Book 02
Chapter 06
How virtue is found in the mean, which is the right way.

So we know now that virtue is a kind of wit. Now let us look again at the good of human life and see if we cannot build up some more connections between the different points we made. We will repeat what we have already gone over, but do it in different ways in order to practice what we have learned and build up our understanding.

Let us start by asking: What makes a thing be fit and able to work? The same thing which makes us say it is good: that goodness it has in it. For instance, goodness in the eye makes the eye be in good shape and able to see. The goodness in a horse makes the horse be healthy, and good at running, and carrying the rider, and not bolting away from the enemy troops. Now, if we take this to be true generally speaking, then that means the goodness in human beings is what? Their virtues: those wits they have which put them in a fit frame of mind, able to handle life, and do their work well.

How we can come to have such wits, we already went over before when we talked about training. But let us go over it again in a different way, so we can know it better. Let us look into the nature of virtue.

Now, if we have some amount of stuff (e.g. imagine you are passed a dish with nice food in it that you are to help yourself to), and we need to take and use some of it, then it is possible that we take too much (excess), too little (deficiency), or just enough (mean). And whichever of the three we take, we also distinguish between taking (A) absolutely or (B) relatively to ourselves only.

Let me explain that last bit a little further. First, imagine that you are serving yourself from a big cauldron of soup, and there is so much that there is definitely going to be plenty left over. Everyone can take as much as they want. Here relatively just enough (the mean relative to you) is however much you think is good for you, personally. If you are really hungry then you take more. If you are not so hungry you take less. The next person takes relatively just enough for them (the mean relative to them), and it is a different amount.

OK, now imagine that we have a dessert that is cut into six slices and we have six people. Here, absolutely just enough is taking one slice only. In this way, everyone gets the same amount and everyone has enough (the absolute mean). It would not make sense there to say you take two slices because you have a big appetite, and that is absolutely just enough, while at the same time someone else who is just as hungry now has nothing. No, in that case you would have an absolute excess (even if you have a relative mean) and the person that has no slices has an absolute deficiency.

Well, in our study here, we are not really concerned with the absolute mean; we are rather about the relative mean. Here we are about framing things up so that each person can work out for themselves what is right for them, based on themselves as a person and the details of their case.

You can think of this like as if you were being trained in how to create works of art. It is often said that a work of art is finished when there is both nothing that needs to be added to it (deficiency) and also nothing to be taken out from it (excess); the work is finished when it has gotten to the mean, when it is just right. A master of an art is one who has learned how to finish a piece of work at the mean, with everything in it being just right.

Now, having virtue is even better than having art, and with virtue getting things right is an even more important thing. What are the materials virtue has to work with? They are actions and passions. What is the work we are trying to finish? We are trying to find a good course of action. And when will our work be finished? When we do not take too much or too little from our passions; when we do not put too much or too little (from our emotions) into our actions. The actions and passions, again, can be excessive or deficient or at a mean. For instance, you can feel too much confidence (overconfidence) or too little confidence (underconfidence) or the right amount of confidence (and 'aplomb', may be the right word here).

When we go too far in our actions, we fail. When we do not go far enough, we fail there as well. When we go just far enough, we succeed. Likewise, with other people, when we see them get things just right, we praise them. And what do we associate success and praise with? We associate them with virtue. So we can see again, in yet one more way, that virtue is about finding the mean course of action, and then doing things in just the right way.

And there are many ways to go that are wrong, but only one right way (for evil is a thing without limit, as the Pythagoreans say, but good is a thing settled). And so it is as easy to go wrong as it is to shoot and miss (which anyone can do), but to shoot and hit is not so easy (it takes practice), nor is it easy to do the right thing. We look before us and see that excess and defect match to vice, and the mean matches to virtue.

"For men are good in but one way, but bad in many."

Virtues, then, are a special kind of wit with which we can: (1) take things as they happen and (2) figure out what can be done about them and (3) pick out what is just the right thing to do. And by "just the right thing", we mean what is just right for that person (people are different), which that person will figure out by using their reason. We say virtue is a mean because we think of the thing that is just right as being in the middle, and on one side is the excess (too much) and on the other side is the deficiency (not enough).

How is the mean something other than a middle? Think of the top of a mountain. The top of the mountain is in the middle, like virtue is between two extremes (deficiency on the left and excess on the right). But the top of the mountain is also the highest point, and virtue is like that because it is the better (higher) than anything else which can be chosen.

But be aware that for some passions there is no way you can take things "just right" with them; and with some actions, however you do them, they are always wrong. You can tell this pretty easy from their names. For instance, malice, shamelessness, envy are passions where no amount of them is healthy for a person. For actions such as adultery, theft, and murder, no good can come of them, no matter how you do them. If you think about these things for a minute, you can tell that these are not things that are too much or too little of something else which can be good if it is done with the right amount or done in the right way. No, they are totally bad, bad all around. Adultery, for instance, cannot be made good by saying that you did it with just the right person and at just the right time; it is just not a good thing to do.

It would also be crazy to think that someone can take a vicious action (for instance, fleeing from the enemy out of cowardice) and do it in just the right way, instead of going too far or not far enough. If we allowed for that then for every excess, there would be an excess of an excess. Then from that we have an excess of an excess of an excess, and it would go on and on to infinity. Or you could have not enough of an excess, or you could have just the right amount of excess. No, we simply say: right is right and wrong is wrong.


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