Until last weekend, and therefore for 50 years of my life, I have always taken as read my mother’s line to us as children that “everything is good for you in moderation”. Then, when studying Classics as a teenager and at university, this belief was only intensified by my own reading: ‘meden agan’ says the famous inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – ‘nothing in excess’ – and this is encapsulated in almost every Greek Tragedy, where the trope is to prove the folly of excessive behaviour, by depicting kings who challenge the gods and then receive their comeuppance for doing so. Other cultures agreed: Confucius said that “when the superior person eats, he does not try to stuff himself; at rest he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in his speech”. Indeed, everywhere you look in today’s life we are urged to maintain a balanced outlook – it is seen as the sine qua non for wellness, for positive mental health, a kind of balance that leads to ultimate daily happiness: the phrase ‘work/life balance’ is everywhere; we are always urged to get enough exercise; eat the right vegetables, and temper, as I always say at the start of term, work with play. Work hard and play hard – I do still mean it – but isn’t it wonderful when someone, or some reading, makes you completely reconsider what you fundamentally believed to be true?
Well at the weekend, I read an article by a lady called Marina Benjamin in a magazine called the New Philosopher, with which I hope some of you are familiar, and whose entire summer edition was devoted to the notion of ‘finding balance’. Most articles simply reinforced my own, and indeed widely held, accepted opinion, that balance is something to aim for. However, hers was completely different. “It seems to me perverse that we’re so quick to applaud the golden few who claim to have achieved perfect balance, and who stare glowingly at us from the cover of lifestyle magazines… that elusive balance is only ever temporary, or perhaps illusory, since everything is in constant flux anyway: life flows on, circumstances change, people themselves change, and, with it, what they want changes, too. And how did we get to the place where, by contrast, any expression of disproportionate hunger or desperate need, or any pronounced tendency towards excess is viewed as a moral failing?” She goes on to declare that her own addictions and excesses vary week by week: sometimes it is work (yes, you can be addicted to work); sometimes it is food; sometimes she is just hungry for life experience. However, whatever it is that she seeks in all these pursuits, she often feels a desire to push beyond the normal, to ignore moderation, to live at the extremes; she desires to see this as a positive thing, not, as society might see it, as a reckless disruption of balance.
Another way of looking at this notion of balance is contained in the hours of the day. There are 24 of them, whether we like this or not. Twenty-four hours a day. So how are we going to spend those 24 hours? There are lots of ways to carve it up, but if you wish to do more of one thing, you need to do less of something else. We have this choice, and it is not at all an easy one. The accepted wisdom is to balance being asleep with being awake; to balance work with rest; to balance socialising with time for yourself; to balance water with wine, meat with vegetables – and indeed scientists will provide endlessly different perfect answers to them all.
I was not here last week when you had a talk on linguistics from the Chair of the UK Linguistics Olympiad, Dick Hudson, but I gather it was pretty esoteric, fairly niche. I imagine it may have been similar to the talk I heard once from an expert in the ancient and almost entirely lost language, Etruscan. There are apparently only 600 words of Etruscan left in existence, mainly via tombstones and other inscriptions. The big argument amongst Etruscan experts at the time was about the words for some of the single digit numbers: the answer was to be found in a debate on whether or not Etruscan dice were configured like our own or not – i.e. did they have 6 and 1 on opposite side, 5 and 2 etc. – or did they not? This was a fierce debate that has been raging in Etruscan studies for several years by the time of our talk. I also attended a lecture once from a man who spent his whole life studying optical illusions. He showed us one on a screen, looked at it, and fell silent for quite a long time. I will never forget his next line. “Interesting, isn’t it”, he said, “I have spent the last three years of my life studying that illusion.” It was, by any standards, an extraordinary show of dedication. Only just recently I sat next to a man at a dinner party who had spent 10 years writing a commentary on somebody else’s commentary of the ancient writer Lucretius. He was only expecting to sell a dozen books for his last ten years’ work.
These stories are certainly examples of excess, rather than balance. Yet, it is largely through excessive behaviour like this that humanity moves forward, that discoveries are made, that game changing moments occur. But they also, perhaps, help us to understand ourselves.
Nearby to the inscription ‘nothing in excess’ on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is another inscription which reads ‘gnothi seauton’ – ‘know thyself’. Marina Benjamin, writer of that article in the New Philosopher, would argue that you can only in fact know yourself if you step out of balance and try things which are edgy, over ambitious, push the limits of your experience. By doing so, you find out what you can and cannot do; you are almost always surprised by your own capacity for achievement; you grow, whatever happens, in experience and wisdom. For me, reading her article was not stepping out of my comfort zone – it is only an article in a magazine, on a sofa at home: that is perfectly run of the mill. Equally, isn’t it wonderful when someone or something makes you reassess, sit up and think, challenge your own beliefs? If I am honest with you, on a personal level I am not sure I can or will ever leave the notion of balance as being something worth striving for. But neither do I think that excess is automatically a moral failing; in fact, I admire it in academics, in sportsmen, in musicians and others. To sum up, I guess that all of life is a balance of some sort; but you can choose to live out of balance just as readily as in it.