Book 02
Chapter 09
To become virtuous: figure out which vice you have, and lean away from it.

So, to repeat and wrap up what we have gone over in this book: Virtue is a mean that is in between two vices. One of the vices comes from doing too much and going too far (excess); the other comes from not doing enough and not going far enough. The person that is virtuous will find a way of doing things that is just right, and they will go just far enough, not too far and not too short.

So, being good is really not so easy; homing in on dead center is generally not an easy thing to do, but rather it takes knowledge or skill (for instance, not just anyone can locate the exact center of a circle, but this is something that can be done by a person that knows the technique).

As for getting angry, that is easy and anyone can do it. Anyone can give away money and anyone can spend it. But to do these things to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right reasons, and in the right way -- that is not something that just anyone can do, nor is it easy. That is why doing just what is right is something that is uncommon, noble, and worthy of being praised.

The person that is seeking out the mean must keep away from the vice that is more unlike it as it is the more dangerous. It is like the part in the Odyssey where Odysseus must sail his ship in between two monsters. He sails closer to Scylla and keeps away from Charbydis, because that one is more dangerous. ("Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.") It is better to take the lesser of two evils.

But we also have to know ourselves, and see which of the vices we are more likely to fall into. Some of us tend to one of them and others of us tend to the other. You can tell which one you are more likely fall into if you think about what pleasures or pains you would associate with each. The vice that you feel like you would rather have is the one you should watch out for and try to get away from. Go to the other side. You will feel like you do not want it, but still it will be better for you.

So, for instance, if you love to have a good laugh then you are more in danger to go beyond being witty and instead make yourself ridiculous. So here you should try to pretend as if you are serious. But if you often find other people laughing while you are silent, then it is not so likely that they are ridiculous, but rather it is more likely that you are being boring. In this case, you should make more of an effort to keep the spirit of the party up and laugh along with them in a good-hearted way.

Think of this like taking something that is crooked, because it was bent one way, and then straightening it out by bending it the other way.

But remember to always watch out for pleasure and things that are tempting, those things we know are likely to pull our thoughts to them. Think about what the elders of Troy said about Helen:

"No wonder the Trojans and the Greeks fight and die over her. She is terribly beautiful like the immortal goddesses. But even so, send her home, and let there be no more trouble for us and our children hereafter."

But we say again, it really is not easy to hit on the right thing, especially in tricky cases. For how can you know when you should take offense and be angry, who to get angry with, and how long you should be angry with them? After all, sometimes people praise those who fall short and they speak well of them as being cool-headed or gentle. But then other times, people praise those spout off and they call them manly. It is hard to know what is the right way when it seems like any way could be right or wrong. This is just how it is.

But still, if we go wrong a little bit to one side or the other, then people will not blame us much. After all, everyone makes mistakes. It is only when we go wrong in a big way, far to one of the sides, that we can expect to be charged with acting from vice. Why? Because to go that far away from the right thing makes it look like we are going to the wrong thing not by mistake, but because we want it. Just how far wrong that is is not something we can sit down and work out here. How things turn out in such matters all depends on how things are at that time. Some of it has to do with facts and some of it has to do with how people see things on that day. But we can say it is best to go to the mean. To hit on it and do what is just right is something that we should call out and praise as a good thing. And by leaning away from the vice that is closest to us, we give ourselves the best chance to hit on the right thing.


« index »

« subscribe »

« home »