Philosophical Traditions: The Golden Mean


There is a fine line between too much coffee and too little. I’m pretty sure most college students know this.

On one hand, too little coffee can mean lethargy, sleepiness, or inattention. When you’re as addicted to coffee as most college students, it can even mean a headache. All of these would contribute to an overall difficult time paying attention to class and homework—it could even mean falling asleep again, which we do not want.

On the other hand, too much coffee can mean an excess of energy and restlessness in both mind and body. When I, for example, drink more than two cups of coffee on an empty stomach, my hands start to shake. This can contribute to a kind of restless energy and problems concentrating. This wouldn’t be conducive to paying attention in class, either!

This is where our old (old, old) friend Aristotle has our backs.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachaen Ethics says that, “virtue is more exact and better than any art…for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate.” Like a college student’s passion for coffee, Aristotle says, the passions (wants or urges) can be obeyed too much or too little. This is what he means by excess or defect. However, neither of these are virtuous, he says. It is neither virtuous to drink too much coffee, nor to drink too little when you need it. The passions stand on the edge of a knife, and “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.” This is what we refer to today as The Golden Mean; ‘mean’ as in the term in mathematics, the middle or average…the intermediate.

In a way, then, “it is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” To define virtue as a balancing point between excess and defect is to say that there is only one way to be virtuous and infinite ways to be caught up in vice. Aristotle admits, “men are good in but one way, but bad in many.” But where can we allow for difference between people? If everyone is different and acts differently, then it would seem that the greater part of the population of the world is not being virtuous. This is where Aristotle and the coffee example can best clarify.

This Golden Mean is not necessarily an objective thing. Just like the college student with coffee, two cups is just enough for some, but too little for others, and yet still too much for people who aren’t used to coffee. We can have end points of excess and defect—being able to drink coffee before bed is definitely an excess, but refusing it when you need it is defect—but the true Golden Mean, the balancing point, is relative to individual people. For me, two cups of coffee is just enough and perhaps a bit much. But for you, it might not be enough, or it could be far too much. I have heard that some people don’t even need coffee in the morning! “Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this- the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.”

What the Golden Mean means for us, then, is simply this: that virtue is accessible to all of us, and that it only takes a bit of discernment. Anyone can, with a bit of thought, be virtuous in everyday life. A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended.

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