Sunday, June 13, 2010

The doctrine of the mean

Aristotle next points out that skills are destroyed by excess or deficiency. As analogies, Aristotle cites nutrition and strength. Take nutrition. Too much food and wine is bad for you, but so is too little. You need just the right amount. Doctors tell us it's helpful for our hearts if we have a glass of wine each day, but of course no wine will give you no benefits, and too much wine may kill you.

Now take strength. Too much exercise destroys your strength, and too little doesn't give you enough strength. (Over zealous body-builders can become so bulky that they can only move in very awkward ways, whereas wraith-like weaklings can barely lift a finger.)

This is how it is for the emotional skills that lead to a successful life. Consider, says Aristotle, courage. If we jump right into every sign of danger, we're rash. If we run like screaming rabbits from every sign of danger, we're cowards. But when we take the middle ground --- i.e., when we stand up to the dangers we should stand up to and flee from the dangers we should flee from (and let's pretend that this does not involve any circular reasoning) --- that's courage.

Similarly, consider moderation (or 'temperance', as some translations put it). We can over-indulge in pleasures, but we can also abstain totally. As Aristotle sees it, the middle ground is best. Running headlong (or perhaps handlong) into every pleasure is hedonist, and running from every pleasure is austerity. Taking your pleasures with moderation is the best way to go.

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