Review by Robert M Ellis of ‘The Middle Way: Finding Happiness in a World of Extremes’ by Lou Marinoff (Sterling Publishing, New York, 2007)
Lou Marinoff is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. He is also a leading exponent and practitioner of philosophical counselling. This substantial book (600 pages) offers an introduction to the Middle Way that Marinoff finds in Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius, which he collectively calls the ABC’s, and also contains wide discussion on the world’s problems, diagnosed in terms of extremes that he believes the Middle Way of the ABC’s can address.
Finding a Middle Way in my response to this book is a task I know I am going to find challenging. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the fact that an established Western academic philosopher has indeed written a book about the Middle Way – a rare enough event, and also to recognise what practical insights it may offer. On the other, I profoundly disagree with the approach to the Middle Way offered in this book, and in many ways I also dislike the book’s style and tone. This is a tricky set of conflicting motivations to hold together. I hope I will succeed in not just ‘having a go’ at this book, but at the same time I feel it is important to clarify the nature of my objections to it. In doing so I am also identifying a particular common understanding of the Middle Way, very different from mine but also probably far more common, and its limitations. It is plainly not a book that can or should be ignored by the society – for better or worse, it is part of an existing discourse about the universal Middle Way (not just the Middle Way in Buddhist tradition), and it has been in print for seven years.
My central objection to the account of the Middle Way presented in this book is that it is presented as a type of natural law. It is understood as a truth about the universe that the right and harmonious way is one of balance. This balance can be found in both individuals and in society, Marinoff thinks, and we have departed from it at our peril. This view is also reflected throughout in the expository style of the book. It is very much the style of a man who seems to think he has found a truth about things anchored in what he takes to the ultimate reality of the universe. There is no attempt at provisionality, or even the recognition of its importance in theory. There is also no real philosophical clarification of his position through the definition or analysis of terms, and no attempt to anticipate or meet critical perspectives on his views. Nor are there any references to the author having engaged critically in this way elsewhere. It is difficult to believe that this book is written by a philosophy professor, because it is basically a work of dogma. Perhaps this could be forgiven if, instead, the main intention was to engage readers in a theoretical structure that could be applied and tested practically in experience, but very little practical advice is given except in extremely general terms. It is just as oblivious of psychology (for example, of cognitive biases that create a tendency to extremes) as it is of critical philosophy.
Marinoff shows no interest in epistemological issues here: there is no hint of “Is this right?” or “How do we know this?”. There is not even any real grappling with doubt on moral issues. In theory he thinks the Middle Way lies between ‘doubt’ and ‘faith’ (ch. 7), but there is no indication that Marinoff has actually engaged with doubt in a useful way. Rather his concern is with the certainties of a pattern of ancient wisdom that he thinks he perceives on the one hand, and with the pressing destructiveness of practical extremes on the other. The strength of the book does lie in the urgent and heartfelt nature of much of what Marinoff has to say about the extremes: he discusses political extremes, religious vs. secular extremes, extremes of attitude to gender, and economic extremes of wealth and poverty among other things. Though he nowhere offers a clear account of what an extreme actually consists in or what these ‘extremes’ have in common, at least he does give a strong personal testimony about his experience of these extremes.
Many other reviewers have reacted to what is obviously Marinoff’s strong cultural conservatism: though I disagree with much of this I am not going to go into it, both because it is done elsewhere and because for me his failure to support this conservatism (or convince me that it follows the Middle Way) is just a symptom of his failure to think through the groundwork of what the Middle Way consists in. Though I find myself agreeing with Marinoff on some of the negative effects of the extremes he identifies, this is of little value unless he also helps us to genuinely identify a Middle Way between these extremes. Instead it seemed to me that his approach is destined to merely add to the pile of dogmatic doctrines that help to support the kinds of extremes he is so concerned about.
So what is an extreme? Marinoff seems to take this as self-evident. His account of the Buddha’s Middle Way only mentions the avoidance of asceticism and self-indulgence, and completely ignores the Buddha’s critique of metaphysics and the avoidance of eternalism and nihilism. There is no suggestion even that extremes are beliefs, let alone that they might be metaphysical beliefs. Instead, his most general account of the Middle Way (in Chapter 5) appeals to geometry, which he takes as revealing fundamental patterns of harmony in the cosmos. But geometry is a human construction: we may perceive its patterns in ‘nature’, but any such perception depends on our projections as well as properties that may be ‘out there’ in the cosmos. Anything that we perceive as harmonious doubtless involves an editing out of what is not so harmonious. But even if we were to concede the point that harmonious patterns are found in ‘nature’, so what? It is completely unclear what this has to do with the complexities of finding a balance in the midst of human desires, meanings and beliefs, or how any such discovery would help us to deal with ‘extremes’ in practice.
Marinoff’s attempt to synthesise Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius merely weakens his case because he does so completely uncritically. There is no attempt to take resources from one thinker and use them to sift what is useful in another, just an assertion that they are ultimately saying the same thing. However, the common ground between the Aristotelian Golden Mean, the Buddha’s Middle Way and Confucius’s Way seems to consist only in a vague aspiration towards naturally-justified virtuous middleness: one that goes little beyond the vagueness of what is often described as ‘common sense’. Even if is true that common sense offers us some intuitions of the Middle Way, these are hardly augmented by supposedly philosophical writing that adds nothing of substance to those intuitions.
A natural law approach to the Middle Way also suffers from the same obvious criticism as any other form of natural law: if nature is good, how do we distinguish between what we are ‘naturally’ led to do and the good that we choose to do? An appeal to nature does not help us to differentiate between where we are now and where we ought to be.
To some extent Marinoff addresses this by implication in his discussion of practical issues, but only by implication. For example, when discussing gender it becomes obvious that he thinks the Middle Way consists in recognising and allowing for innate differences between men and women, whilst also allowing for and developing appropriate sorts of equality. He rightly protests (though far too much) against the simplistic idea that all gender differences are culturally created. One could generalise this in terms of addressing the conditions whilst fulfilling our goals in a sustainable way. But no appeal to nature is needed to understand this: instead it becomes much clearer if we start to characterise the Middle Way in terms of the avoidance of dogmatic metaphysical views: the belief either in traditional gender roles or in the complete destruction of gender roles. In his more careful and informed judgements (which one needs to pick out of quite a lot of one-sided ranting) Marinoff starts to do this, but nowhere does he make it clear what the philosophical and practical basis of this approach might be and how it is justified.
This book at least tries to start a discussion on a topic of vital importance – the universal Middle Way. I am pretty sure that it is the first book of this kind to achieve mainstream publication. For that reason alone it is important. Some people might also find elements of interest in some of Marinoff’s discussions of practical extremes. However, I cannot recommend this book. I suspect it will do almost nothing to help you either understand or practise the Middle Way. It is a long, ranty, simplistic, self-indulgent, dogmatic book. It is generally not worth the time invested in reading it, when there are many more useful books around. The main reason for all these failings is that Marinoff has not understood that the Middle Way is not a truth about the universe – rather it is a principle of balance in the process of our judgements. Every time an influential writer mistakes the Middle Way for a truth about the universe, the genuinely useful Middle Way – the Middle Way of experience – becomes a little harder to find, because the concept becomes a little more appropriated by metaphysics and its subtle practical form is obscured a little more.