This essay was originally published by Law & Liberty on October 20, 2022.
Whether we study our own times or the human condition more broadly, we quickly discover the need for serious philosophic reflection on human limits.
We live in an age that tends to reject limits. We chafe under conventional limits, or limits that are the product of human authority, which are commonly condemned as oppressive or alienating. More radically, we even rebel at the thought of natural limits, or limits imposed by some unalterable necessity. Leaving aside the most extreme expressions of this rebellion (such as hopes for some kind of technologically assisted transhumanism), it even shows up in the most ordinary and apparently unexceptionable discourse. Reputable people in positions of authority will actually tell impressionable young children things like, “you can do anything you set your mind to,” or “if you dream big and work hard, there are no limits to what you can achieve.”
Remarks like these—so obviously false and irresponsible, yet at the same time so commonplace and well-intentioned—suggest that there is something pathological in our age’s approach to the idea of limits. This pathology is also perhaps indicated by our repudiation of limits that were once accepted without complaint and without question and our simultaneous insistence on limits that appeared, so to speak, only yesterday. Many of the same people who think that the distinction between male and female ought to impose no limits at all also think that the distinction between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated should be the basis of rigorously enforced limits on freedom. It seems that our society cannot deal with the idea of limits in a healthy and realistic way.
If we move beyond the characteristics of the present society, we quickly find that the question of limits leads us into deep waters. Humans are strange—in general, and not just in our own time. They seem perennially to display a relationship to the idea of limits that is, if not always pathological, at least paradoxical. On the one hand, human beings seem to have an irrepressible desire to try to transcend limits, even though they continually find that they are inexorably limited. The most talented, determined, and successful human beings finally run up against obstacles that they cannot overcome. At the very least, all human beings have to die, and thus must leave some things unaccomplished. On the other hand, human beings seem somehow capable of transcending limits contrary to all reasonable expectations. Impose the most extreme limitations on them, and they still sometimes seem to race past those limits in some ways—to grow maybe even because of the limits that they have faced. This latter phenomenon is expressed in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous statement: “Bless you, prison, bless you for being in my life.” Solzhenitsyn had found that his mind and soul had grown more powerful, had exceeded their previous limits, because of the brutal limits imposed upon his body.
Whether we begin from the strangeness of our own times, or from the perennial strangeness of the human condition, we quickly discover the need for serious philosophic reflection on the limits that human beings face and the ways in which they ought to face them. Serious readers will be grateful to find such reflection in David McPherson’s The Virtues of Limits. In this short but profound book, McPherson, a professor of philosophy at Creighton University, tries to restore respect for the necessity and goodness of limits in a society that has, again, grown impatient of them and to some extent forgotten why they exist.
McPherson considers four kinds of limits: philosophic, moral, political, and economic. His defense of philosophic limits offers a critique of what he calls the “Promethean ideal”: the ambitious desire to transcend all limits. There are, he contends, two basic possible orientations toward the world we have been given: the “choosing/controlling stance” and the “accepting/appreciating stance.” We need both, but the Promethean ideal erroneously gives absolute priority to choosing and controlling, thus opening the door to the dangers that come with an unlimited desire to dominate everything around us.
McPherson then turns to the idea of moral limits, the excellences of character that impose limits on our desires and our actions. Here he defends once revered but now neglected virtues such as moderation, civility, and humility. Manners, for example, indicate the intrinsic value of other human beings. McPherson also gives an account of the virtue of reverence, which, he holds, is necessary to our experience of absolute moral limits, which are in turn necessary for any decent morality.
In his discussion of political limits, McPherson contends that it is good for our political aspirations to be limited, and for the power of the government to be accordingly curtailed. The utopianism that seeks unlimited improvement, and unlimited power in pursuit of it, inevitably fails and, in the process of failing, ends up destroying good things for which we ought to have been grateful and that should have been preserved. In addition, he observes, healthy politics depends on reasonable limits to our affections. Here he gives an account of virtues such as neighborliness and loyalty, which remind us that we have not just a generalized duty of benevolence to the human race, but also more particular and more intense duties to those who are close at hand or those to whom we are bound by important human ties, such as kinship.
Finally, McPherson considers economic limits. Here he seeks to defend a reasonable middle ground between two unreasonable extremes: socialism, on the one hand, which unrealistically thinks that the limits imposed by human self-interestedness can be completely transcended, and, on the other, views that celebrate the allegedly progressive effects of unlimited pursuit of individual acquisition. Arguing in an Aristotelian spirit—and, as elsewhere in the book, drawing explicitly on Aristotle—McPherson holds that private property is a reasonable accommodation of human self-interest while also holding that certain moral limits on its pursuit ought to be observed.
Throughout his treatment of these controversial issues, McPherson displays a laudable sobriety, seriousness, and fairmindedness. He never declaims or denounces but always argues instead. He never makes a claim without admitting its reasonable qualifications. He never defends his own positions without giving careful and sympathetic attention to the positions he rejects. All in all, he thinks and writes with a much-needed—but too seldom encountered—intellectual moderation and humility. He practices what he preaches, and his book models some of the crucial virtues for which it contends.
Particularly provocative and helpful is McPherson’s discussion of the virtue of “contentment,” which leads us to ask how much of what we desire is really “enough.” Evasion of this key question is the source of much confusion and unhappiness among our fellow citizens, both on the right and on the left. On the right, some dogmatic defenders of capitalism celebrate the unlimited pursuit of wealth. On the left, critics of capitalism make “equality” the aim of their proposed reforms. But, as McPherson’s account reminds us, the desire for wealth and the desire for equality are both insatiable. No amount of either will satisfy those who have chosen to make them their gods. And because these desires are insatiable, making them the center of one’s life can only lead to disappointment and resentment. We would do better, McPherson teaches, to direct our thinking and our efforts to acquiring for ourselves and providing for others what is necessary for a dignified, active, and happy life.
Perhaps McPherson’s simplest yet most profound message is that limits, although often expressed in negative terms (“thou shalt not”), are not just negations. On the contrary, they exist to protect things that are positively, intrinsically good. The philosophic limits we observe in making the “accepting/appreciating” stance fundamental are inseparable from our realization that the world we have been given is itself a good thing that calls for our gratitude and respect. The moral limits that we observe in dealing with others are inseparable from our appreciation that the well-being of others is—like our own—a good we must acknowledge. Moreover, these limits exist not just to protect the good things external to us, but also the goodness within us—the goodness of our own souls or selves. If, as Aristotle teaches, human flourishing and happiness are to be found in the active exercise of the virtues, then the limits that those virtues imply are necessary to our own fulfillment. Those limits are, accordingly, not negations but guideposts on the pathway to the greatest affirmation.
By teaching this lesson, The Virtues of Limits also serves as a warning. If limits are not just negations, then the lack of limits is not, contrary to what many seem to think, necessarily a form of liberation. On the contrary, a lack of limits can in fact limit us—limit our moral capacities and therefore stunt the development of our very being. The rejection of limits inevitably implies that there is nothing in our world intrinsically worth valuing. On such a view, the world in which we find ourselves is not a nature containing various goods to which we are obliged to relate correctly but an abyss or a chaos in which the human will can operate utterly unchecked. This understanding of things has not and never will end well for those who embrace it. We must hope that those inclined in this direction will read McPherson’s book and reconsider their views.