Friday, January 20, 2012

What About That Mean?

Every virtue, says Aristotle, brings things into good condition.  Therefore virtue is also "the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well."

Does that mean that the harder you work at virtue, the better?  Not exactly, for virtue is not found in extremes, writes Aristotle, but at the mean between two extremes.  It is "an intermediate between excess and defect."   Thus the great Aristotelian notion of the mean.

But the mean is not a rigid thing, half way between the extremes of excess and defect.  If "ten pounds is too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds."  The mean is an individual thing for each person.

Thus, the mean for Milo the excellent wrestler in the eating department would not the the same as for "the beginner in athletic exercises".  Obviously, Milo would need to eat a lot more than you or me. He's a wrestler in training. Therefore the appropriate mean for him is a lot more than for the beginner.  Today, we would say that it is one thing for a Tour de France competitor to consume 5,000 calories per day, but quite another thing for a couch potato.

The point is that "the master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate," the mean between the extremes. But the mean for each virtue is not the same for everyone; the mean is the intermediate that leads to virtue in each of us.  It is a "mean relative to us" according to a rational principle as a "man of practical wisdom" would determine.

Vice, of course, is different. There is no mean there for Aristotle. It is just bad. There is no such thing as "adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way". Of course that says nothing about adultery with a slave.

With the virtue of honor, according to Aristotle, the mean is "proper pride"; the excess being "empty vanity" and the defect "undue humility."  Aristotle understands honor here as aristocratic pride.  But in Honor: A History, the modern James Bowman defines honor rather differently.  It is the reputation that a hoplite infantryman would have for staying in line, or a GI for supporting the buddies in his unit.  It has nothing to do with aristocratic pride, but is rather the reputation for courage under fire.

Indeed aristocratic pride, so ubiquitous in The Iliad, is a corruption of honor.  It is the insistence that an aristocrat be treated as though he were courageous and unflinching in combat, whether or not he is.

You could call aristocratic honor a vice.

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