The Golden Mean
The Golden Mean is simply a manner of behaving where your life is balanced and virtuous. You find this balance by acting in a virtuous manner given certain situations. Many thinkers have sought to define it and share how to attain it.
Aristotle defines the mean as the proper way of being between two extremes in great detail in his Nicomachean Ethics. Confucius defines this idea of the mean in terms of balance in his work Doctrine of the Mean. And, Lao Tzu discusses it as a path, calling it “the Way” or “the Tao.” Even C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man, talks about it and what it is, describing it as a way of being that is discoverable through reason. Here’s what Aristotle has to say about how this Golden Mean leads you to excellence:
“Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”
The Golden Mean is a middle road between the extremes that is proper to the situation. What Aristotle said here is pretty tough to beat. I think what is important is that he points out it is a choice. The mean is about ethics, which is morality in action.
It is not enough to know what is best, but you have to actually do what is best. And, that is hard when you have to use wisdom and prudence to assess the particular situation and make the choice. There is no instruction manual, just guiding principles. So, you have to be able to evaluate your situation and know what is proper.
What Would Christ Say?
We don’t have to wonder what he would say, because he said a lot. In the Gospel, Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” What he’s saying there is, he’s the way forward. His example is the proper path. In this passage, Jesus shows that he knows we need guidance down the right path. He calls us to action, to have faith in him and follow him. Through that initial step, he offers the fullness of truth that laid out of reach of other thinkers. And living in that truth gives us an abundance of life and joy.
He offers us real Truth, the right Way, and the fullness of Life. He is God who knows everything, who is altogether wise. The life Jesus lived was perfect, always choosing the highest good available to him. That is what we strive for, and what the thinkers like Aristotle, Confucius and Lao Tzu were lacking. They were incredibly wise, and able to show us a virtuous path forward. But, they couldn’t compare to God incarnate – and I’m sure they’d agree.
Lao Tzu, Confucius, and the Tao
I’ve talked a little bit about Lao Tzu and Confucius so far, but not everyone is as familiar with their work. They have a tremendous philosophy on ethics, and I think it’s correct in many ways. The Tao Te Ching is a beautiful work of literature that feels very much like what a lot of Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholics would love. It has this mystery to it, and a humility about how much can actually be known.
This reminds me of how the Eastern Church Fathers would discuss some of the mysteries. Rather than categorizing, defining, and describing ideas with these complex definitions, the Eastern Fathers would often submit to the mystery. They would reflect and meditate on it, rather than parse it out and debate it. That is how Lao Tzu approaches the Tao. It is clear that he thinks we can’t fully understand the reality that’s behind this ethical way of living.
And then, if you like the literary form of the Gospels or the works of Plato, where he has Socrates and dialogue with people, you’ll enjoy Confucius. If you like that style of philosophy and teaching, where the teacher is being questioned by his student, then read Confucius’s Analects and the Doctrine of the Mean. It reminds me of when the scribes and Pharisees would question Jesus. Or, when different philosophers and politicians would question Socrates. While the format is different on this work, Confucius’s ideas on the Golden Mean are consonant with Aristotle’s and Lao Tzu’s.
The Mean is a Balance and a Path
Confucius and Aristotle believe that you find the mean when you’re able to balance things. They show the mean as choosing the middle option between the two extremes. They call for prudence and weighing your options. You have to stay in between two extremes, and I like that aspect as well because I think we are at a culture of extremes. Instead of being united as a society on the proper path, we often have a choice between one extreme and the other. We have sexual libertinism and total puritanism, Bible fundamentalism and evolutionary materialism. There is a lot of unoccupied space in the middle for us to find and discuss.
Another great way of explaining the mean is to describe it as a journey. It’s a path for you in life, and it’s something that you have to do, a journey you must undergo. Lao Tzu seems to take this approach. He sees the moral principles as a road map leading you to the destination, and the path under your feet as a guide. This taps into our sense of adventure, and our yearning for that Hero’s Journey. Each of us can decide to take up our burden and go on this journey toward a better way of living and a life of virtue.
Know What’s Proper for You
What is proper for you will depend on your talents and abilities. If you’re an intelligent person, but you’re 5’ 9” and not super athletic, the NBA may not be what’s proper. Maybe using your intelligence and leaning into that talent is what is best. What is proper for LeBron James or Tom Brady? As two incredibly talented athletes, they should seek to share those talents. It is proper for those guys to achieve as highly as they can in their sport, using their gifts to do that. Could they have done other things? Sure. But is that a great way for them to use their talents?
So, you have to understand your limitations and your abilities, your talents and your weaknesses, to find the path that is proper for you. That’s what it’s all about. Know who you are and what you have to offer. Know where you fall short and should seek help from people who’s skills complement yours. Now that you know what the Golden Mean is and why the Golden Mean is important, it’s your time to choose what to do. Will you search for it?
Finding the Golden Mean for yourself is not easy, but with practical wisdom, you can learn to do that. And, because I’ve written on that idea, I’ll let you check out my article on practical wisdom which will pick up where I leave off here.
About Conversation of Our Generation:
Nick Jamell is the Creator of the Conversation of Our Generation, a blog and podcast focused on solving the problems of today with the wisdom of the past. There, he explores philosophy, religion, history, economics, politics, art, and more to learn the lessons of our past and applies that knowledge to the problems facing us today. He is also the author of the new book Property Rights in the Digital Age. Get alerts about upcoming courses if you want a deeper dive into topics like this.