The “golden mean” theory suggests that virtues lie at a mid-point on a continuum between two contrasting vices. For example, courage is the virtuous golden mean of response to fear, with overreaction to fear being the vice of cowardice and insensibility to fear being the vice of rashness. This theory was a foundation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and has also cropped up elsewhere.
How do you find the golden mean? According to Aristotle, this is not something that can be arrived at by applying an abstract principle arrived at theoretically. Instead, the golden mean can be perceived by someone who has, through practice, become fluent at the virtue in question (Nicomachean Ethics 1109b22-23) or who has developed a variety of practical wisdom (phrónēsis) that includes a specialization in virtuous action. So the best way to find the golden mean is by trial and error and by emulating those who already demonstrate fluency in the virtue.
Quotes of Note¶
- “Courtesy uncontrolled by the laws of good taste becomes laboured effort, caution uncontrolled becomes timidity, boldness uncontrolled becomes recklessness, and frankless uncontrolled becomes effrontery.” (Analects of Confucius, VIII.II.1)
- “Tzŭ Kung asked which was the better, Shih or Shang? The Master replied: ‘Shih exceeds, Shang comes short.’ ‘So then,’ queried he, ‘Shih surpasses Shang, eh?’ ‘To go beyond the mark,’ replied the Master, ‘is as bad as to come short of it.’” (Analects of Confucius, XI.XV)