new direction after the collapse of fascism. Michnik was jailed multiple times as a Polish dissident under Communism. Aron was demonized by the French students and the entire Left in France, which thought that it was "better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron."
"These were not people who wrote about moderation and had a comfortable life," Craiutu said. "They knew what exile, marginalization and imprisonment means."
Craiutu explored the history of moderation as a political philosophy in his 2012 book "A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830." While his works to date have been academic studies, he intends to write a book on moderation for a general audience, most likely in the form of a series of letters to a young moderate.
Using a 17th century nautical metaphor, he writes that moderates are "trimmers," people who trim the sails of the ship of state and keep it on an even keel as gales from the left and right try to push it off course. Moderates are also like tight-rope walkers, he says. The cover image of "Faces of Moderation" shows British funambulist Chris Bullzini balanced on a high wire.
"To be a moderate is a form of courage, even today," Craiutu said. "To speak to the two sides, to try to calm down passions ... It is a difficult virtue, a risky one. And kind of solitary, as well. Certainly it's not a virtue for lukewarm souls."
Listen to an interview with Craiutu on Through the Gates at IU.
Craiutu's new book and research aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including celebrating a vibrant community of scholars and catalyzing research.