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Golden mean (philosophy)

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The golden mean or golden middle way is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. It appeared in Greek thought at least as early as the Delphic maxim "nothing in excess", which was discussed in Plato's Philebus. Aristotle analyzed the golden mean in the Nicomachean Ethics Book II: That virtues of character can be described as means. It was subsequently emphasized in Aristotelian virtue ethics.[1] For example, in the Aristotelian view, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and, in deficiency, cowardice. The Middle Way form of government for Aristotle was a blend between monarchy, democracy and aristocracy.


Western philosophy[edit]


The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his beloved son whom he loved so much to "fly the middle course", between the sea spray and the sun's heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings. For not heeding the middle course, he fell into the sea and drowned.


Another early elaboration is the Doric saying carved on the front of the temple at Delphi: "Nothing in excess" ("Μηδὲν ἄγαν").


To Cleobulus is attributed the maxim: Μέτρον ἄριστον ("Moderation is best")[2]


Socrates teaches that a man must know "how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible."[3]

In education, Socrates asks us to consider the effect of either an exclusive devotion to gymnastics or an exclusive devotion to music. It either "produced a temper of hardness and ferocity, (or) the other of softness and effeminacy."[citation needed] Having both qualities, he believed, produces harmony; i.e., beauty and goodness.[citation needed]


Proportion's relation to beauty and goodness is stressed throughout Plato's dialogues, particularly in the Republic and Philebus. He writes (Phlb. 64d–65a):

Socrates: That any kind of mixture that does not in some way or other possess measure of the nature of proportion will necessarily corrupt its ingredients and most of all itself. For there would be no blending in such a case at all but really an unconnected medley, the ruin of whatever happens to be contained in it.
Protarchus: Very true.
Socrates: But now we notice that the force of the good has taken up refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful. For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue.
Protarchus: Undeniably.
Socrates: But we said that truth is also inclined along with them in our mixture?
Protarchus: Indeed.
Socrates: Well, then, if we cannot capture the good in one form, we will have to take hold of it in a conjunction of three: beauty, proportion and truth. Let us affirm that these should by right be treated as a unity and be held responsible for what is in the mixture, for goodness is what makes the mixture good in itself.

In the Laws, Plato applies this principle to electing a government in the ideal state: "Conducted in this way, the election will strike a mean between monarchy and democracy …"


In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle writes on the virtues. Aristotle’s theory on virtue ethics is one that does not see a person’s actions as a reflection of their ethics but rather looks into the character of a person as the reason behind their ethics. His constant phrase is, "… is the Middle state between …". His psychology of the soul and its virtues is based on the golden mean between the extremes. In the Politics, Aristotle criticizes the Spartan Polity by critiquing the disproportionate elements of the constitution; e.g., they trained the men and not the women, and they trained for war but not peace. This disharmony produced difficulties which he elaborates on in his work. See also the discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics of the golden mean, and Aristotelian ethics in general.[4]

Each intellectual virtue is a mental skill or habit by which the mind arrives at truth, affirming what is or denying what is not.[4]: VI  In the Nicomachean Ethics he discusses 11 moral virtues:

Fear and confidence Rashness Courage in the face of fear[4]: III.6–9  Cowardice
Pleasure and pain Licentiousness/self-indulgence Temperance in the face of pleasure and pain[4]: III.10–12  Insensibility
Getting and spending (minor) Prodigality Liberality with wealth and possessions[4]: IV.1  Illiberality/meanness
Getting and spending (major) Vulgarity/tastelessness Magnificence with great wealth and possessions[4]: IV.2  Pettiness/stinginess
Honour and dishonour (major) Vanity Magnanimity with great honors[4]: IV.3  Pusillanimity
Honour and dishonour (minor) Ambition/empty vanity Proper ambition with normal honors[4]: IV.4  Unambitiousness/undue humility
Anger Irascibility Patience/good temper[4]: IV.5  Lack of spirit/unirascibility
Self-expression Boastfulness Truthfulness with self-expression[4]: IV.7  Understatement/mock modesty
Conversation Buffoonery Wittiness in conversation[4]: IV.8  Boorishness
Social conduct Obsequiousness Friendliness in social conduct[4]: IV.6  Cantankerousness
Shame Shyness Modesty in the face of shame or shamelessness[4]: IV.9  Shamelessness
Indignation Envy Righteous indignation in the face of injury[4]: IV.5  Malicious enjoyment/spitefulness
Intellectual virtues
  1. Nous (intelligence), which apprehends fundamental truths (such as definitions, self-evident principles)[4]: VI.11 
  2. Episteme (science), which is skill with inferential reasoning (such as proofs, syllogisms, demonstrations)[4]: VI.6 
  3. Sophia (theoretical wisdom), which combines fundamental truths with valid, necessary inferences to reason well about unchanging truths.[4]: VI.5 

Aristotle also mentions several other traits:

  • Gnome (good sense) – passing judgment, "sympathetic understanding"[4]: VI.11 
  • Synesis (understanding) – comprehending what others say, does not issue commands
  • Phronesis (practical wisdom) – knowledge of what to do, knowledge of changing truths, issues commands[4]: VI.8 
  • Techne (art, craftsmanship)[4]: VI.4 

Aristotle's list is not the only list, however. As Alasdair MacIntyre observed in After Virtue, thinkers as diverse as Homer, the authors of the New Testament, Thomas Aquinas, and Benjamin Franklin have all proposed lists.[5]

Eastern philosophy[edit]

Gautama Buddha (fl. 6th century BC) taught of the Middle Way, a path between the extremes of religious asceticism and worldly self-indulgence.

Confucius in The Analects,[6] written through the Warring States period of Ancient China (c. 479 BC – 221 BC), taught excess is similar to deficiency. A way of living in the mean is the way of Zhongyong.

Zhuangzi was the Tao's most famous commentator (369–286 BC).[7]

Tiruvalluvar (2nd century BC and the 8th century AD; date disputed) in his Tirukkural of the Sangam period of Tamilakam writes of the middle state which is to preserve equity. He emphasises this principle and suggests that the two ways of preserving equity is to be impartial and avoid excess. Parimelalagar was the historical commentator of the Tirukkural.


Rambam in Mishneh Torah attributes this method to the first scholars (Chazal), and to Abraham. Indeed, a similar concept exists even in the Rabbinic literature, Tosefta and the Yerushalmi. Yitzhak Arama finds references even in the Bible.

One such instance is Ecclesiastes 7:15-16, where the preacher admonishes his audience to "be not righteous over much" and to "be not over much wicked." Adam Clarke takes the phrase "righteous over much" to mean indulging in too much "austerity and hard study," [8] and concludes that “there is no need of all this watching, fasting, praying, self-denial, etc., you carry things to extremes. Why should you wish to be reputed singular and precise?” [9] Thus, the ideal of the golden mean may have existed as long as six hundred years before Aristotle. However, some scholars, such as Albert Barnes, hold a slightly different interpretation of Ecclesiastes 7:16-17.[10]

Ahead of the times Rambam, 1138-1204 AD (probably due to Plato's and Aristotle’s engagement with Ethics), determined that a person has to take care of his soul as well as his body, and just as a person who is sick in his body turns to the doctor, a person who has mental illness needs to go to the doctor of the soul, which is, according to him, the philosopher or the sage. Rambam opposed the deterministic approach, arguing that a person has free will and the ability to change its properties.

The golden mean is also a core principle in Musar literature in which practitioners are encouraged to bring every character trait (middah; plural middot) into a balanced place between extremes. For example, it is not good to have too much patience, but it is not good to live without any patience at all. Musar can be said to involve being mindful enough to bring one's character traits, thoughts and desires into a balanced state in real time; living one's life in accord with the golden mean.


Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian, in his Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundæ Partis, Question 64, argued that Christian morality is consistent with the mean: "evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it[.] ... Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean."


Islam promotes the golden mean in many instances. The Quran states an example in finance, in that a person should not spend all he makes as not to be caught needing, and not to be stingy as to not live a comfortable life. Muhammad also had a saying "خير الأمور أوسطها" meaning the best choice is the middle ground/golden mean one. In Quran (Chapter 'The Cow', verse number 143) it is said that, "We have made you a balanced, moderate nation".

Quran quotes the example of two groups of people, calling one of them extremely greedy (Chasing the wealth of the world) in Chapter 'The Cow' verse 96 and to the others as inventors of monasticism (over-zealousness in religion) in Chapter Al-Hadeed verse number 27. Islam counsels its followers to abstain from both these paths of extremities and adopt moderation in chasing the world and practicing religion alike.

Not the least the Quran emphasises that the Muslim community (Umma) is a ’middle nation’ / a 'just community' / an Umma justly balanced / a moderate nation / a midmost nation (ummatan wasaTan) in verse 2-143: a middle between extremism and sloppiness.


Many Hindu texts emphasize middle path. For example in verse 6:16 of Gita warrior Arjuna is told by Krishna that "Yoga is not for one who eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.

Rajo guna (Hyper), Satva guna (Balanced) and Tamas (Inactive) are 3 traits of matter. All food, things, feelings, thoughts actions many more are classified under these three.. eons old philosophy.


Jacques Maritain, throughout his Introduction to Philosophy (1930),[11] uses the idea of the golden mean to place Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy between the deficiencies and extremes of other philosophers and systems.


  • "In many things the middle have the best / Be mine a middle station."
  • "When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought; beauty, he said, is unity in variety! Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature,—or, more exactly, in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase, for unity in variety."
    Jacob Bronowski
  • "…but for harmony beautiful to contemplate, science would not be worth following."
    Henri Poincaré.
  • "If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes..., he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way. The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."
  • "What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.1
  2. ^ "Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, BOOK I, Chapter 6 CLEOBULUS (c 600 B.C.)". Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  3. ^ Plato, Republic 10.619a
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Aristotle. Andronicus (ed.). Nicomachean Ethics.
  5. ^ MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981). After Virtue. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. Chapter 14. ISBN 0-268-00594-X.
  6. ^ Confucius (2006). The Analects. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC. ISBN 978-1-59986-974-2.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Watts, Alan with Huan, Al Chungliang (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73311-8.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Clarke, Adam (n.d.). "Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible". J. Emory and B Waugh. Retrieved May 30, 2018. "austerity and hard study"
  9. ^ Clarke, Adam (n.d.). "Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible". J. Emory and B Waugh. Retrieved May 30, 2018. "There is no need of all this watching, fasting, praying, self-denial, etc., you carry things to extremes. Why should you wish to be reputed singular and precise?"
  10. ^ Barnes, Albert (n.d.). "Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". Estes and Lauriate; John Murray; Blackie & Son; Funk & Wagnalls. Retrieved May 30, 2018.
  11. ^ Jacques Maritain (2005) [1st ed. 1930]. Introduction to Philosophy. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7717-8.



  • The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton, W. W. Norton & Co., NY, 1993.
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill, Nan A. Talese an imprint of Doubleday, NY, 2003.