Thomas Lavenziano

Thomas Lavenziano Professor Eugene Kelly ICPH 304 – W01 Aristotle on the Golden Mean One of Aristotle’s most well known works is the Nicomachean Ethics, written around the year 340 BC and was most likely named after his father or his son. Within this work Aristotle theorizes about the nature of the good life. He also delves into what it means for something to be good and attempts to define what happiness really is. One of the core concepts that he uses to define goodness is what he calls the Golden Mean. Aristotle describes ethical virtue to be our tendency to have appropriate feelings based on our personal habits, disposition, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. He also describes what he calls defective tendencies, when our reactions and feelings are inappropriate given the circumstance. Aristotle was a student of Plato, who described virtue as a kind of knowledge. By Aristotle presenting this conflicting view he essentially rejects Plato’s thesis in favor of his own.

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When broken down individually, he describes each ethical virtue to be what he calls a condition intermediate, better known as a golden mean. A golden mean can be defined as a point in between two opposing extremes, one being extreme excess and the other being extreme deficiency. All ethical virtues are one of these golden means, lying between two vices of opposing extremity. An example of a golden mean or virtue can be found by looking first at the vices. The vice of cowardice and the vice of rashness are perfectly opposed, they are exactly opposite extremes. Between these vices though we can find the virtue of courage. The virtue of courage requires an individual to balanced. Caution can easily be taken too far to the point of cowardice, and bravery can be taken too far to the point of rashness and carelessness. There needs to be a balance, without it a virtue may easily become a vice.

Aristotle stresses that finding and reaching a golden mean is not so simple as simply finding the perfect middle point between the two extremes, but rather that the circumstances of the situation, individual, and disposition all must be taken into account. One must observe and truly consider the whole of the situation before they can hope to obtain that ethical virtue found as the golden mean. Other attributes that Aristotle claims to determine ethical virtue is both the intent and frequency of an action. Virtue is not determined by a single instance, but rather through willful and direct habitual actions. A single act of courage does not prove that a man has the virtue of courage, rather all it proves is that he is capable of performing as such. If the individual consistently acts according to the golden mean in all relevant situations according to circumstance and with deliberate intent then it may be said that he has that ethical virtue. A further requirement of ethical virtue is that the action itself must be voluntary.

Only voluntary actions can be considered to be virtuous, and the definition of voluntarily can be affected by the situation at hand. The situation itself must arise from external forces. Actions or decisions reached out of fear are not considered wholly voluntary, neither are those actions stemming from ignorance which may have varying degrees of voluntariness. Intent is the deciding factor; if an individual makes a decision while ignorant but is the same decision that he would have still made had he been informed than the action can be considered voluntary, and potentially be a virtue. Intent is not an opinion or desire, it is a deliberate choice based upon logic and reason and is limited to the scope of power with which an individual holds.

You cannot intend to do something if you do not hold the requisite power with which to do so. Aristotle describes happiness to be the achievement of ethical virtue, which is achieved through balance and proper levels of passion and temperament which is where the golden mean can be found. Therefore, we may find happiness and live a truly good life through the pursuit of the golden mean within each situation that is presented to us. The man that is said to live a good life is one that lives a life of virtue and balance.   

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