Core Decorum: In praise of halves

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Photo by Michelle Berthet

Half measures and half-heartedness are generally considered bad things, and rightly so.

It’s a shame, however, that these expressions have created a bad reputation for the idea of a half. Even the positive expression “a glass half-full” tends to repress the more negative expression “a glass half-empty,” instead of standing for positivity in its own right. I for one wish to rescue the half, and to that end I devote a full measure of my capacity and the full length of this column.

Plato references a Greek myth which claims that human beings were originally twice what we observe now, and that the division of persons came about when Zeus split them all in two. The life experience of every person, therefore, is dominated by the search for the missing half, and consequently dominated by the very idea of the half. Aristotle also embraces the half in his rule of the golden mean. That mean is not the perfect arithmetic mean between two extremes, but rather the proper halfway point between. That half is illuminated by good judgment, not simple calculation.

The half dominates human action as well. Any English major will tell you that a good epic begins in medias res: halfway through the events in question.  The half marks the heat of action, the most gripping and mesmerizing time to capture an audience’s interest and make them feel the richness of the tale.  Depth is revealed at the half. The “Aeneid” takes this further. Not only does it begin at a half, in medias res, but halfway through the tale and halfway through Aeneas’ journey, Aeneas’ drive and motivation are doubled. The meta viarum — the halfway point — marks a change in purpose in Aeneas’ soul. The half dominates literature.

Modern examples reveal the half as well. Half-marathons don’t demonstrate merely half the stamina of a full marathon, but rather twice or four times as much stamina as at least half the population could possibly exhibit. Half Price Books is a staple for any college student seeking cheap novels or records. Carbon dating is made possible because of the lengthy half-life of carbon-14. The halftime at any football game occasions a run for more hot-wings or a game of catch in the backyard. At the Super Bowl, halftime becomes a whole show in itself. It is no coincidence, then, that, with few exceptions, hockey is much less popular than football; in hockey there is no respect for the half.

Why is it that the half is so important? The significance lies in the proximity. At least temporally speaking, the half is sufficiently close to the beginning that it is remembered vividly, and sufficiently close to the end that it is anticipated joyfully. Such vividness and joy transfer to every instance of the half, whether temporal or not. In medias res brings the reader into that vividness and excitement. The golden mean turns vividness and excitement into a drive towards virtue. Carbon dating brings to life what has passed, vividly and joyfully making known what would otherwise be hidden. The half does so much for human life that it deserves praise; it deserves a celebration.

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