A sale by auction of goods taken in distress for assessed taxes was announced
to take place at Ashton Tavern on
at Birmingham. From forty to fifty persons attended, including some brokers,
but no one could be found except the poor woman from whose husband the goods
had been seized, and the auctioneer himself. A man came when the sale was
nearly over, who was perfectly ignorant of the circumstances under which it
took place, and bid for one of the last lots; he soon received an intimation,
however, from the company that he had better desist, which be accordingly
did. After the sale was over nearly the whole of the persons present
surrounded this man, and lectured him severely upon his conduct, and it was
only by his solemnly declaring to them that he had bid in perfect ignorance
of the nature of the sale that he was suffered to escape without some more
substantial proof of their displeasure.
It’s hard for me to tell from this brief report, but this was possibly part
of the tax resistance campaigns conducted by
in England in the 1820s and 1830s.
In the sixth
section of the second book of The Nicomachean
Ethics, Aristotle reminds his audience that virtues occupy a
“just-enough” sweet spot between the vices of excess & deficit, and that
in the same way that there’s only one place to hit the bullseye and many
places to miss it, virtues are small and contained while vices are vast and
easy to come by.
You may remember that a while back I
expressed some doubts about Aristotle’s Goldilocksian theory of virtue,
suggesting that it was too dependent on accidents of language and not very
informative. In this section, Aristotle answers the criticism by
acknowledging that some things we call vices are wrong in any amount (there
is no improper deficit of the vice, or some ideal amount of the vice to have)
and some things we call virtues are perfections (you can’t have too much of
He says that this is because our words for those vices are actually shorthand
words for an excess or deficit of some trait — so for instance, “cowardice”
is a vice, but it’s really shorthand for “a deficit of bravery” — and our
words for those virtues are shorthand words for the golden mean itself — so
for instance, you can’t be too “temperate” because the word itself defines
someone who has found the mean between self-indulgence and asceticism.
You shouldn’t expect to find extremes of something which is implicitly a mean,
nor a mean of something which is an extreme by definition.
This goes some way toward answering my objection, but I’m still not convinced.
I can’t answer my original questions (“Can you be too healthy? too beautiful?
too wise?”) using this logic without really stretching the concepts to the
breaking point. Is “healthy” implicitly a mean between an invalid and, uh,
a muscle-bound showpiece? Is “wise” really a mean between stupid and, uh,
overintellectual? Is “beautiful” really a mean between ugly and, uh,
saccharine-pretty? It seems more intuitive and less of a stretch just to
think of those terms as representing extremes on dimensions in which there
is no vice in aiming for the extreme, contra Aristotle’s rule.
seven, Aristotle gives some examples of how his “just-enough” rule
applies to a variety of specific virtues. In some of these cases, one of
the extremes is rare enough that there isn’t a word for it and it’s a little
difficult to imagine. Some of his examples seem to be real stretches, but
I can’t tell if this is just because of inevitable inexactitudes of
translation. In any case, I get what he’s aiming at and wonder why he’s
going on at such length about it.