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In philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the ‘golden mean’ is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example, in the Aristotelian view, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and if deficient as cowardice.
To the Greek mentality, it was an attribute of beauty. Both ancients and moderns believed that there is a close association in mathematics between beauty and truth. The poet John Keats, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, 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. Beauty was an object of love and something that was to be imitated and reproduced in their lives, architecture, education (paideia), and politics. They judged life by this mentality.
The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus. 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. Daedalus warns his beloved son who he loved so much 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. For not heeding the middle course, he fell into the sea and drowned.
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.” 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.
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.
SOCRATES: But we said that truth is also inclined along with them in our mixture?
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.
In the Laws, 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 …”
In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle 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 in general.
Confucius in The Analects, written through the Warring States period of Ancient China (c. 479 BCE – 221 BCE), taught excess is similar to deficiency. A way of living in the mean is the way of Zhongyong.
Tiruvalluvar (2nd century BC and the 8th century AD; date disputed) in his Tirukkural of the Sangam period of Tamizhagam writes of the middle state which is to preserve equity. He emphasises this principle and suggests that the two ways of preserving equity is to be impartial and avoid excess. Parimelazhagar was the historical commentator of the Tirukkural.
Thomas Aquinas, the 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.”
Islam promotes the golden mean in many instances. The Quran states an example in finance, in that a person should not spend all he makes as not to be caught needing, and not to be stingy as to not live a comfortable life. Muhammad also had a saying “خير الأمور الوسط” meaning the best choice is the middle ground/golden mean one.
Jacques Maritain, 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.
- “In many things the middle have the best / Be mine a middle station.”
- “When Coleridge 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.”
— Jacob Bronowski
- “…but for harmony beautiful to contemplate, science would not be worth following.”
— Henri Poincaré.
- “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.”
- “What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.”