Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Doctrine of the Mean Again

For anything that comes in degrees, there is too much, too little, and somewhere in the middle. If we consider just the spectrum or range of options itself, we can usually identify the exact middle. For instance, 6 is exactly between 2 and 10. However, if we consider what is the 'middle ground' for us, this may not be the exact middle. For instance, if I need to eat a certain number of apples each day, and 2 is too few and 10 is too many, the right amount may not always be 6 apples. It might be 4.5 on one day, or 7 on another. It really depends on the situation and just how much I might need at that time.

Choosing the middle ground is thus something of an art: knowing how much at a particular point in time. It's not a science, like choosing the exact middle in mathematics.

Crafting the perfect work of art is also like this. The perfect art work is such that we can't take away anything, but nor do we need to add anything. The artist has done just the right things, in just the right places, with just the right materials, and so on. Good artists know this. Too much or too little of something destroys quality work, while doing just the right amount preserves it. This "just the right amount", thinks Aristotle, is the standard by which we judge that a work is good. If I'm in a museum and I say, "too much red", I'm pointing to a fault in the work. But if I say, "that's a nice balance of red and blue", then I'm praising the work. Aristotle thinks this kind of "just the right amount" is what makes the work good.

Skills that help us live successfully are like this too. Good skills aim at just the right amount; not too much, not too little.

All our emotions can be felt in degrees, so we would want to learn to feel them in just the right amount, at just the right time, with just the right motive, and so on. Similarly, actions can be done in degrees as well, so again, we would want to do something to just the right degree, at just the right time, and so on.

The skills that help us live successfully are skills in this sense: when I know how to do just the right amount, at just the right time, with just the right people, with just the right motive, and so on --- then I am skilled at doing that sort of thing correctly. After all, if I do too much of it, or do too little of it, then I have failed. But if I do just the right amount, then I have succeeded. So doing things successfully takes skill. It is something of an art.

Hence, says Aristotle, these skills are aimed at the middle ground. This is Aristotle's famous "doctrine of the mean."

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