Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean and the Problem of Self-Control
Aristotle’s Nicomahean Ethics is a rich text of ancient wisdom, much of which has become ingrained into today’s rhetoric in many schools of thought in the western world. It is with Aristotle’s views on Virtue that this paper is primarily concerned, more specifically with his idea that to have virtue is to display attitudes and actions to a moderate and intermediate degree. Stan Van Hooft (2008) notes that, although Aristotle’s thoughts on this matter are logically sound for the most part, that his assertion that Virtue is the Mean was not his final, conclusive stance on the issue, and that this theory “is only a part of a bigger picture of virtue that he is developing” (p9). This paper, however, is chiefly concerned with this interesting notion that Virtue is a mean state of feeling and doing. In particular the challenge of the issue of Self-Control is one that is worthy of significant focus, is it a virtue? Or is it merely one of our human faculties that we employ in order to avoid vice?
Regarding the idea that ‘virtue is the mean’ we must first distinguish the intellectual virtues from the moral virtues, as it is only the latter type of virtue to which the idea applies. Employing our rational functions appropriately will, according to Aristotle, result in the engendering of the various types of intellectual virtues: theoretical wisdom, science, intuitive understanding, practical wisdom, and craft expertise (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001, Section 6). But as the doctrine of the mean is not concerned with these kinds of virtues, we shall turn to the moral kind. Moral virtues, being concerned with the appetitive part of the soul (using Aristotle’s categorisation), involve primarily one’s feelings and desires, and subsequently actions. These feelings, desires and actions are virtuous when they are the right feelings, desires or actions and occur in the right moments for the right reasons, towards the right people (Thomson, 1953: 41, or Book II, vi, 1106b 20-25). When Aristotle talks about the virtue being the mean, he is saying, in
order for all of these circumstances to be ‘right’, that they must be felt, desired, or acted upon to an intermediate degree; that is, an appropriate and temperate degree for the particular situation.
He differentiates the mean for moral virtues from the mathematical mean, which is concerned with finding the exact middle or average quantity. The mean, as Aristotle defines it in relation to virtue, is something which is changeable, and which is relative to each of us in our specific circumstance or condition (Book II, iv, 1106a 30-35). For instance, it might be appropriate to act with a healthy degree of fear when faced with a venomous creature, but not so when confronted with a harmless creature, such as a rabbit. To react with the same degree of fear or caution to both would either be an excess on one account, or a deficiency on the other. In this sense, in responding to the stimuli, and to respond to an intermediate degree, one should respond to a degree somewhere between the excess and deficiency of fear.
Therefore, to act virtuously is to avoid such extremes. But this ‘avoidance’ is not something one would consciously stop to think about in situations calling for some kind of virtue. When faced with a situation that gives rise to fear it is not, one would think, the common human practice to pause to reflect on the appropriate virtuous action to take. It seems that Aristotle promotes the Moral Virtuous Mean as being something one is disposed to do or feel . In the case of fear, there is some element of instinct which is engaged (the physiological ‘fight or flight’ function), but Aristotle maintains that we either have these virtuous faculties (acquired by habit) or we do not (Van Hooft, 2008, Topic 2 Discussion, Section 8). In this instance the ‘fight...
References: Kraut, R, 2001 (rev. 2007), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/
Thomson, JAK, (trans) 1953, Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, The Penguin Group: London
Urmson, JO, 1980, ‘Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean’ in by S Van Hooft, Morals & Modernity Volume 1: Aristotle’s Ethics, Study Guide and Readings, Deakin University, Geelong: Victoria
Van Hooft, S, 2008, Morals & Modernity Volume 1: Aristotle’s Ethics, Study Guide and Readings, ‘Topic 2: Virtue’ & ‘Topic 3: Free Will and Responsibility’, Deakin University, Geelong: Victoria.
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