Sunday, July 28, 2013

Virtue and/as the Golden Mean

The more philosophy I read, the more I find virtue described as a golden mean -- or moderate position -- between two vices. Lao Tzu does so in the Tao Te Ching. Aristotle does so in the Nichmachean ethics. And Francist Bacon in his Novum Organum repeats Aristotle's views, as does Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols.

Aristotle argues that virtues are means between two vices -- extremes at either end. Cowardice (extreme caution) and rashness (extreme lack of caution) are vices, with courage being the virtuous mean. Murder (purposeful killing of a fellow human being) and refusing to even defend oneself and one's family are vices, with self-defense (or the willingness to engage in self-defense) being the virtuous mean.

Bacon argues that those who overspecialize and with their hammer treat all things as nails are one extreme, while those who are too broadly interdisciplinary but only have a shallow knowledge are another extreme, with both depth and breadth being the mean (one thinks of F.A. Hayek's observation that economists ought to be interdisciplinarians -- they should have a deep knowledge of something, in this case economics, and a broad knowledge of other things, so their economics isn't stupid). Bacon also observes that "There are found in some minds given to an extreme admiration of antiquity, others to an extreme love and appetite for novelty; but few so duly tempered that they can hold the mean, neither carping at what has been well laid down by the ancients, nor despising what is well introduced by the moderns." (I think, again, of Hayek and his advocating of evolutionary traditionalism -- or, spontaneous order.)

Nietzsche argues that the two extremes are giving in to the passions and negation of the passions. Always giving in to sex is rape, but pure negation denies a real aspect of human life and thus a rejection of life; the mean is what Nietzsche calls the spiritualization of the passions -- in the case of sex, love and marriage. One can either be a glutton or fast to death, or find the spiritualization of eating and eat enough for one's constitution and enjoy eating, to boot. With his idea of spiritualization, we see a mechanism for turning the vice of excess into the golden mean virtue.

Sadly, many who claim to have been influenced by Nietzsche have managed to fail to notice is advocacy for the mean as virtue -- even though he ended his career with this idea, above, and began his career with the argument that the highest form of art was tragedy, which was the mean of the extremes of Apollonian and Dionysian drives and art. It would not be a bad idea for us to return to the insights of Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Bacon, and Nietzsche.

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