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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle’s Ethics: On the Doctrine of the Mean and the Transition to Politics

For Aristotle, the end and purpose of being human is the life of reason. But reason (and its life) has two different parts, theoretical reason and practical reason. Aristotle’s division here is between two faculties of reason (two aptitudes or powers of reason). One of these is directed at simply understanding the world in its essential structure and order; the other desires and acts in accordance with the understanding. Aristotle thinks of them as two separate faculties.

This distinction has important consequences for both Aristotle’s ethics and his political theory. It means you no longer have to be a paragon of highly abstract intellectual achievement in order to be able to direct the course of your life and participate in the direction of the life of your community with a respectable degree of wisdom. This distinction allows him:

A/ to significantly reduce the  gap between knowledge and practice that plagues Plato’s theory. For Plato, virtuous action depends in the final analysis on an absolute knowledge of an other world of forms. Possession of this knowledge is at least very rare among humans and moreover is possibly undemonstrable. Those who do not have it cannot be easily persuaded by those who do that this knowledge is in their possession. For Plato, anything less than this knowledge is suspect. For Aristotle, practical wisdom (his term for it was phronesis) even though it was not exact and demonstrable like mathematics, is still valid knowledge. It is also much more widely accessible (although Aristotle still thinks it isn’t within the reach of the “lower’ orders of society, as we’ll see when we look at his Politics). You don’t need to be a philosopher anymore to be steadily capable of good and fine actions. Political virtue becomes a sphere of valid knowledge more or less different from absolute knowledge, and it is open to many more people.

B/ At the same time, you will remember, Plato’s philosopher found himself compelled to return to the cave, i.e. compelled to take on a political task, whether you interpret that task as trying to impose his rule or engage in a process – dangerous and possibly futile – of enlightening his fellows. Aristotle’s theoretical wisdom threatens to become as separate from the world of politics and human relations as the unmoved mover is from the rest of the universe.

Because of this distinction Aristotle will divide the virtues into two groups: the first are the virtues of character (which takes up most of the discussion in books 1-5 and 7-9 of the Nichomachean Ethics); the second are the virtues of intellect (discussed in books 6 and 10). The most famous and characteristic doctrine of Aristotle in the realm of ethics is his doctrine of  “the mean” (no, not in the sense of nasty, but having the sense of a position equally far from two extremes). It is probably also the most important for our purpose of relating his political theory to that of Plato.

The doctrine of the mean refers to a rule, a practical guide intended to keep the mind aware of the relevant or important factors to be considered in any action. Now, what will be immediately apparent in Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is that this is not a new departure; it is not a radically new conception of how people should live, or what the good life or happiness consists in. What Aristotle has done is to have taken up the very old and traditional Greek notion of “moderation” (sophrosyne) which was one of the four cardinal virtues examined by Plato in the Republic, re-interpret it and insert it in his own system. In Aristotle’s system, moderation acquires (or seems to) foundations and defenses it had lost both as a result of the decay of the religious/traditionalist framework and as result of the Platonic dilemma, where everything is wagered on the possibility of absolute knowledge.

If happiness is “an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle”, then the doctrine of the mean is intended as a guide or definition of how to exercise practical reason. The aim is to bring a wide range of various activities to the point where they can all express virtue in the soul. So Aristotle takes various activities that are essential to social life –  for example:

  1. facing mortal danger
  2. the exercise or satisfaction of bodily needs
  3. giving gifts
  4. giving on a large scale
  5. claiming honour or esteem from others

and he tries to show that each of these activities is practiced virtuously only when it is done so as a mean between excess and deficiency.

So take the example of courage in facing death. Courage is to be found somewhere between the deficiency of too much fear (or fear of the wrong thing) and the excess of too little fear. Too much fear is cowardice; too little fear is foolhardiness.

Aristotle has similar examinations of a wide range of virtues, summarized in the table below:

Desires profligacy temperance ------- (being insensate?)
Giving prodigality liberality  stinginess
Large scale Giving vulgarity magnificence meanness
Claiming Respect vanity  self-respect humility

So – knowledge enters into virtue and happiness here, but in a quite modest way. It is not theoretical knowledge; you don’t need to know the whole structure of the world of forms in order to have these virtues. But knowledge is still necessary. In order to be happy, in order to exercise the peculiarly human function and thus live well, in the sense of doing a good job of it, you must know how to distinguish too much from too little and you must know how to recognize the correct motivation.

The civic virtues, those virtues demanded of the citizen living the life of a member of a polis, are thereby redeemed by Aristotle. They are not made dependent on possession of some special and esoteric knowledge that requires a lifetime of rigorous and systematic training . They are obviously within the reach of the non-philosophical run of humankind – although as we will see, Aristotle thinks that practical wisdom and therefore civic virtue tends to locate itself very strongly in certain social classes and in one sex.

Because virtue is here detached from theoretical wisdom, training in the virtues becomes very important, just as it was for Plato. And that means a lot of imitation of models and a lot of hands-on experience in the public affairs of the city. Aristotle does not expect that the good life is something to be rediscovered anew by each and every individual. What is necessary for the development of practical wisdom is that individuals be brought up to incorporate virtuous habits. Pleasure and pain – which Aristotle has gone to some lengths to prove are not the criteria of happiness therefore find their place in ethics as instruments of ethical training.

I keep coming back to this word “training” versus, say, education, because here is one area in which Plato, I think, in spite of his emphasis on abstraction and absolute knowledge, offered something overlooked by Aristotle. For Plato, education involves drawing the individual away from the everyday world of opinion and habit. Education involved a shattering of the comfortable frameworks that confirm people in “going along to get along” and for him meant a difficult if not painful journey of enlightenment. When this enlightenment is achieved – if it is achieved – it would involve a permanent liberation of the individual soul from what are merely or simply habitual and traditional guidelines. Nothing of that sort is evident in Aristotle. We know of no Aristotelian treatise on education. And perhaps it is something that Aristotle never had to experience himself, having before him the framework of the Platonic philosophy which he could simply set out to revise.

One might then ask, from either a Platonic or a modern point of view, how genuine or authentic is this flourishing if it is largely, if not exclusively, the product of training and habituation?  One need not be Platonic or modern, but simply think of the rites of passage which in many earlier societies aim at reproducing in magical or mythical form this moment of being cast loose from society and its conventions before being able to take one’s place as an adult.

So – the doctrine of the mean in its application to the virtues of character, as a key method of the development and inculcation of practical wisdom is a notion that is at once relatively “democratic” compared to Plato’s ethic. But it is also much more traditionalist. It is more democratic in that here participation in public affairs in not made to depend on expert or esoteric knowledge. It is more traditionalist in that it must rely on tradition, training and habituation rather than self-discovery as the primary means of producing individuals capable of and motivated for exercising the civic virtues.

A few more observations on the doctrine of the mean before we move on to Aristotle’s Politics.

  1. the doctrine of the mean is not intended as a recommendation of mediocrity or of playing it safe. Aristotle is not saying that the good act is the “average”  one or  what anyone can accomplish. Nor is Aristotle making an abstract virtue out of compromise. He is not saying that compromise is always the best course.
  2. the doctrine of the mean is an attempt to bridge the gap between Plato and the Sophists on the relation between human nature and knowledge. Plato in a sense repudiates “human nature” (the life of the body, the senses and action) which is not redeemed by the absolute knowledge he is seeking. The Sophists elevated “actual” human nature (what Plato thought of as lower) into the standard of what ought to be…
  3. For Plato, who held that separate forms existed, ethical values and principles had to be one thing and one thing only, for all time. Aristotle, on the other hand, because he believed the forms to be inseparable from the particulars in which they were embedded, could take a less extreme position. Where Plato held there was only one right thing to do and only one good to be realized; and where the Sophists held that there was no objectively right act or good, but only a good relative to me – Aristotle, against both, is able to uphold an objective good that is relatively realizable and is different under different conditions. For Aristotle, to admit that virtue or the good varies under different circumstances, is not necessarily to surrender to the Sophists.
  4. Why is that? First, the good is only knowable through perception (there is no eternal form of the good separate from the acts in which we perceive goodness). Thus the good is knowable, but it is not easily known, or known by a spontaneous, merely subjective intuition. Even though it can vary from situation to situation, there is enough in common among the various acts of goodness that we can say something objective about it; it is not merely a private opinion. Second, the good as a knowable form embedded in particulars, is something already moving from potentiality to actuality. We only know, for example, the form of an oak, by observing how its form is realized (more or less) in many oaks in their course of development from acorns. By doing this we can abstract the ideal form of what an oak ought to be. But we can never find it completely realized in individual oaks, all of which embody it to a lesser or greater extent. In the same way for Aristotle, human goodness can be studied and known through a variety of circumstances and cultures. The good act will therefore vary, though always embody an objective though very general goodness. Since virtue is therefore variable (even though objective) we can say little about its details that will hold true for all times and places other than that it lies between extremes of excess and deficiency – a necessary, but not sufficient universal criterion.

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