Posts Tagged ‘Golden Mean’

Two of Aristotle’s great works, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, proposed a political state wherein citizens lived a good and just life; although this was a very different constitution to that of democracy which was the constitution of Ancient Greece. He called this proposed constitution the polis. He was not trying to create an ideal constitution of his own; he was influenced by the society of Ancient Greece and other constitutions that existed. He wanted the best possible constitution, but also the best constitution possible in the light of a city’s circumstances, in particular its social and economic basis. [1] This state, the polis, is described as an urban development, not unlike Athens at the time of Aristotle. He also claims that man is naturally inclined to live in a polis. Aristotle’s philosophy examines the different types of city-state and how they should be run. In this blog I will discuss how man is suited to live in a polis, the similarities and dissimilarities of the society of the polis with democracy and explain how, through the examination of Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, he arrived at the conclusion that man is inclined to live in a polis.

The polis is natural, not conventional, formed from several villages coming together. The people living in the polis are self-sufficient and live a good and just life. For this reason, the naturally occurring polis has a purpose. There is a contradiction here; something that was not created on purpose by some intelligent agent cannot have a purpose. Man-made objects have a purpose or goal in mind, for example a hunting tool. A naturally formed object, for example a rock, does not have a goal in mind. For Aristotle everything natural has a purpose, including man. This is because he was teleological in his approach. Man is a social animal and the governing framework of his good life is therefore to be found in the institutions that make up communal organisations. [2]

Aristotle believed that it is part of human nature to associate with other individuals in a city-state. A human living apart from a community is not really a human in the true sense. A person in solitude is not natural, a person needs human interaction to sustain a status or hold a quality that puts him above more primitive animals. It is suggested that the city-state comes before family, humans need to interact with other humans to be human, and this comes before human connection.

“…the city belongs to the class of things that exist by nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city, by reason of his own nature and not of some accident, is either a poor sort of being or a being higher than man…” [3]


Human beings are different to animals because we live in groups. We use language which helps the exchange of ideas and this is beneficial and productive. We perceive the differences between good and evil, just and unjust. We start to consider the best life for the individual, we are required to take notice of mans need for permanent association of others. [4]

Man is an emotional and complex animal. The best life for man will contain all the things recognised as desirable. Aristotle takes a commonsensical approach to what would constitute a good life. We should not, for example, put ourselves through any undesirable courses of action that is not overall beneficial or pleasurable in a sense to ourselves. Aristotle distinguished many different types of pleasure, activity and thought that was adventitious for man. When these categories are weighed up against each other in unequal amounts, conflict arises. Aristotle does not give details of how we should incorporate these things for making the good life for oneself. He does however clarify the interrelations and interdependencies of these various categories. Pleasure for example can be pleasure taken in action and action can be guided by thought. Man’s ‘function’ or distinctive nature, it is concluded, is a life whereby activity is in accordance with reason. [5] This is discussed extensively in the Ethics. We all want a happy life and obtaining this is possible through developing and exercising our capacities to live in a society. Self-indulgence and self-assertion will bring us into conflict with other people. [6] Aristotle distinguishes two different types of virtues for intellect. (1) Theoretical wisdom, necessary as a component to human happiness, (2) Practical wisdom, used as a productive agent that subsumes all those intellectual capacities in virtue which we aim at a true end, and are skilful in securing our aim. [7] So the maintenance of balance is essential. Happiness, although essential for life in the polis in certain amounts, is not found in personal isolation, thus Aristotle uses this in his argument that the polis is a natural and the best state to live in. We have the ultimate goal of being good in mind when we live in the polis. To prefer to an act because it is an instance of a good principle which we desire to realise as far as possible in our lives, is not the same thing as to select it because we think it will conduce to a good end. [8]

On the whole, Aristotle believed that the purpose of the state was to produce and support a class of cultured gentlemen, such as Aristotle himself. He does not seem to understand that this is not always possible. This led him to criticise the other forms of government. To run a political state through tyranny, there is no room for Aristotle’s cultured and elite. The purpose of government is to enable its citizens to live the full and happy life.[9] He believed that a city should involve the participation of all its citizens in government. His theoretical approach to democracy and his practical experience of democracy have become intertwined. [10] He is opposed to extreme democracy, as he sees it as destructive and says it makes for an autocratic ruling.

“..rule by decree replaces rule of law; demagogues cleave the state in two and wage war against the rich” [11]


Aristotle looks at what a tyranny entrains, and criticises the amount of work the tyrant must have to do to maintain power. He criticises how petty the life goals of the tyrant, and the goals of an oligarchic society. The difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and riches. When man rules on account of his wealth, we have an oligarchy. Aristotle does not nor is suggesting the abolishment of private property. He does not wish to give free hand to the vice of the extreme, whether of wealth or of property. His normative judgement parallels that of a man of practical wisdom analysing the concrete situation to discern the mean. [12]

Aristotle believed that man was best suited to live in a polis. A democracy could not work.

“What if the poor, on the ground of their being the majority, divide up the possessions of the wealthy – is this not unjust? No, it may be said, it has been decreed by the sovereign in just form. Then what should we call the extreme of injustice?” [13]


The polis is a form of democracy, although not the democracy based on class interest. Aristotle contrasts sharply with Plato here. In the Republic, Plato describes a philosopher king that rules his utopia. This is an idealistic approach to the most suitable form of constitution for man. Aristotle on the other hand, describes how to run an actual state. He outlined effective courses of action for the success of this state. Man being a political animal is most suited to the Polis and its seductive promise of realising ones own potentiality. The Polis is not a state in which the best way of life is sought out, but rather to create a state beneficial to everyone and a final ‘good’ cause. Man may be best suited to live in a Polis because he is a social animal that requires interaction with others; he is by nature a political animal; the polis is a naturally occurring phenomena and other forms of government lead to corruption and an unhappy, unfulfilled life.



Ackrill, J.L. (1981). Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford University Press.

Allan, D.J. (1970). The Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford University Press.

Aristotle, Politics.

Edel, A. (1982). Aristotle and his philosophy. Chapel Hill Publications.

Linott, A. (1992). Aristotle and Democracy. Classical Quarterly 42 (i) 114-128

Magee, B. (1998). The Story of Philosophy.

Redhead, B. (1984). Plato to Nato: Studies in Political Thought.

[1] Aristotle and democracy. Classical Quarterly 42. pp.114

[2] Aristotle and his philosophy. Abraham Edel. Pp.318

[3] Politics. Aristotle. 1253a, p.224

[4] The Philosophy of Aristotle. D. J. Allan. Pp. 86

[5] Aristotle the Philosopher. J. L. Ackrill. Pp. 124-

[6] Plato to Nato – Studies in Political thought. Brain Redhead. Pp.30-

[7] The philosophy of Aristotle. D. J. Allan. Pp. 126

[8] The philosophy of Aristotle. Allan. Pp. 132

[9] Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy. Pp54-

[10] Aristotle and Democracy. Classical Quarterly 42. pp.115

[11] Politics. Aristotle. 1292a6 ff., 1310a4 f.

[12] Aristotle and his philosophy. Abraham Edel. Pp. 324

[13] Politics. Aristotle. 1281a14-17.


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Aristotle develops the Doctrine of the Mean in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE). The mean is not an arithmetical mean, but a point on a scale between two extreme dispositions which represent the excess and deficiency of a virtuous trait. Aristotle distinguishes between two types of virtue, intellectual virtues which involves choice, knowing a situation and what it demands, but moral virtues refers to that which comes from character. A virtue is something which is learned through practice. Aristotle discusses a table of virtues which outlines on a scale the virtuous traits. To each of these he describes the effects of excesses or deficiencies of the traits. The mean relates specifically to moral virtues.

When Aristotle states that the mean comes from moral virtue, the mean is not in the middle of two states. To use the example of courage which is a moral virtue, it is not located directly between rashness and cowardice. The courageous person is not in a fixed position between the two; he acts in accordance to the mean as the situation demands. In essence, it is the capability of acting the right way at the right time. The mean may be nearer to one extreme than to the other, or seems nearer because of our natural tendencies. The mean acts as a guide to moral action. Aristotle states the importance of moral virtues. It is necessary to live in a morally virtuous way to achieve life in eudaimon.

Eudaimonia is often equated with happiness. It is the highest state of being, lived by the morally virtuous outlined by Aristotle. This essay will discuss Aristotle’s mean and argue that the mean is a useful guide to moral action. While the practicality of the mean may have its faults, Aristotle’s contribution to ethical theory gives us insight into a higher state of being of an individual opposed to unvirtuous state of beings. (Table 1 below illustrates some of the key virtues outlined in NE)

Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness” identified with living in a morally virtuous state. Identifying life in eudaimon is subjective as an individual who lives in accordance to moral virtues cannot be wrong in estimating whether they are happy. Living life engaged in physical pleasure is not virtuous. Physical pleasures and wealth deceive us into unvirtuous activities and behaviours. With the Doctrine of the Mean, Aristotle guides toward living a morally virtuous life through morally virtuous activities. We cannot become consumed in physical pleasure and Aristotle suggests that it is a human tendency to become consumed by it. To develop a virtuous character one must avoid the extreme which is more contrary to the mean.1 We must notice the errors into which we ourselves are liable to fall and we must, in every situation, guard especially against pleasure and pleasant things because we are not impartial judges of pleasure. By following these guidelines we shall have the best chance of hitting the mean. Pleasure is not a happy life although Aristotle does not deny that it is a part of the happy life. A life consumed by pleasure is not a happy life as the human being is not using their faculty of reason.

Aristotle describes the differences between classes in that people of a lower class may aspire to achieve happiness through pleasure as pleasure is more difficult to attain than a more „cultured‟ class of people. This ties into Aristotle‟s notion of contemplation being the highest virtue of man, described in Book X. He goes on to explain that moral qualities are destroyed by deficiencies and excesses but preserved by the mean. Pleasure induces us to behave badly and pain to shrink from fine actions. Outlined briefly are three factors that make for choice: the fine, the advantageous and the pleasant. Three factors that make for avoidance are: the base, the harmful and the painful. To be virtuous one must act in a certain state. One must know what he or she is doing; choose it and choose it for its own sake; and do it from a fixed and permanent disposition. “Man becomes just by the performance of just.”  The best mean is one which is relative to us.

Aristotle goes on to state that the mean is relative to the object. The mean relative to us is not exactly clear and this further distinction of the mean relative to the object needs further clarification in terms of guiding moral action. The mean relative to an object involves an evaluative element. Aristotle previously states the mean as existing on a continuum of excess and deficiency. Bringing in this “evaluative element” allows us to see that the mean is relative to us. The mean is not generalized as a specific course of action to follow in order to act morally.Morals cannot by any means be reduced to a set of universal principles. The “Good” is something that which “all things aim”.  The good is the highest of all practical goods and is achieved through a mean.

Loosely translated, Eudaimonia refers to an ultimate happiness state. “Ordinary” people identify the “Good” with pleasure or money. „Cultured‟ people identify the “Good” with honour. Honour is seen as the goal of political life. The “happy” man is one who “is active in accordance with complete virtue, and who is adequately furnished with external goods, and that not for some unspecified period but throughout a complete life.” To evaluate “good” Aristotle uses the example of a “good” eye should see correctly, it fulfills its purpose.

That is not to say that fulfillment can be equated with ultimate purpose. A “good” should be an end in itself. Human goodness can be equated with human rationality as rationality is said to be a unique quality of humans. A clever person knows the best means to any end. A wise person knows for which ends are worth striving. On the path to virtue, the individual must know what they are doing, choose it and choose it for its own sake and do it from a fixed and permanent position. The individual must have the right feelings at the right time on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way. “It’s easy to be angry, but to be angry at the right time, for the right reason, at the right person and in the right intensity must truly be brilliant.”We can see that Aristotle’s Doctrine of the mean acts as a useful guide to moral action. The merits that the mean gives rise to outweigh the criticisms. It suggests to us that the “good” life consists of an individually acting morally in everyday life to each and every situation. If the courageous individual were to act with the same courageous convictions in every situation, the individual cannot be said to be acting in the mean. Some situations demand the courageous person to act less or more courageous. Aristotle acknowledges this in the doctrine of the mean which other branches of Ethics disregard. We can compare this to Kant‟s argument with the position that one must adherently follow moral duty. The individual may not flourish in their intellectual capacities and evaluate the situation.



http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/draugdur/golden_mean/. Accessed 07/03/105Referenceshttp://www.anus.com. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2010, from http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/draugdur/golden_mean/

Hursthouse, R. (2006). The Central Doctirine of the Mean. In R. Kraut, Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (pp. 96-115). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Kenny, A. (1978).The Aristotelian Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press Ltd

Thomson, J. A. K. (1976). Aristotle’s Ethics. Penguin Books Ltd. 1976

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