“Excess is oppressive.” – Aristotle
Usually on a Sunday night, I like to relax with a movie or a lightweight nonfiction read, but the Nicomachean Ethics stared out at me from the bookshelf last night. (Guaranteed way to a great night’s sleep: just start reading your old philosophy textbooks from college.)
The book fell open to a section on shame, excess and pleasure. I have long admired Aristotle’s views on shame, something many people secretly struggle with like so many weighted bags on the soul. Essentially (and philosophy experts please correct me – I’m a biology man) Aristotle argued that a virtuous, good person should never really feel shame. This gets to the big guy’s distinction between feelings and character. Aristotle felt that feelings were useful for children, who are ignorant and inexperienced, but adults are rational and ought to have sufficiently developed characters (doesn’t mean we repress our feelings; just that they are not always useful for growth). Shame is only a feeling, not a character trait. Your character is such that you would hopefully never do anything deserving of the feeling of shame, because you are steadfastly true to yourself. Shame comes from excess, which is really just dishonesty with yourself. This opens up a big can of philosophical worms, of course!
Then came the quote: “Excess is oppressive.” And it’s really true. I think many times, it is excess that burdens the soul with shame. This means things like exaggerating a story, boasting in hopes of attention, or being too self-deprecating and humble (for this too is a form of excess). In essence, these excesses are dishonest representations of your true self – and that is why they can become oppressive and collect like heavy sandbags of shame on the heart. But, as Aristotle said, we are adults, with no useful need for a feeling like shame. We ought to be sufficiently developed to guide our actions so they are in line with our characters.
Excess is a common way of life in Western culture. We are encouraged, through media, advertising and comparisons with others, to consume. Sometimes I think we’ve become a culture in pursuit of nothing more than “stuff”. When it comes to emotional, physical and mental health, I think part of what is so painful about being unwell in these areas is the underlying shame. That’s terribly unhealthy for a rational, virtuous adult, as I think most people are capable of being and work to be. I am not implying that any case of unwell is always one’s fault – there are all sorts of genetic and external factors that can affect your health, and may be out of your initial control. However, when it comes to issues like fitness, sleep, stress, weight and disease prevention, I think it’s important to avoid the trap of excess. Restaurants tempt us to overeat. There is always something more to do instead of exercise. Consumption breeds debt, which breeds stress and trouble sleeping peacefully. And so on.
Excess is painfully oppressive because it is so insidiously subtle. Excess is encouraged everywhere you look – in talk, in actions, in food, in material goods, in stimulation and entertainment. It not only harms our physical health; it harms the soul of the virtuous adult who seeks emotional health, wellness and balance. Excess tamps us down and oppresses. Simplicity and truthfulness with ourselves, on the other hand, set us free. I think good physical health and wellness cannot help but to follow.
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