The Wisdom of Proportionality

Greek runners protecting the torch
Illustration by Ann Ronan pictures, print collector/Getty

One of the common themes in ancient Greek art and philosophy is proportionality. For the Greeks, proportionality was the idea that there was an optimal mix of qualities or virtues that, properly harmonized, promoted human flourishing. We see and experience this idea in the beautiful statues and architecture that have survived in Ancient Greece. The idea of proportionality is a theme throughout Plato’s dialogues, especially The Republic, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics is constructed around the idea of a golden mean or “middle state” between two extremes.

Meden Agan (“Nothing in excess”) is one of the surviving inscriptions on the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. One of my favorite quotes in the ancient texts is from Tacitus. As a Roman patrician, Tacitus’s education consisted primarily of ancient Greek art, literature and philosophy. In writing about his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus says “he took from philosophy the greatest lesson of all: a sense of proportion.”

Another fine example of this idea is embedded in the ancient Olympic games. One of the competitions, know as the Lampadedromia, involved a relay race of runners carrying torches. The challenge was to win the race without extinguishing the torch. This meant it usually wasn’t the fastest runners that won, but those adept at running just fast enough (the right proportion) not to extinguish the torch in the wind while getting to the finish line first, before the torch oil ran out.

The idea handed down through the ages suggest that success, beauty, happiness and good judgment are very much the results of a wise proportionality.