Aristotle’s Golden Mean

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In our first post on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics(public library), we learned that we become virtuous by practicing virtue. We are now set with the task to properly define what virtue is using his concept of the Golden Mean.

“Virtue… is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”

Echoing Schopenhauer’s advice on avoiding extremes, Aristotle believed that each virtue lies in a sweet spot between the scarcity and abundance of that virtue. For example, courage exists between two poles, a complete lack of courage, cowardice, and its excessive counterpart, recklessness.

To be courageous is to live with a healthy amount of fear, not in an absence of it. He goes on to say:

“If this is true in every case, the virtue of a human being will likewise be the state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his function well.”

Using the above example, a healthy state of fear is necessary for a human to function well. We need a small dose of fear when crossing the street, when meeting a stranger in an alley, and when deciding if that chicken salad in the fridge is still edible. Fear is a survival mechanism, our body’s way of alerting us to potential dangers. Rather than feel shame for our fear, we must learn to view it as a gift.

When an uncomfortable experience gives us butterflies and the sweats, this is not due to the shortcomings of our character, this is due to the virtue of our character. That feeling means we have an opportunity to grow beyond ourselves, and that on a physiological level, our body is honing our attention to ensure our success.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is not a unique idea. A century and a half before his birth, an Indian Prince Siddhartha Guatma, after choosing an ascetic life and becoming the Buddha (the awakened one), preached the Middle Way as the road to Enlightenment. Moderation had been praised in ancient Greece by Aristotle’s predecessor Socrates, as well as at the temple of Delphi which was carved with the inscription, “Nothing in Excess.”

This work of finding the middle way is the task of a lifetime. Our culture assumes that our education stops with organized education when in reality learning is a lifelong pursuit.

“Presumably, however, it is not enough if they get the correct upbringing and attention when they are young; rather, they must continue the same practices and be habituated to them when they become men.”

In the previous post we learned that we acquire virtues through practicing that virtue. We become brave by being brave. Meaning that no amount of bravery in the past makes you brave in this moment. It is the state you embody in the present which defines you, and that current state is defined by its relationship to the poles of excess and deficiency.

When we can honestly audit our actions through the lens of their relationship to the ideal mean, we are given a tangible way to measure the often indefinable aspects of our character. If we do not know where we stand, how can we learn where we want to go? As the economists understand, “That which gets measured gets managed.”

As we will learn in the next post, the managing of our virtues will lead to our greatest good, our happiness.

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