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Clay Chastain
Dr. Combs
PHIL 3320
3 December 2007
On Virtue as a Mean
Although there are many well disputed points in Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics,
one of the more interesting problems arises in understanding the nature of Aristotles
claim that virtues are a mean between two extremes. On the outset, it appears that this
claim makes no logical sense; yet, through some discourse, it is possible to rationalize
this statement in a way that satisfies the argument. Despite this, some examples of virtue,
such as wisdom, remain somewhat elusive in nature.
Immediately, without regard to Aristotles thought on the subject, it can generally
be said that virtue is the state of total excellence. On a linear scale, virtue is the
possession of some good while vice is the absence of it. Then, it should also follow that
virtue can not be a mean; instead, it would appear that virtue itself is the polar opposite,
the extreme, following a vice. If there should be a mean, it would appear to be a weak
mixture of the traits of a vice and virtue, essentially equating to nothing. Arithmetically, if
indeed virtue is a 1, and vice is a -1, the mean it should be 0 of this equation; that is, on a
scale, the mean between a vice and a virtue would be a cancellation of both which would
result in a voidance of either trait. So, considering this, how could Aristotle come to such
a claim about the nature of virtue when the seemingly intuitive logic used in this sort of
thinking leads to such a conclusion. If by this conclusion, virtue is a mean by definition,

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it seems that virtue could not be a mean, and therefore a contradiction in the argument has
been reached and the argument itself should be declared invalid.
Before this discussion, however, one needs to take a step back and try to
determine Aristotles initial claim, which is not surprisingly quite different from the claim
that I have made based upon initial intuition. From the Broadie and Rowe translation of
the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes courage [as] the intermediate state . . .
[between] fear and boldness (118). On this example, it seems that courage is logically
and intermediate between the two; one can stipulate that boldness in this case refers to
excessive boldness in such an extent that it is more than courage allows and fear, on the
other hand, is the absence of enough courage to have the trait of courageousness. Thus,
the previous argument failed to recognize such a concept, and the definition of the mean
has been revised to state that virtue has two different states of vice between it. Both the
excessive trait, boldness, and the defective trait, fear, it would seem, are vices outlying
the virtue. To this extent, virtue appears to be the natural mean between two extremes.
This argument, for the most part, works.
Take another example, temperance, which also fits this basic form. Temperance as
a virtue has two extremes: let us say over moderation and under moderation for sake of
convenience. Over moderation is limiting and restricting oneself in such a way that is
dangerous or harmful to oneself while under moderation produces the same result.
Without temperance, one would indulge in every pleasure, for example, while over
moderation would never engage in any pleasure. From this sample virtue, it seems
logical enough to assert that Aristotles claim would hold true to any virtue. For any

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virtue that can be named, there appears to be an over and under abundance that allows for
virtue to be a means instead of an extreme.
It should also be noted that Aristotle says that all three states [the extremes and
the mean] are in one way or another opposed to all (120). The importance of this largely
means that both the extremes are in opposition to each other and the mean, while at the
same time, the mean opposes both the extremes. In this way, each of the states conflicts
with one another yet, does this mean that they are equal in opposition or the same? This
question is largely subjective, it would seem, because it could be argued both ways. To
some, the extremes are more opposed because of their polar difference, while to others,
an opposition at one location on the scale is still an opposition, regardless of the degree.
More importantly to the task at hand, the proof offered above with the two
different virtues which seems to hold true to any virtue runs into some stumbling points
that conflict with each other. The first definition offered of virtue as an extreme states
that virtue is the total excellence while vice is the total opposite; the second claim stated
by Aristotle is that virtue is a mean between two vices which are extremes. Yet, it appears
likely that Aristotles claim is a valid assertion. Still, is it possible to say that all virtues,
regardless of their nature, are in fact means? It would certainly have to be this way if
indeed his assertion is true. But, for some cases this does not seem likely at all. Take, for
instance, the virtue of wisdom. Aristotle argues himself throughout the Nicomachean
Ethics that study and learning are the highest of pleasures and the greatest of virtues. Yet,
if this is so, where would excessive learning come into play? By any account of Aristotle,
it does not seem at all possible that learning, the very thing he argues is highest, has any

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excessive extreme. Obviously, the lack of learning is the deficient extreme. Unfortunately
for Aristotle, this problem that has been created by this specific virtue makes his
argument seem to have some falsity of some sort. Even more unfortunate, the original
common knowledge claim that I began with is true for this example. How could one ever
learn too much? What is excessive knowledge? Certainly, excessive knowledge could
never do anyone harm; no vortex of destructive knowledge is created that would destroy
the world. So, how can Aristotle possibly make his claim when it is obviously in
contradiction with itself on some virtues? Possibly, one may argue, this particular virtue
is the only one which is pure and whole within itself leading to no excess, but even then
the universal claim he makes is not sound.
Further, even this argument can be put into question as there are several different
virtues which can be easily named that have the same trait as wisdom. Take, for instance,
beauty. The absence of beauty is most crudely stated as being ugly. But, what is the
excessive trait that describes beauty? If there is one, there is no word in use for it. The
only situations which arise that can be named excessive beauty is beauty that inspires
other for war, such as in the story of the Trojan War and the struggle for Helen. Even if
she is the most beautiful woman and incited such a conflict between nations, it still seems
implausible to have this be excessively beautiful. Can the desires of others make beauty
have an extreme? This situation does not seem likely as it does not directly rely on beauty
but instead the vices of others.
So, what could possibly constitute beauty as an extreme? There does not appear to
be any way to rationalize a possibly of something being too beautiful. And, similarly,

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there does not be a way to think of someone who is too smart. Both of these qualities are
supreme goods which exemplify the first situation of vice and virtue as an extreme
contrast. So, again, it would seem that there is a snag in Aristotles definition of virtue as
a means. Possibly there is such a condition of excessive beauty and/or excessive wisdom
that one could not visualize because it has not happened yet or that we cannot recognize it
because of the effects of the individuals beauty and/or wisdom. While unlikely, the
theoretical implication is that it is a possibly despite seemingly no possibility because we
are unaware of the extreme. Yet, this theoretical situation holds almost no practical
application to the world we live in and should be considered only a mathematical
possibility to complete Aristotles argument.
Instead of trying to conjecture such a world, Aristotle takes a different route to
explaining excessive traits of virtues that seemingly have no excess. From Hardies
attempt to clarify Aristotles meaning, he notes that [t]he next step in Aristotles
exposition of the doctrine is a suggestion that the principle of the mean is exemplified in
the successful products of the acts. We often say of good works of art that it is not
possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy
the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it (37). So, this explanation
offers a simple solution to the problem faced by excessive traits of many different virtues.
Just like art, he argues, that there is a mean of things which is best. With art, adding
something additional would ruin the piece, even though it would still be created by a
good artist. Just as the common saying goes, too much of a good thing will do you harm,
the same holds true to this discussion on the virtues. Not enough paint would make the

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piece ugly but too much would also make the piece ugly. Potentially, this stands with any
virtue. Perhaps the example of wisdom may be clarified first: too much wisdom could
lead to knowing about obscure things that have no relevance, making a person who
focuses on things with no meaning except to his or her own person. And to some extent,
this can be seen in people who devote their lives studying obscure topics which no one
cares about. Of course, this is a fine line between philosophy itself and other more
practical topics, as a majority of people probably do not care about what philosophers had
to say about topics they do not care to understand. But, perhaps an example would be a
person would spends his or her entire life studying the meaning of one sentence of one
author; this person may understand this one sentence better than anyone else, but does
this equate to wisdom? Perhaps there is a point past wisdom and into neglect of the
studies of other areas. It is reasonable to say that one person could never learn everything
there is in the universe; if indeed they could, they would be god (a theoretical excessive
to wisdom, by some degree). So, it is also reasonable to agree that the study of certain
things for the point of studying them could be excessive if they neglect all other studies.
Maybe the study of these subjects would drive an individual past wise and into a category
of insanity, so far in abstraction from reality that they could no longer exist as a human.
While this example is extreme, I would assume extremes are precisely what we are
aiming to find. Certainly, there are many other ways to phrase the excess of knowledge in
relation to the art analogy, but these are just a few attempts for sake of brevity.
For the concept of excessive beauty, a good example would be the shapely figure
of a woman; generally, this is considered a symbol of beauty. But, with too much of a

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shape, a woman would become a twisted abstraction of beauty, instead turning into more
of a caricature of beauty some extreme that she lacks the qualities which we would
describe as beauty to begin with. Another feature, this time let us use a full smile, which
is generally another trait of beauty, could be so full that it leads to another
characterization of beauty which ruins the illusions of perfection (such as Julia Roberts
smile). So, it seems that Aristotle has quite a strong defense of his own theory when used
in this manner.
Of course, all of this said, almost every virtue is subjective to some degree, and
Aristotles claim helps to make some sense of it. Whether or not the claim is true, the
importance of his work describing virtues gives us a solid frame to base logical theory
from. There are quite possibly many answers to the question of virtue as a mean between
extremes, but Aristotles own arguments provide an adequate enough reason to be
convincing.

Works Cited
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics: Translation, Introduction, and Commentary. Ed. Sarah
Broadie. Trans. Christopher Rowe. New York: Oxford, 2002.
Hardie, W.F.R. "Aristotles Doctrine that Virtue is a Mean." Articles on Aristotle: Vol. 2,
Ethics & Politics. Ed. Johnathan Barnes & Malcolm Schofield & Richard Sorabji.
New York: St. Martins Press, 1977. 33.