Aristotle’s Principle of the Mean

Aristotle says “It is by refraining from pleasures that we become temperate, and it is when we have become temperate that we are most able to abstain from pleasures. Similarly with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation” (1104b). When we are placed in an alarming situation we feel panic and confusion, partly because we don’t know what is going on; we may react badly, focusing on the wrong things. But if we prepare for dangerous situations, and start with risks we understand and have prepared for, we learn to overcome our fears and we let our training take over. Once we have done this with small risks, we can confront larger risks. By becoming brave, we learn to face greater danger. This is a kind of iterative, self-reinforcing process.

At each iteration we may error on the side of becoming over-confident or over-apprehensive. If we are over-confident, we become reckless and may harm ourselves or others; if over-apprehensive, we will not master our fears. Moreover, not all experience is good – some experience may teach us bad habits. That is why we need wise mentors who can point us toward the right balance, which will allow us to progress toward our goal or aim. And this will vary from one person to another. Aristotle emphasizes that the mean is in relation to us, not to the thing we are doing. A good mentor or teacher will know what the individual student needs to learn.

But then Aristotle throws a curve ball (1107a). Virtue is a mean with respect to two vices (excess and deficiency), but “in respect to what is right and best, it is an extreme.” Thus, there can be no mean or excess or deficiency in courage because “the mean is in a sense an extreme” (1107a25). Courage is a virtue that does not require moderation, just as adultery (his other example) is a vice which cannot be accepted even in moderation. What great courage demands in a particular situation, however, will be the mean between recklessness and apprehensiveness. To say courage is an extreme doesn’t mean an endorsement of extreme courage or recklessness. Rather, courage will mean different things to different people at different times and places, but getting it exactly right is always desirable and that requires action guided by the right principles as well as the insight to know what to do in a particular situation.

With the right orientation we can achieve virtue by following the principle of the mean. Using “evidence of visible facts to throw light on those that are invisible” (1104a15), Aristotle says excessive of insufficient exercise are harmful, and the same is true for eating and drinking. It is not just that different people need different amounts of exercise and food. Someone who drinks and eats only for pleasure will not find the mean, but someone who eats and drinks to be healthy will. Contrary to the view that the principle of the mean is useless or vacuous, Aristotle is saying not only that there are right and wrong ways to do things, but that we will only find the mean if we are oriented to the good. But this does seem to beg the question: why would we be oriented toward the good?

Aristotle attaches considerable importance to goods intrinsic to activities. I think this has to do with activities that enable us to function well—i.e. excellence. “Any kind of excellence renders that of which it is an excellence good, and makes it perform its function well” (1106a15). Think about riding a bicycle. It is a purposive activity not only in the sense of going from one place to another (an external aim), but it is intrinsically important not to fall off in the process! In other words, there are purposive actions that are performed as part of the activity—the pedalling, the balancing, the moment-to-moment judgments of speed and direction—so that were one to stop, the activity would come to an end. One could stop trying to get from place to place and still be biking, but one cannot stop pedalling and continue to bike. And the activity here requires finding various means: for example, you can’t go too fast or too slow, you can’t tilt too far in one direction or another, and you need a mix of automatic and conscious effort. Learning to ride a bike is not done by first acquiring technical skill and then putting it into practice. It is through the practice that we acquire the skill.

The mean is intrinsic to the structure of the activity. This seems borne out by the idea that failure is “possible in many ways,” but success “in only one” (1106b30), i.e. that which is the best. The “best” means, presumably, the best of which we are capable. Phronesis arises through activity, specifically the development of one’s potential. Aristotle starts Book II with the observation faculties are endowed as potentialities and are only later actualized, but virtue we learn by doing. It is as if he is saying that when we try to be virtuous we realize we’ve already doing it, or that the aspiration to do something well comes from the practice of already doing it. The minute I try to make a work of art, I am already trying to do it well. Rawls calls this the Aristotelian principle: “other things equal, human behings enjoy the exercise of their realized capabilities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity” (Theory of Justice, p. 426).

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