Sunday, October 13, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Thar's Gold in Them Thar Means!

What is Aristotle's Golden Mean? Does it imply that the virtuous person is an average person of average talents and intelligence?

Aristotle's Golden Mean is quite different from what most of us would assume it to be. It certainly does not mean average.To understand what he meant, there are some things you need to understand about Greek culture, things which were considered perfectly normal and obvious to Aristotle and would be automatically understood by his audience in his own time.

First, is the idea that goodness and beauty are not separate from each other. True and accurate mathematics are beautiful. A moral life well spent is beautiful.

Even today this attitude is often found among the most advanced of modern mathematical theories. The scientists who work with the hardest mathematics we know, that of quantum mechanics, often say that they are looking for a theory which is beautiful. One of the reasons they often say they dislike the standard theory of physics, which is accepted as the most accurate ever known to science, is because they find it ugly and clumsy. They are actively searching for something that is simpler and more beautiful.

This sounds silly and romantic to those of us who are not mathematicians, but it obviously makes a great deal of sense to them.

Second you must understand that Aristotle did not simply mean average when he spoke of the Golden Mean. He didn't say we should take a group of men and find out whichever one of them is the most average, and therefore that is the Golden Mean. Instead, he said we should find the Golden Mean by looking for the perfect balance between two extremes.

For example, the most extreme of men may be reckless and wild. He may have so much courage that he ignores all common sense, foolishly causing his own destruction. On the other extreme, you might have a total coward. This person is so frightened that he never accomplishes anything at all, wasting his life trembling in terror.

The Golden Mean in this case would be an individual who is profoundly brave, but not so much that he is foolish. He is aware of the risks he is taking, but not to the extent that he becomes a coward who is afraid to take a risk.

In other words, forget about the Golden Mean as an average. The Golden Mean is a perfect balance between two extremes.

You can apply this to any given set of characteristics which a man may display. Is a man so athletic that all he does is exercise until he becomes musclebound? Too extreme. Does another man refuse to exercise so that he becomes flabby, weak, and sickly? Also too extreme.

So the Golden Mean is about what is beautiful, and about maintaining a perfect balance between two extremes.

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