Aristotle on Finding the Happy Medium

In the ninth and final section of the second book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that finding virtue’s sweet spot between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency is more an art than a science.

He gives two helpful rules of thumb:

  1. Err toward the extreme that is closest to the mean. For example, the extreme of rashness is closer to the mean of courage than the extreme of cowardice is. So if you’re not quite sure where in a range of possible actions the virtuous mean lies, you’re less likely to go wrong if you tend toward the rash end of that range than if you tend toward the cowardly end.
  2. Err toward the extreme that is less pleasant. Your natural tendency will tend to pull you toward the more pleasant extreme, and this will help to correct for that.

So, to sum up book two:

  • It takes instruction and practice to become virtuous.
  • Virtues are characterized by their “just enoughness” between extremes of too-much and too-little.
  • The way to be virtuous is to take pleasure in virtuous action and to be pained by vice.
  • Virtue is not just in the action, but also in the mental state that accompanies it; behaving virtuously requires consciously chosen, deliberate action rooted in character.
  • Discovering the golden mean isn’t an exact science, but there are some helpful rules of thumb.

Another theme that Aristotle hasn’t much developed yet but that he refers to from time to time is that of politics as the science of arranging society in such a way as to promote the virtues and discourage the vices. I’m curious as to where he’s going to go with that and whether it will leave room for a non-coercive strategy or whether it will necessarily rely on a coercive state to do this indoctrination and conditioning.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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