Nkwenti asked:

Using bravery as an example, explain Aristotle’s idea that each virtue is a mean between two extremes.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Aristotle said, the proper way for man to behave in the moral sphere is in accordance with the mean. E.g. in order to be happy, you must be courageous, liberal, proud, witty, modest, and so on. But all of these virtues, are virtues of moderation: courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness; liberality between prodigality and frugality; pride between vanity and humility, and so forth.

But the means will vary from man to man. For example, he gives the example of eating and points out that starving and over-eating are obviously no good. But an athlete who needs to burn a lot of fuel must eat much more than you. So his mean is your over eating. This is like a pendulum, which swings from very bad to very good, and Aristotle thinks that people can find the Good somewhere close to the middle.

Aristotle says that moral behavior requires moral understanding and all men can hope to achieve this, since what is involved is not a purely intellectual appreciation of absolute moral truths but the kind of practical wisdom and awareness of the need for moderation that I have just described. We must therefore receive a sound training in good habits when we are young , so that when we come to understand what the golden mean is for us we will also have the self-control to follow it.

Aristotle explains his meaning of the Mean in reference to how we live in our daily life. Such as health, exercise, food etc. ‘It is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess’. He then applies this lesson to ‘temperance, courage and the other virtues … which are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.’

What Aristotle is saying is that good and beneficial social habits are acquired in the process of interacting with others–by up-bringing, imitation of role models and by observing the social customs in society.

We learn virtue by doing virtuous acts, just as we learn bravery by doing brave acts etc. And since the same applies to desires and feelings, it is imperative to learn all this when young.

In fact Aristotle recommends that young people should be taught to observe constantly what they are doing, while keeping to the middle of the road in all their behaviours. So that by the time they are grown up, virtuous behaviour will be second nature to them. Aristotle is quite prepared for the criticism that habits are behaviours of which we are not conscious. But he insists that it is better to keep to the mean by habit than to indulge in excesses in full consciousness.

Indeed the word ‘Ethics’ has exactly this meaning. It denotes good social habits. If every citizens develops good habits then society will benefit. Then there is a good chance that the state will be an ethical society.