The Golden Mean

Snail by Diddsph

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and most of his contemporaries used this phrase to speak of the end goal of humanity: a life well-lived. To successfully live life, they argued, one had to rationally apply virtuous principles to moral dilemmas. One of the principles used by Aristotle was that of the Golden Mean. It was virtuous to use the Golden Mean and avoid ‘extremes’ in life. Things that were virtuous were seen as habits that led to flourishing and vices were behaviours that led to excess or deficiency. The Golden  Mean was meant to encourage the development of virtuous habits in the place between excess and deficiency. As an example, let’s say I am a very conversational chap. To be virtuous, according to  Aristotle, I must develop the habit of conversation somewhere between too much conversation and too little conversation. In short, try to be witty, not a buffoon or a bore. This principle of the Golden Mean encapsulates the thought of the ancient Greeks who held that the ideal and virtuous way to live was in moderation. 

Now, this brings up a very important question: Why is the middle the virtuous place to be? While  Aristotle did not see the extremes of excess and deficiency as evil, he didn’t think that they were beneficial to a virtuous life. Can we agree with him? Some would say that this middle ground is the  ‘sensible’ place to be. It is safe and prudent to be in the middle. Stability and continuity are most often found in the average. Be normal. Others would point out that any sort of mean, golden or otherwise, is only a place of compromise. To them, the middle ground is a wish-washy wasteland of ideological dilution where you will only find perpetual placation of principled purity. The more astute among us will use the Golden Mean as a tool, arguing that the ‘truth’ of any situation, cultural, political, economic, or otherwise, is found somewhere in the middle. The argument to moderation is used effectively by some to seem wise and thoughtful, often being used to move thought in a particular direction without having to show one’s own position. This ‘third way’ often prevails even when pointed out as a fallacy ad temperantium, where the quality of any compromise has nothing to do with the veracity of the claims presented. I think we would be wise to avoid these discussions altogether and consider the principle of the Golden Mean in a new light.

As I stated above, Aristotle did not consider the ‘extremes’ to be evil in and of themselves, but he did not consider them to be of a particular value either. When discussing virtuous living, the middle was the place where one should form one’s habits. However, there needs to be a uniform acceptance of every part that makes up the Golden Mean. The extremes are not to be shunned nor is the middle to be highly praised. Conversely, the middle is not to be dismissed and the extremes held up in their gravitas. We need them both, plus everything in between. Mathematically, a mean is simply an average and you can’t have an average unless you involve all the numbers. The Golden Mean can be a tool of valuation that will help us determine the best course of action for everyone involved, by including everyone involved in that valuation. 

Let us look to the concept of homeostasis as probably the most helpful way to flesh out this new consideration of the Golden Mean. Homeostasis is defined as the self-regulating process by which an organism can maintain internal stability while adjusting to changing, external conditions. A central tenet to this physiological principle is that an organism is stable because it is modifiable. The presence of slight instabilities (extremes) is a necessary condition for the true stability (middle) of the organism. The physiological processes which keep an organism alive, function in dynamic and complex ways. They are rarely unchanging and static. Human beings, also, function in dynamic and complex ways and are rarely unchanging and static. Societies need a control theory like that of the Golden Mean that we could use for self-regulation that would lead to healthier and more virtuous classes, governments, and personal lives. The Golden Mean could be our ‘homeostasis’. This principle of valuation could be used to unify effort, thought, and will, to restore or create a civilization where everything functions as it should, providing constancy and vigour through the ever-changing times. 

Let’s consider the traditional classes of society to apply this principle and see if it can be helpful. What do we find if we examine the effort of each class: Merchant, Priest, Warrior, and Peasant?  A merchant would provide material wealth to a society, a priest, necessary intellectual truth, a warrior, needed protection and strength, and a peasant the work required to support the previous three. We can see throughout history, and even today, what happens when one of these classes rises in dominance over the other three and creates an imbalance that produces an unhealthy system. Much like a body,  when its immune system, or protection, becomes predominant it can develop into an auto-immune disorder that attacks perfectly healthy parts of its own body just because they are not part of the ill augmented system. Also, when a body predominantly consumes more material energy than it is expending, it corpulently stores the energy to the detriment of the parts of the body that do the work,  putting excess stress on the muscle and structural tissue. What needs to happen in these examples to remedy the imbalance that has occurred? In the unhealthy intake example, the mind must step in to tell the stomach to stop consuming, putting it on a strict diet, and the muscles and tendons step in to work off the excess until the body returns in fine fettle. In the auto-immune case, a more drastic measure might be needed, perhaps ingesting a substance evidentially discovered to eradicate certain parts of the immune system when they become unmanageable. I think you get the point. The idea is that each section has an essential function and when one part predominates over the others, there must be a  response by the other parts to bring it back into place, serving its rightful role of a healthy system. 

I remember reading somewhere that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” Neither can the priest say to the warrior, “Your protection is unnecessary.” Or the merchant to the priest, “Your truth is superfluous.” A Golden Mean principle of valuation requires that society finds importance in each part that plays a role in the dynamic modifications that are required in a complex civilization. Simply stated, well-being is achieved by using the excesses of each part to balance each other out. It requires a type of humility, really. An intellectual that focuses solely on a particular truth and does not recognize that there is a truth in the honour of a  warrior will fall short of a greater truth. A warrior who does not identify the honour in the work of a  peasant misses an aspect of service and sacrifice that would enhance his own. This is no mere relativism that says everyone is special in their own way. Instead, it is a recognition that each has a part to play,  some noble, some ignoble, but that each part has a value and that respecting that value is the first step to achieving a healthy civilization. 

The adoption of the Golden Mean as a prism to look through to solve the different problems before us should be encouraged. Can we find a healthy form of government by finding the correct places for power with proper checks and balances? I think so if each part is seen as valuable and given the ability to adjust and modify the other parts. Can we look at culture and art and all the means that society uses to express itself and find a balance in the excesses that uplift each part of society? When we value the expressions of the mean and the excesses to counter each other out in functional ways, we can. Can there be an overall view that society will be benefitted most when each segment is appreciated in its own way? Yes, the Golden Mean. The virtue of such an outlook will be the flourishing of all, lives well lived.

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