Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean
Keeping things in balance
I. What does the mean mean?
Back in grade school we learned to distinguish the mean, the median, and the mode. The mean is the average, the median is the middle number, and the mode is the number the occurs most frequently.
Aristotle says that virtue lies on the mean, which means that an level of activity can go beyond what is virtuous or less than what is virtuous. In other words, it can be analyzed in terms of a deficiency, virtue, excess.
II. Aristotle’s analysis of virtue as the mean between extremes--example: inthe activity of confidence in facing danger, courage is the mean, rashness the excess, cowardice the defect.
Remember the Song of Sir Robin sung by his minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The brave knight described in the beginning of the song isn't courageous, he's rash. Of course, we discover after the encounter with the Three-headed Knight, in which Robin buggers off, that he's really a coward. Run Away!
III. Other virtues that can be charted
There seem to be other things that can be similarly charted. For example, let’s take the tendency to "hold on" in a troubled primary relationship. The excess would perhaps be called co-dependence (or stalking) the mean would be commitment, and the deficiency would be fickleness.
Or again let’s take the activity of making peace. The deficiency would be combativeness, the excess would be the ‘peace at any price" attitude.
IV. The mean is relative to us
It should be re-emphasized that Aristotle, just as much as Plato, is a believer in objective moral values. One can have erroneous ethical beliefs.
However, what is right is to be determined by looking at the situation closely. The principles are objective, the application is relative.
A child putting his head in the water who is afraid of it is courageous. For a lifeguard to do so is not courageous.
A well-balanced diet may be different for a football player and for a much smaller person.
Giving $1 to charity may be virtuous in a poor person, but be stingy for Bill Gates.
VI. The mean determined by practical wisdom
Even though the mean is person-relative, given there is a right degree to which on should give money, hold on in relationships, etc.
However, this involves a lot of "judgment calls." It’s more like riding a bicycle than like doing math.
VII. The best form of life
The best form of life is a life of contemplation, because
A. Reason is the part of us that most fully expresses our humanity.
B. We can engage in reason continuously.
C. Rational contemplation is a self-sufficient activity.
D. When we reason we imitate the Unmoved Mover, who is pure thought thinking itself.