Balance: The Universal Remedy

Two artists stand at the feet of a single elephant. One stands in front of the elephant and another stands behind it. Each is asked to draw what he or she sees. The images are lain side by side. They look quite different from the other, yet they are equally valid representations of the same entity (under the assumption that both individuals are of equal artistic ability, that is). So truth is to the elephant as the drawings are to the works of a philosopher. Concretely, the practice of philosophy is the pursuit of truth in its simplest form. The truth, however, is a 3 dimensional (likely more than 3) and all encompassing entity -- the scope of which far exceeds individual human perspective. Relative to truth the elephant is puny, just imagine! But alas, we are incapable of imagining concepts of such magnitude (if we were, philosophers would be out of work!). Human constraints not only birth a wide range of perspectives, but lead us to misinterpret them as being in discord with one another. While each artist may be positioned in varying locations relative to the elephant, the backside is just as much a part of the elephant as its front. Just as the drawings reflect the same ultimate source, so do the various philosophical traditions.

In comparing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to the works of other philosophers hailing from various corners of time and space, repetitions become apparent. The most powerful and universal components of truth arise time and time again, regardless of the context in which they are presented. Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu writes in the opening lines of Dispelling Obsession, “The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed with a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles.” Aristotle is far from alone in considering virtue to be the means through which to rise above mankind’s sensory-driven vices. More specifically, he was neither the first nor last person to understand that all paths leading to virtue are guided by balance. Balance is an intrinsic part of all that flourishes in the natural world, thus it is only sensible that it be a recurring theme in philosophy and the pursuit of good. Buddhism embraces balance through the “middle path”. Yoga lists balance as one of its five core yamas. In Confucianism we have the Doctrine of the Mean. Central to Taoism is the balance between yin and yang. Hinduism deals with balancing the chakras. Aristotle, perhaps less metaphysical than his eastern contemporaries, addresses balance through the practice of moderation. While the “small corners” of balance may alter, its nature, its means of being attained, and its ultimate purpose are fundamentally unwavering.

An essential characteristic of the natural world, the success of virtually everything in the universe appears to be a function of balance. One need only to observe in order to understand this. Prominent social thinker John Ruskin reflects on this phenomenon, “in all perfectly beautiful objects there is found the opposition of one part to another and a reciprocal balance.” This rings true in virtually every possible field. Good art, good food, good music, good architecture, and good human beings all have one thing in common… It must be noted, however, that the perfectly beautiful objects of which Ruskin speaks are also capable of ugliness and imperfection. Aristotle championed this idea, writing that, “every habit of the soul by its very nature has relation to, and exerts itself upon, things of the same kind as those by which it is naturally deteriorated or improved” (p. 23). Where there is opportunity for balance, there is also that for imbalance, and it is the responsibility of the individual to refrain from the vices associated with extremes.

While Confucius viewed balance as a natural force with which man could harmonize, Aristotle was of the belief that balance originated from within the individual as a result of character. This represents a contextual and cultural difference - two different sides of the same elephant. Aristotle comments on the matter, writing that, “we deliberate not about Ends, but Means to Ends” (p. 40). Patanjali expresses the same sentiment in The Sutras of Patanjali, reflecting that. “we needn’t search for who copies whom. Truth is the same always. Whoever ponders it will get the same answer. The Buddha got it. Sri Patanjali got it. Lord Jesus got it. Prophet Muhammed got it. The answer is the same, but the method of working it out may vary this way or that.” In other words, the final destination is the same for all men, but the paths are many. Despite superficial variations, the quest for virtue boils down to moderation, the avoidance of extremes, and the embodiment of balance through external actions. Attachment to the sensory pleasures is widely attributed to human suffering, a paradox wired into the human genome. Pleasure births desire, coaxing us further and further towards extreme and destructive behavior. Balance is the universal antidote for the vices wired into the human condition. The Doctrine of the Mean stipulates that, “the superior man cultivates a friendly atmosphere, without being weak. He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side.” Aristotle correspondingly writes that, “moral virtue requires that we aim at the mean in both feelings and actions,” and that we do so “to the right person, in due proportion, at the right time, with a right object, and in the right manner” (p. 32). This claim echoes that of Hsun Tzu almost word for word. Tzu claims that “appropriate emotions” must be practiced with proper timing, object, degree. The Buddhist doctrine similarly stipulates that, “the middle way … avoids both these extremes; it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance to nibbana”.

While Eastern philosophy is said to be holistic, that of the West is fragmentary. This plays into the analysis of the ultimate purpose of balance. To what ends should we practice balance in our lives? For the betterment of ourselves, or of society as a whole? Generally speaking, it seems as though the West prioritizes the success of the individual over that of the collective, while the East views it in the opposite way. Aristotle’s world is one in which success and legacy are measures of individual happiness. In the East, individual happiness is secondary to the benefit of the whole, hence the frequency with which terms such as “harmony” and “equilibrium” are used. This is reminiscent of an interesting sociological study. Two groups—one from the East and one from the West—were shown the same image. It depicted a smiling face surrounded by a sea of frowning ones. The subjects were then asked whether the smiling individual was happy. The results were fascinating. While westerners consistently agreed that the individual was happy (this would have been my response), easterners concluded that the same individual was obviously unhappy. The fundamental societal values of the east and west were revealed in a strikingly simple way. In the eyes of the east: How could a person be happy when surrounded by a community permeated with sadness? In the eyes of the west: Why should a person allow the behavior of others to affect them? Although Aristotle acknowledges the inseparable overlap between ethics and politics (that is, the duty to implement ethical values for the betterment of society), the final goal is the attainment of good by an individual through his or her voluntary actions. Good exists of it’s own accord and in a wide range of forms within an individual who has worked to attain it, and its incorporation into society is an obvious byproduct of such, whereas in the views of Confucius and many philosophers under the scope of his influence, this incorporation is the ultimate goal in itself.

All philosophical and spiritual pursuits aim at defining and attaining the utmost good - that which is bigger than us. However, the prescribed means through which said good is attained as well as the motives for doing so differ as a result of contextual cultural perspective. The concept of balance is universally valued, regardless of perspectival discrepancies. Balance is an intrinsic trait of nature, and beauty is the product of favorable proportions - consider the golden ratio, the fibonacci sequence, fractal patterns reemerging on different scales throughout the universe. Nature’s natural state is one of intimate and infinite balance, and mankind is certainly a part of nature. It should be no surprise then, that all modes of intellectual thought, specifically in relation to the pursuit of good or happiness, touch on the power of balance. In reading Aristotle’s Ethics, supplemented by various other philosophical texts hailing from a variety of cultural perspectives and time periods, the manners in which various philosophies overlap and diverge in their analysis of balance reveals much about what it is to be human.