The Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle's Politics

Topics: Nicomachean Ethics, Virtue, Social class Pages: 6 (2178 words) Published: April 27, 2005
The Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle's Politics.
Examining the texts of Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" and "Politics" side by side, one is bound to find parallels between his reasoning with regard to the individual and to the state. In "Nicomachean Ethics" Aristotle discusses happiness, virtue, and the good life on an individual level and lays out necessary provisions for the good life of a person. He maintains that virtue is a necessary element of happiness: a man will be happy if he has virtues of justice, courage, and temperance, each constituting a balance between the extremes. But this requirement of virtue for the happy life goes beyond the individual level, as we see it in "Politics". There, Aristotle claims that man is by nature a "political animal" , and for that reason he can only achieve the above-mentioned virtues as part of a state. And since the city is formed by many individuals, the virtue of the state is constituted by the individual virtues of its citizens. It is therefore clear that fulfillment of requirements for the happy life of an individual, namely being virtuous and self-sufficient, is equally necessary for the state as a whole in order to be happy. We thus see that the virtue of a state is directly linked to the virtue of an individual, and that therefore the means of achieving the former will run parallel with those of the latter.

At this point, one might want to examine closer what Aristotle denotes by virtue, by what means it can be obtained, and what the effects of virtuousness are on something that possesses it. Aristotle identifies virtue as "a state that decides…the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason… It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency." The key concept in this definition is the mean relative to us, by which Aristotle understands the intermediate between something that is equidistant from each extremity . As he puts it, in everything continuous and divisible we can take either too much of something, too little, or some intermediate that is between the excess and deficiency. Moreover, the mean relative to us is not merely a mathematical intermediate halfway between the two extremes. For if, Aristotle explains, "ten pounds is a lot for someone o eat, and two pounds a little, I does not follow that the trainer will prescribe six, since this might also be either a little or a lot for the person who is to take it…" . Therefore, the mean relative to us "is not one, and is not the same for everyone".

With respect to this, Aristotle states that virtue seeks the mean relative to us, and this is how "each science produces its product well": "by focusing on what is intermediate and making the product conform to that." A well-made product will be that to which nothing can be added or taken away without making it worse, since it assumes that "excess or deficiency ruins a good result, while the mean preserves it." And just like good craftsmen focus on an intermediate when they produce a product, one should aim at intermediate in regard to virtue.

Thus we see that virtue is to be achieved by concentrating on the optimal mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess. But the discussion of virtue would be incomplete if one did not investigate its role with respect to the object possessing virtue and its effect on that object. Since Aristotle defines virtue as a state that decides the optimal mean relative to us, he asserts that "every virtue causes its possessors to be in a good state and to perform their functions well; the virtue of eyes, e.g., makes the eyes and their functioning excellent, because it makes us see well" , and this is argued to be true in the case of all objects. At this point, the role of virtue with respect to the object is apparent: something will be functioning at the best level only if it reaches an intermediate at which there is neither deficiency nor excess of the qualities that constitute the object. This...
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