By Fr. George Rutler

Mediocrity or Virtue: Our Choice Every Day

March 14, 2019
Column: From the Pastor

In the history of Christianity, few people spoke more gracefully and truthfully than John Henry Newman. In the nineteenth century, this English teacher and preacher embraced the Faith. And then, with the grace of his conversion, he explained how, throughout history, God’s grace and truth had been sensed, intimated and expressed, even by those who had not received the fullness of revelation.

Newman was a classic scholar. He had a particular fondness for the Latin writers, especially Cicero. When Newman praises Cicero, when he cites those great minds of the past, he reminds us that the excellence that they represent is ours.

Truth is truth, forever

There is no such thing as a truth about human nature and the moral life that was true once and ceased being true at another time. What is true is true forever. These great classical thinkers passed on to us their perceptions of the grace and truth that the Church would come to understand fully revealed in Christ. When these noble pagan writers had glimpses of God’s grace and truth, they expressed it in terms of virtue.

The golden mean enlivens us

Another hero of Newman was Horace. Like all classical writers, Horace spoke of a principal of virtue, the “golden mean,” that would save people from one kind of excess or another… he especially praised the man who loved, sought and desired this golden mean.

The Latin word mediocritatem came into English as “mediocrity,” but it didn’t mean what we now mean by that word. “The golden mean,” rather, was the virtuous balance between excesses.

Mediocrity crushes us

We live in a time of mediocrity—not the mediocrity that Horace praised, but the cowardly substitute for the golden mean that passes itself off with fine-sounding terms such as “compassion,” “democracy,” “fairness,” and even “charity.” But this is not the classical golden mean. The golden mean is not a compromise between the truth and a lie. It is the straight and narrow way between exaggerations of truth.

Though the classical writers were unfamiliar with the sacramental gifts of the Holy Spirit, they knew that there is an order in this world and that virtue will guide us among the distortions of that order.

Modern confusion

Every age has understood the dangers of mediocrity, so we cannot very well say that we are the first generation to have invented it. But we are, I think, the first culture that has made mediocrity into a virtue. We have confused mediocrity and the golden mean.

We live in a generation that seeks to be dazzled rather than enlightened, amused rather than inspired, entertained rather than challenged and converted. The golden mean, as distinct from mediocrity, chooses the good over the convenient, the true over the plausible. And, therefore, heroic virtue is needed to live the golden mean well.

Our Lord is the golden mean

Jesus Christ not only showed the world the golden mean; He is the golden mean. This is why He confused so many people: Some thought He was too rigid about the law while others thought He was too lax; some thought He was too worldly while others thought He was too supernatural. This balance is the content of perfection.

The golden mean, you see, not only defines virtue but requires virtue to be lived—virtues such as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

The golden mean is really the narrow gate that Our Lord described: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).

The substitute for the golden mean—cheap, servile mediocrity—is the object of God’s deep scorn. In the book of Revelation, God speaks with great severity to the Laodiceans: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16)

Mediocrity in action

Christ was crucified by mediocrities. Pontius Pilate was a paragon of mediocrity. His interpretation of the law and his administration of justice held virtue in contempt. It is no surprise, then, that when Our Lord was sent to the Cross, the mediocre Pilate made friends with the mediocre Herod Antipas. Herod wanted to be amused by Christ. He did not want to be challenged to see a larger world in the eyes of the Saviour; he simply wanted someone to massage his ego. Pontius Pilate and Herod shook hands as Jesus went to the Cross, crucified by grotesque substitutes for the golden mean: human passion and human pride. …

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a book about Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, called Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of the most diabolical figures ever to have walked upon the human stage.

Yet, Arendt remarked, what a surprise it was, then he finally was found and put on trial, to see what an ordinary man he was in appearance and speech. In him was nothing that looked or sounded like the devil. But that is what made his evil all the more palpable! Arendt used this example to coin the expression “the banality of evil.”

In other words, evil loves to work through mediocrity. Evil smiles. Evil will speak with a kind of humanitarianism, all while holding virtue in contempt. It does not believe in the possibility of grace. It considers truth to be only a matter of opinion. …

Whether people lived a generation ago, a thousand years ago, or even if their names were Adam and Eve, they all shared the human condition. Over time, civilizations have learned that we have to live according to the divine design implanted in creation. When we do that, it is called virtue.

We can do it on our own to some degree, by our own cultivation of the experiences of the past and our own discipline of our lower nature. But we need something else, and that is grace.

Grace and the golden mean

Grace is the gift of God that makes the natural virtues, struggling to live the golden mean, willing to follow that road all the way to Jerusalem and up the hill to Christ on the Cross, who is the Golden Mean Himself.

Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

All those voices of antiquity longed to hear those words and that voice. Most of them did not hear it, and when the rest of them did, they were confused. But on this side of the Cross and the Resurrection, we have no excuse for being confused by Christ or for rejecting Him.

Our choice, every day

In every age, there is a choice given to us. Voices from the past give us clues to God—but God Himself in Christ gives us grace and truth. If we want to begin living seriously the golden mean, we have to make one solid commitment: To live a life of virtue—and, by all means, to avoid mediocrity.


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The above article was woven together from snippets from the first chapter in Fr. Rutler’s book entitled Grace and Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization (EWTN Publishing, 2018). We at Catholic Business Journal highly recommend this little life-transforming, perspective-enhancing book to you, especially during Lent.

View Articles Father Rutler was ordained to the diaconate in Rome by His Eminence William Cardinal Baum in 1980 and received priestly ordination in St. Patrick's... MORE »

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