Golden mean (philosophy)

Golden mean (philosophy)

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In philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

, especially that of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example courage
Courage
Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation...

, a virtue, if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness
Recklessness (psychology)
Recklessness is disregard for or indifference to the dangers of a situation or for the consequences of one's actions....

 and if deficient as cowardice
Cowardice
Cowardice is the perceived failure to demonstrate sufficient mental robustness and courage in the face of a challenge. Under many military codes of justice, cowardice in the face of combat is a crime punishable by death...

.

To the Greek mentality, it was an attribute of beauty. Both ancients and moderns realized that there is a close association in mathematics between beauty
Beauty
Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction. Beauty is studied as part of aesthetics, sociology, social psychology, and culture...

 and truth
Truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

. The poet John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ode on a Grecian Urn
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819 and published in January 1820 . It is one of his "Great Odes of 1819", which include "Ode on Indolence", "Ode on Melancholy", "Ode to a Nightingale", and "Ode to Psyche"...

, put it this way:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


The Greeks believed there to be three 'ingredients' to beauty: symmetry, proportion, and harmony. This triad of principles infused their life. They were very much attuned to beauty as an object of love and something that was to be imitated and reproduced in their lives, architecture, education (Paideia
Paideia
In ancient Greek, the word n. paedeia or paideia [ to educate + - -IA suffix1] means child-rearing, education. It was a system of instruction in Classical Athens in which students were given a well-rounded cultural education. Subjects included rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, music, philosophy,...

) and politics. They judged life by this mentality.

In Chinese philosophy, a similar concept, Doctrine of the Mean
Doctrine of the Mean
The Doctrine of the Mean , is both a concept and one of the books of Confucian teachings. The composition of the text is attributed to Zisi the only grandson of Confucius, and it came from a chapter in the Classic of Rites...

, was propounded by Confucius
Confucius
Confucius , literally "Master Kong", was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period....

; Buddhist philosophy also includes the concept of the middle way
Middle way
The Middle Way or Middle Path is the descriptive term that Siddhartha Gautama used to describe the character of the path he discovered that led to liberation. It was coined in the very first teaching that he delivered after his enlightenment...

.

Crete


The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan
Crete
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the thirteen administrative regions of Greece. It forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece while retaining its own local cultural traits...

 tale of Daedalus
Daedalus
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a skillful craftsman and artisan.-Family:...

 and Icarus
Icarus (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus. The main story told about Icarus is his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax...

. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos
Minos
In Greek mythology, Minos was a king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa. Every year he made King Aegeus pick seven men and seven women to go to Daedalus' creation, the labyrinth, to be eaten by The Minotaur. After his death, Minos became a judge of the dead in Hades. The Minoan civilization of Crete...

. Daedalus warns his son to "fly the middle course", between the sea spray and the sun's heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings.

Delphi


Another early elaboration is the Doric
Doric Greek
Doric or Dorian was a dialect of ancient Greek. Its variants were spoken in the southern and eastern Peloponnese, Crete, Rhodes, some islands in the southern Aegean Sea, some cities on the coasts of Asia Minor, Southern Italy, Sicily, Epirus and Macedon. Together with Northwest Greek, it forms the...

 saying carved on the front of the temple at Delphi
Delphi
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...

: "Nothing in Excess".

Pythagoreans


The first work on the golden mean is sometimes attributed to Theano
Theano (mathematician)
Theano is the name given to perhaps two Pythagorean philosophers. She has been called the pupil, daughter and wife of Pythagoras, although others made her the wife of Brontinus...

, wife of Pythagoras.

Socrates


Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 teaches that a man "must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible".

In education, Socrates asks us to consider the effect of either an exclusive devotion to gymnastics or an exclusive devotion to music. It either "produced a temper of hardness and ferocity, (or) the other of softness and effeminacy
Classical definition of effeminacy
Malakia was a particular type of cowardice, associated with effeminacy in men, that was widely condemned in ancient Greek society. To the ancient Greek, bravery was such an essential character trait of manliness that its absence was associated with femininity...

". Having both qualities, he believed, produces harmony; i.e., beauty and goodness. He additionally stresses the importance of mathematics in education for the understanding of beauty and truth.

Plato


Proportion's relation to beauty and goodness is stressed throughout Plato's dialogues, particularly in the Republic
Republic (Plato)
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC concerning the definition of justice and the order and character of the just city-state and the just man...

 and Philebus
Philebus
The Philebus , composed between 360 and 347 BC, is among the last of the late Socratic dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Socrates is the primary speaker in Philebus, unlike in the other late dialogues...

. He writes:

SOCRATES: That any kind of mixture that does not in some way or other possess measure of the nature of proportion will necessarily corrupt its ingredients and most of all itself. For there would be no blending in such a case at all but really an unconnected medley, the ruin of whatever happens to be contained in it.


PROTARCHUS: Very true.


SOCRATES: But now we notice that the force of the good has taken up refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful. For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue.


PROTARCUS: Undeniably.


SOCRATES: But we said that truth is also inclined along with them in our mixture?


PROTARCHUS: Indeed.


SOCRATES: Well, then, if we cannot capture the good in one form, we will have to take hold of it in a conjunction of three: beauty, proportion and truth. Let us affirm that these should by right be treated as a unity and be held responsible for what is in the mixture, for goodness is what makes the mixture good in itself.


(Phlb. 64d-65a)


In the Laws
Laws (dialogue)
The Laws is Plato's last and longest dialogue. The question asked at the beginning is not "What is law?" as one would expect. That is the question of the Minos...

, Plato applies this principle to electing a government in the ideal state: "Conducted in this way, the election will strike a mean between monarchy and democracy …"

Aristotle


In the Eudemian Ethics
Eudemian Ethics
The Eudemian Ethics is a work of philosophy by Aristotle. Its primary focus is on Ethics, making it one of the primary sources available for study of Aristotelian Ethics. It is named for Eudemus of Rhodes, a pupil of Aristotle who may also have had a hand in editing the final work...

, Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 writes on the virtues. Aristotle’s theory on virtue ethics is one that does not see a person’s actions as a reflection of their ethics but rather looks into the character of a person as the reason behind their ethics. His constant phrase is, "… is the Middle state between …". His psychology of the soul and its virtues is based on the golden mean between the extremes. In the Politics, Aristotle criticizes the Spartan Polity by critiquing the disproportionate elements of the constitution; e.g., they trained the men and not the women, and they trained for war but not peace. This disharmony produced difficulties which he elaborates on in his work. See also the discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics of the golden mean, and Aristotelian ethics
Aristotelian ethics
Ethics as a subject begins with the works of Aristotle. In its original form, this subject is concerned with the question of virtue of character , or in other words having excellent and well-chosen habits. The acquisition of an excellent character is in turn aimed at living well and eudaimonia, a...

 in general.

Ancient history


Gautama Buddha
Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit: सिद्धार्थ गौतम; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from the Indian...

 taught Middle Way (6th century BC), sharing the supremely important notion that the main purpose of our existence is to lead a good life.

Confucius
Confucius
Confucius , literally "Master Kong", was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period....

 in The Analects, written through the Warring States Period
Warring States Period
The Warring States Period , also known as the Era of Warring States, or the Warring Kingdoms period, covers the Iron Age period from about 475 BC to the reunification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC...

 of Ancient China (ca. 479 BCE - 221 BCE), taught excess is similar to deficiency. A way of living in the mean is the way of Zhongyong
Doctrine of the Mean
The Doctrine of the Mean , is both a concept and one of the books of Confucian teachings. The composition of the text is attributed to Zisi the only grandson of Confucius, and it came from a chapter in the Classic of Rites...

.

Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE during the Warring States Period, a period corresponding to the philosophical summit of Chinese thought — the Hundred Schools of Thought, and is credited with writing—in part or in whole—a work known by his name,...

 was the Tao
Tao
Dao or Tao is a Chinese word meaning 'way', 'path', 'route', or sometimes more loosely, 'doctrine' or 'principle'...

's most famous commentator (369?-286? BC).

Christianity


Some Christian traditions see moral virtue (as opposed to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity) as observing the rational mean. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic Philosopher, in his Summa Theologica, Question 64 of the Prima Secundæ Partis, argues that Christian morality is consistent with the mean. He observes: "evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it;...Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean."

New ideas


Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher. Raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 1906. An author of more than 60 books, he helped to revive St. Thomas Aquinas for modern times and is a prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...

, throughout his Introduction to Philosophy (1930), uses the idea of the golden mean to place Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy between the deficiencies and extremes of other philosophers and systems.

Quotations

  • "In many things the middle have the best / Be mine a middle station."
    Phocylides
    Phocylides
    Phocylides , Greek gnomic poet of Miletus, contemporary of Theognis of Megara, was born about 560 BC.A few fragments of his "maxims" have survived , in which he expresses his contempt for the pomps and vanities of rank and wealth, and sets forth in simple language his ideas of honour, justice and...


  • "When Coleridge
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

     tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought; beauty, he said, is unity in variety! Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature,—or, more exactly, in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase, for unity in variety."
    — J. Bronowski

  • "…but for harmony beautiful to contemplate, science would not be worth following."
    Henri Poincaré
    Henri Poincaré
    Jules Henri Poincaré was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science...

    .

  • "If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes..., he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way. The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."
    Maimonides
    Maimonides
    Moses ben-Maimon, called Maimonides and also known as Mūsā ibn Maymūn in Arabic, or Rambam , was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages...


See also

  • Argument to moderation (logical fallacy)
  • The Doctrine of the Mean
    Doctrine of the Mean
    The Doctrine of the Mean , is both a concept and one of the books of Confucian teachings. The composition of the text is attributed to Zisi the only grandson of Confucius, and it came from a chapter in the Classic of Rites...

     (Confucian analog)
  • The Middle Way
    Middle way
    The Middle Way or Middle Path is the descriptive term that Siddhartha Gautama used to describe the character of the path he discovered that led to liberation. It was coined in the very first teaching that he delivered after his enlightenment...

    (Buddhist analog)