The Golden Mean
Too much exercise destroys strength as much as too little, and in the same way too
much or too little food or drink destroys the health, while the proportionate amount
increases and preserves it. The same is true of temperance and courage and the other
virtues, for he who is afraid of everything and does not stand firm becomes a coward, and
he who fears nothing and rushes into danger becomes foolhardy. And in the same way the man
who indulges himself in every pleasure becomes self-indulgent, and the man who abstains
from every pleasure becomes boorish. Temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by too
much and too little. but are preserved by the mean.
- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
How do we attain genuine happiness?
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all agreed that happiness can only be won by virtue, From the Allegory of the Cave we learned that Socrates and Plato believed that virtue came through a kind of enlightenment, a kind of conversion produced by a vision of Goodness itself-something like the modern Christian's notion of a salvation experience. But Aristotle believed that a person can only become virtuous-and therefore happy-through a long life of virtuous habits. And these habits are established by choosing wisely, choosing the mean, or middle path.
Consider the person who eats too much. This is a vice for which we have a name: gluttony. And the person who eats too little is starved, and this is a vice, too. The virtue, which lies midway between these two vices, we call temperance. and courage is a mean between too much fear-cowardice- and too little fear-foolhardiness. Courage is feeling the proper amount of fear, just as much as the situation warrants. All the virtues, Aristotle says, stand as means between too much (excess) and too little (deficiency). Sometimes we have no word for the vice or virtue in question, but we still know what it is.
Can you think of any moral dilemma that could not be solved by taking this point of view?
Can you give three examples of virtues and their corresponding vices?
Can you think of any vices for which there are no corresponding virtues, or vice versa?
Aristotle, The Basic Works, Random House, New York, 1941. See the Nichomachean Ethics.