Aristotle’s The Doctrine of the Mean expresses the margin on which moral virtue is determined by the actions and passions of man. Aristotle who is regarded as the philosopher of antiquity and has also been regarded as the philosopher of all times unearths a balance in his book, The Nicomachean Ethics, on the acts of morality and virtue in man’s day to day disposition.
Aristotle’s The Doctrine of the Mean is explicitly explained in Book II: Moral Virtue of the publication of his The Nicomachean Ethics. He defined virtue as “the state of character, not passion nor a capacity.” To mean that virtue isn’t in the passion a person is given to nor in the capacity at exhibiting such passion. Accordingly, virtue is found in the character of a man who has exhibited activities that have afforded him the title of being virtuous.
Aristotle expresses that passion means “anger, fear, confidence … hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general, feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain;” while capacities are “the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these” passions.
With this, Aristotle draws a line, pushed us to the edge and shows us that passions are those natural feelings and the capacities are the ability to feel these natural emotions. However, moral value is entrenched in the character; in the way that he expresses himself; that is, the way through which these passions exploit his capacities in a bid to express them.
At this, he writes that “neither the virtue nor the vices are passions because we are not called good or bad on the ground of passion.” That is, we don’t get judged and blamed for expressing natural human feelings “but for our virtues and vices” because we express our passions through our capacities in a certain way. This certain way is hence decided to be either deficient, mean or extreme.
Aristotle begins his elucidation on the doctrine of mean by writing that: “In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect.”
What Aristotle means by “the equal” which is the mean “is an intermediate between the excess and the defect” and it is expressed through an “equidistant from each of the extremes, … by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little.”
By this, Aristotle explains that by finding the mean which determines the virtue of a man, we are sieving through excesses and deficiencies in the passions of man and his capacities to express these passions.
He explains that the mean isn’t the arithmetic mean, which entails that in every 10 figures, the 8 figure is excess while the 2 figure is insufficient. The mean would hence be 5 or 6 figures. In ethics, on the contrary, the mean may be too much for the person who would take it while it may be too little for another person because the mean depends on the event surrounding the expressions of the passions and the persons expressing the passions.
“Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this — the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.” At this, Aristotle expresses that excess or defects ruin an object, hence, “virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.”
What then is the intermediate and in what positions can the intermediate/mean be achieved? Mean can be achieved not by feeling the passions in an extreme way or by the defect but by feeling “them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.”
By this, man achieves virtue which is a character that is concerned with choice and is determined by “lying in the mean” at any given passion. He further writes that “the mean is relative to us” because it is determined by reason which is discerned through the application of practical wisdom by man.
There is an exception to the rule that every passion must have a mean; since there is an excess and a defect. These passions exempted already imply badness by their nomenclature, passions which include “adultery, theft, murder” etc. because it is no good to them and they should not be regarded at all regardless of the motive or the rightness of time or the persons engaged.
More so, Aristotle expresses that in unjust and cowardly acts, there should be no excess, mean or deficiency because the acts are in themselves either excess of excesses or deficiency of deficiencies. However, to regard particularities with the postulation of what is meant in passions, reference is given to fear.
Aristotle writes that in fear and confidence, courage is the mean because the excess of fear is to fall out of confidence, hence, cowardice, while the excess of confidence is rash. For pleasures and pain, the mean is temperance while the excess is self-indulgent, the deficiency is insensible. This means that in pleasure and pain, a man must find the mean, temperance, in which his virtue is bestowed.
Aristotle cited more examples to regard the meaning of passions. In honour and dishonour as passions, the mean/intermediate is proper pride, however, the excess of honour is empty vanity while the deficiency of honour is undue humility. This is because it is possible to desire honour as man is supposed to while it is also possible to not chase after moderate honour which then is sheer undue humility.
Aristotle gave more clarity by what he meant as the doctrine of the mean, about truth, the mean is truthfulness while the excess is the exaggeration of the truth, hence, boastfulness. In this, the deficiency is buffoonery which is characterized by mocking the truth.
The mean is virtuous as a man can only exhibit virtue in all passions by not exhibiting an excess of passion or deficiency in passion as characterized by their capacities of expression.
In all, Aristotle agrees that “this mean is hard to attain, and is grasped by perception, not by reasoning.” At this, if one extreme is nearer to the intermediate/mean, how can we find the mean which is moderate and virtuous? To answer this, he writes that since virtue is the mean and “it is not easy to be good…hence, he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it.”
Aristotle recognizes how hard it could be to find the mean lying between the excess and the deficiency of a passion. He provides the alternative which is found in the passions which are well known and its excesses and deficiency which are also known; one can shield himself from moderation by avoiding the best of evils; extremities and deficiencies.
By this, “we must drag ourselves away from the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error.”
However, human nature is complex because sometimes, the person who falls short of virtue can be praised as well-mannered while he who exhibits the excesses of passions can be praised as manly. Hence, identifying the mean in the passions man epitomizes and expresses is dependent on individual cases which reason through practical wisdom will guide and lead man through.