Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Beza, in Praise of the Golden Mean

Thedore Beza, in addition to being a theologian, pedagogue, and controversialist, was a delightfully ingenious neo-Latin poet. Below is an elegy (in elegiac couplets, natch) in praise of the Horatian aurea mediocritas (though he doesn’t say anything explicitly about Horace),1 the golden mean–that old standby of ancient philosophical wisdom. It is thoroughly classical and classicizing; all of its exempla come from antiquity, in whose praise of moderation he shows his interest in the first line. My notes are keyed to the Latin text, but I’ve kept to his line-numbering in the translation, so they should still be easy to follow.


Non frustra solita est medium2 laudare venustas:

Nam nil laudari dignius orbis habet.

In medio posita est virtus, hinc, indeque fallax

Tota sinistra via est, totaque dextra via est.

Icare, si patrem esses inter utrumque secutus,3

Icarias nullus nomine nosset aquas.4

Si medio Phaeton mansisset calle superbus,5

Non esset saeva terra perusta face.

Nec lenis nimium,6 nec durat saeva potestas:

Quae medium servat, sola perennis erit.

Te nimia, o Juli,7 clementia perdidit olim:

Occidit feritas te, truculente Nero.

Augustus foelix cur multos mansit in annos?8

Nec facilis nimium, nec truculentus erat.

Nec nimis ipse coli, nec sperni Juppiter optat,

Sed magis una juvat, mens moderata Deos.

Largus opum nullus, nullus laudatur avarus:

Magnus, in his potuit qui tenuisse modum.9

Antoni10mensas sic vicit coena Catonis,11

Et tenuem melior fama secuta larem.12

Nec gracilis structura nimis, nec crassa probatur:

Haec spectatori displicet, illa ruit.

Ut moderata juvant, sic aegris pharmaca multis,

Heu nimium multis, saepe petita nocent.

Dicere plura nefas13 credo, nam laude14 nequaquam

Efferri immodica sustinet ipse modus.15


Not in vain was antiquity accustomed to praise the mean:

For the world holds nothing more worthy of praise.

Virtus has been set in the mean; deceptive on this side and that

is the way wholly to the left and the way wholly to the right.

Icarus, if you had followed your father between the two,

No one would know the Icarian Sea by that name.

If Phaethon–but he was proud!–had remained on the middle path,

the earth would not have been burned by the sun’s cruel torch.

Neither power that is too mild nor that which is too cruel endures:

that which preserves the mean alone is everlasting.

Too much mercy, O Julius Caesar, once destroyed you:

Savagery killed you, fierce Nero.

Why did Augustus remain happy for many years?

He was neither too easy-going, nor too fierce.

Jupiter himself desire neither to be worshiped in excess nor spurned,

But the moderate mind alone is more pleasing to the gods.

No one who is liberal with his wealth is praised, no one who is greedy:

he is great who has kept to moderation in these matters.

Thus did Cato’s supper conquer Antony’s tables,

and a better reputation followed a modest home.

Neither a too slight nor a too swollen building wins approval:

the latter displeases the viewer, the former falls down.

As drugs in moderation are a help, so drugs used too often

harm many–alas, too many!–of the sick.

It would be wicked to say more, I believe, for moderation itself

in no way endures to be talked up with immoderate praise.16

  1. Perhaps he’s not thinking of Horace at all, even if I especially associate the idea in its poetic form with him. His poem addressed to his library contains the names of many ancient authors, but Horace is not one of them.
  2. Forms of this word are used three times in the poem, all in the first half. Words related to modus, a word of kindred signification, are used five times, but the noun itself three times, all in the second half, thus perfectly balancing them–the mean again!
  3. The story of Icarus flying too close to the sun is well known.
  4. A potential ambiguity? Icarus did not preserve the mean, but he does achieve lasting fame, which in ancient poetry is often a kind of consolation prize for personal disaster.
  5. The story of Phaethon is told in Book 2 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There is no danger of ambiguity here: because of Phaethon’s excess the earth, and not just he himself, suffered.
  6. Forms of nimis, a word for excess, are used six times, and throughout the poem, contrasting with the balance of the words having to do with moderation and the mean.
  7. Julius Caesar, assassinated in 44 BC. He was especially associated, and wished to be, with the virtue of clemency toward one’s enemies.
  8. Augustus, Beza says, found the mean between Caesar and Nero.
  9. A pardox: the one who is magnus, often a word used for above-average size, is the one who keeps to the middle path.
  10. Marcus Antonius, member of the Second Triumvirate, consort of Cleopatra, and eventually derided by his one-time partner Augustus as an effeminate and overindulgent easterner rather than a hardy Roman.
  11. Both Catos are proverbial for conservatism and the modest old mores of the Romans.
  12. Architecture too is a proper field for the exercise of the virtue of modesty, as is medicine below.
  13. Cp. to the comments above about Jupiter and the gods.
  14. Ring-composition with the opening two lines of the poem.
  15. The last couplet contains a nice conceit: it would be impious for Beza to say more at this point. He has said just enough, and thus the mean has been achieved in the poem itself. In addition, the poem’s last word is its theme: modus.
  16. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.