An American Mystagogue

Words of Power: Lagom



The Ancestor by Leonora Carrington, 1968. Oil on canvas.

Lagom är bäst“, literally “The right amount is best”

Today I will be introducing a new topic of discussion; Words of Power. Before I go into the specific word, or phrase, of this article I should endeavor to explain briefly why  I chose the topic.

Humans are a sapient species, it is the gulf that separates humanity from the other animals. This is why the binomial nomenclature (scientific name) for humans is Homo Sapiens. Wise Man. We are able to do something that no other animal can do, which is that we store information in the form of language either verbal or written so that it can be cumulatively expounded upon, and added to. Because of language, we are capable of higher thought and abstraction. We can evoke a sort of glyph based telepathy among others who have the same language.

Sapience is often mistaken for sentience, which is the capability of a being to experience sense-data. It is a receptive faculty, the ability to perceive the world around oneself. Dogs, cats, cows, insects, and so forth are sentient. But they are not sapient. Sapience relies on language, on symbolic abstracts and systems of arrangement, otherwise we would be much like the tool-using chimps; able to learn in a lifetime, but unable to pass on what we learned. No cumulative knowledge for the species, or tribe. We’d be forced to start over every generation, again and again to develop tools that can be crafted with native supplies and one lifetime’s worth of experience.

With the storage of information in glyphic format, (ie, language) we are able not only to express things like ‘rocks’ and ‘trees’ but also concepts such as ‘love’ and ‘hate’, or even ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’, ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’. These only make sense in a system. Without all of the pre-requisite language the words ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ would have no meaning to us.

 The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (also known as Linguistic Relativity) posits that language has a profound effect on human ability. What is known as the ‘strong” Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also called linguistic determinism. The ‘weak’ Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that (from Wikipedia) “that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour.” For more information feel free to click here  and here.

Whether or not one subscribes to the ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ hypotheses, the effects of language on cognition cannot be denied. Our language, our grammar and our vocabulary affect how we interact and see the world.



Likewise, there is a concept in many cultures ranging from Judaic to Ancient Greek that the ‘true name’ of an object gives the knower power over such an object. In this sense, knowing the ‘true word’ for an experience or abstract state of being allows one some modicum of control, or power, over such a state. We take for granted our ability to feel an emotion and know it by its true name, such as ‘sadness’ compared to ‘despair’, ‘grievance’, ‘melancholy’ and so forth. We are able to differentiate between what we can name, and what we cannot name often slips by us or gets lumped into one word or concept (though having different qualities within the experiences), or forgotten entirely.

Enter; Lagom. Lagom is a Swedish word that has no direct English equivalent. Often times the word is translated as ‘moderation’, but whereas in English moderation is seen as the ‘luke-warm’ between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, or as ‘lacking in excess or extremes’, lagom can instead be more properly thought of as ‘adequateness’ or ‘just-rightness”. The concept of adequateness is not necessarily a ‘luke-warm’ proposition stuck between two extremes as it is often thought of, but a much more fluid and powerful concept that denotes a degree of mindful precision in action.

Adequateness does not say “You must have luke-warm oatmeal because you do not want it too hot or too cold” but rather says “if you want to have hot oatmeal, make sure it is adequately hot. If you want cold oatmeal, make sure it is adequately cold, if you want luke-warm oatmeal, make sure it is adequately luke-warm.”

If there was a twenty foot chasm, lagom would be a twenty foot bridge. If you needed two eggs from the store, buying two eggs would be lagom. If you needed twenty eggs from the store, purchasing twenty eggs would be lagom. It is far more than ‘luke-warm’ moderation, but instead a volitional, mindful attention paid to ‘just-rightness’. This is a concept worthy of meditating on and enacting in ones own life. It does not ask you to become an ascetic, nor a hedonist. It does not imply as does the English word moderation “scarcity” or ‘lack-of” something. To enact lagom is to enact precise action, precise thinking, not abstaining from the world at large in a bid for ‘being more spiritual-than-thou-ness”.

Lagom in this way relies on a human beings ability to think clearly, focused and rationally so as to avoid waste. It does not, however, take a rocket scientist to apply the ‘just-right” philosophy in their daily lives.

As I talked about in my post about vitality as a finite resource, every action is an exchange between you and your environment, or others in you environment. Not in a wishy-washy vague way but in a thermodynamic sense. You burn calories, you breathe, you eat food, you shit, you sleep. This is our first person perspective of an energy exchange. Since vitality, or ‘life’ is a finite resource it would be beneficial to enact a ‘lagom-based’ philosophy so that you may get the most ‘bang for your buck’ as it were. If your aim is to drink a fifth of whiskey, drink a fifth of whiskey. But do not drink more, do not drink less, unless of course you decide to change your mind.

Lagom relies on a ‘goal’ inherently. You cannot get the ‘just-right’ amount of eggs or build a ‘just-right’ sized bridge without first having a need for eggs or a chasm to cross. I repeat, this is not about moderation as a luke-warm response to hot and cold. This is about having a goal, and meeting it with just the right amount of exertion. It is about getting adequate reward for adequate endeavor.

Whether you want your porridge hot or cold is up to you.

~ Seth Moris

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