Understanding virtue as something that exists between two extremes has been a powerful concept for me. A couple weekends ago at the Grace to Build Retreat, I used Aristotle’s description of virtue as a way of understanding living books early on, before you’ve grown the aesthetic sense capable of picking them out by just reading them a bit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like she started this journey with an affection for twaddle and little taste for real literature and needed a quick and helpful way of thinking about them.
Today, I want us to use the same lens for understanding masterly inactivity.
Let’s start with Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics, he writes in regard to virtue that:
these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency. We see this happen with strength and health, which we mention because we must use what is evident as a witness to what is not. For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength and likewise, too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health, while the proportionate amount produces, increases and preserves it.
Sometimes you’ll hear people refer to “Aristotle’s Golden Mean” and this is what they’re talking about. When he goes on to the “less evident” states, we begin to get the point:
The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if, e.g., someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash. Similarly, if he gratifies himself with every pleasure and refrains from none, he becomes intemperate, but if he avoids them all, as boors do, he becomes some sort of insensible person. Temperance and bravery, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean.
In our own culture, we have a saying about falling off the other side of the horse. The idea is that we swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. We (or our family) fell off of one side of the horse — this was an unvirtuous extreme. So, in order to prevent that ever happening again, we fall off the other side, often on purpose. We think of it as a well meaning over-correction. We might even pat ourselves on the back. Look how much better we’ve done than the previous generation! What we don’t realize that virtue lies in staying on the horse; falling off of either side is a lack of virtue.
In my reference to living books, the idea was only an analogy. While I do think living books are virtuous in that they embody all that a book should do and be, I’m less confident in saying that textbooks and twaddle are the two extremes (though I did imply that). As an illustration, it works, but the general sense that we can often understand what something is by exploring what it is not is more of what I was getting at.
But with masterly inactivity, here is a virtue horse we can saddle! There are two very obvious extremes, and masterly inactivity is smack in the middle.
On one side of the horse, we have the micromanaging mama. This is the controlling approach. She plans out her child’s entire day, leaving him no free time. She decides that she knows best on every single subject and issue, regardless of how old the child is, and demands conformity with her standards. In the area of emotions, the mother dictates how the child ought to feel in response to every situation. When applied to schooling, the parent decides in advance not only what the curriculum will be (curriculum being the path traveled by the mind) but also exactly what ideas will be gleaned in each and every lessons. Tests reveal whether or not the student can regurgitate exactly what the parent/teacher thinks about the subject at hand.
In this example, there is no respect for the child’s personality.
On the other side of the horse, we have neglect. The child is given zero guidance or oversight. The child runs and plays and no one makes sure he is safe and no one is aware of what he is doing — and therefore no one knows what to work with him on in the privacy of the home. In the area of emotions, the child’s feelings are always affirmed, no matter how wildly disproportionate to the situation. When this is applied to the curriculum, the child chooses his own course of study, no matter how narrow, how broad, how disorganized, or how inappropriate. The child can even choose not to study at all.
In this example, there is no respect for the child’s common humanity.
Now, obviously these are two extremes. I’ve never met any mother who fits either description perfectly.
But I think we can vividly see how masterly inactivity is the golden mean.
It indicates a fine healthy moral pose which it is worth while for us to analyse. Perhaps the idea is nearly that conveyed in Wordsworth’s even more happy phrase, ‘wise passiveness’. It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. But there is, from our point of view at any rate, a further idea conveyed in ‘masterly inactivity.’ The mastery is not over ourselves only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding. The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. This element of strength is the backbone of our position. ‘We could an’ if we would’ and the children know it — They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.
There is more to say about it than this. There is a sense of waiting for time to pass — of patience while things are worked out on their own. There is also her insistence upon good humor. But the core of the virtue is what we see above: the mother is fully present and aware of the situation, but she is choosing not to act because she believes that nature, in this case, will be the best teacher. (A number of years ago when I was experimenting with this idea, I wrote of this example from our home.)
You see, we need both of the words. We need masterly: the mother is practically omniscient. She knows what is going on. Her children are not dangling off the edge of a cliff while she has a cup of coffee with her friends. This is where masterly inactivity departs from my Don’t Look Theory of Parenting. You can see which side of the horse I have fallen off on: in order to protect my children from my own unnecessary intervention, I have on occasion kept myself ignorant. This isn’t masterly inactivity; it’s just inactivity.
When the mother is all-knowing, she is able to give guidance and counsel. She is able to correct when necessary. That word “necessary” is important. It isn’t that the masterly inactive mother never corrects, but that she knows that her correction often is not needed, and she has the wisdom to discern when it is and isn’t, as well as that self-control to hold back when time will produce the required consequences without her intervention.
To return to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, I think we can all see how it’s a helpful concept to keep in mind. While it isn’t the key to every single virtue without exception, it is the key to most of them. In pursuing virtue, we’re not veering off to an extreme (though it can feel that way culturally), but rather walking a balance beam. We’re saddling the horse, and then trying to remain mounted when the ride gets rough and we’re tempted to just fall off on whichever side looks the most comfortable.
Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?
My talk on this subject (you already own the video version if you purchased the Leading Well retreat in 2017) is available in the Afterthoughts Shop. Try masterly inactivity! It’s not a hack — it’s a way of life. ♥
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