What “the Golden Mean” Really Means

Matt Petersen illuminatingly describes Aristotle’s theory of the ethical “Golden Mean” as against the popular misconception that it means always choosing the “middle road”:

for Aristotle, virtue wasn’t a moderation, not even was virtue really at a mean, rather virtue was something that ought to be pursued whole heartedly and with full passion, but you could fall from it in two directions. But even then those directions weren’t defined by their intensity, but by their lack of intensity. They were less active than the virtue itself. The virtuous man rushes ahead full bore when he should, even when he feels scared. The virtuous man retreats or holds back with the army, with full vigour, even when he feels he should rush ahead. The fool-hardy passively submits to what he feels like doing–rushing head on. The coward passively submits to what he feels like doing–running away. The virtuous man choses to rush all out when he should (like Miltiades), and choses to retreat when he should, even if it means loosing toe mother-city (like Themistocles).

That the golden mean is a sort of “moderation” is the mistake of Mr. Sensible from The Pilgrim’s Regress. The man at the golden mean fights fiercly, launching a foot-charge against the vastly superior Persian army, thus winning where no coward would have a hope. The man at the golden mean fights fiercly, leaving Athens to the fires of the Persian armies, that he might crush them in the straights. He attacks fiercly when he ought, and retreats though it tears his heart out when he should.

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