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Aristotle: Above the Mean
With the strict oppression of thought by religion and government in the 2nd century B.C.E., it’s a surprise in itself that Aristotle, a man with such revolutionary thoughts and ideas was able to let his thinking be known to the entire world (as it was known back then). It is therefore even more surprising that his idea’s have survived these many centuries though books, a medium of writing that has a notorious reputation of being burned when something in its contents doesn’t match the current beliefs of the established system of government or the church. We can certainly all be thankful that his idea’s have survived thus far because of the tremendous impact that they have had on thought, government, and the way of life throughout the entire world in general. Aristotle was a revolutionary thinker whose ideas have no rival from anyone in his own school of thought.
In book Two of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle lets out arguably some of his best work. The idea that in life, people shouldn’t strive to be the best, but instead aim for the middle, or the mean as Aristotle calls it, was something new and innovative not only then, but even to some people today. He further backs his assumption up by supplying more than enough examples. To start out, Aristotle first defines what is “good” and what is “bad”. He does this by providing examples of several things that have both a good side along with a bad side. One example he gives is lawmakers. A lawmaker can have a positive effect on society or a negative one. Judging by the effect his laws have on the people, he is then determined to be either a bad lawmaker or a good one. Moreover, the lawmakers themselves have the power of making people into either good or bad citizens. This is done by instilling either good or bad habits into the citizens through the legislation that the lawmakers pass (Pg. 99). This once again, in turn, dictates whether the lawmakers themselves are good or bad lawmakers. Aristotle’s idea of this is (to use a cliché) is “Right on the money”. Even in today’s world, people are judged by their actions. That is to say, if someone does something good in their life, they are considered a good person, conversely, if a person is known for a failure, the people around them regard that person as a failure; or as Aristotle would simply put it, “bad”.
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Another idea that is clearly defined is the idea of aiming for the mean. Aristotle conveys through his book that people shouldn’t strive to be the best, but they should completely give up on their endeavors either. Instead, they should aim for the middle, or the mean as he calls it. According to Aristotle, the mean is the best place to be because on one extreme, there is excess, where as on the other extreme, there lies deficiency. The mean would be located in the middle of the two. One of the examples that Aristotle gives would be courage. The man who shuns and fears everything and never stands his ground becomes a coward, whereas a man who knows no fear at all and goes to meet every danger becomes reckless (Pg. 200). Looking at this statement, anyone can see that Aristotle is right. As a matter of fact, this idea of aiming for the mean ties in with his notion of whether someone is either a good or bad person. This is because if someone is on either extreme, either deficiency or excess, they are seen as a failure or an “over-achiever”. Consequently, they are deemed a bad person by society. Conversely, if that same person is in the middle of the two extremes, they are seen as having done good and therefore are looked at as a good person. Again, such ideas would be good judges of character in determining the success of people and how able they are.
A third important concept that Aristotle touches upon that ties in with both of the previously mentioned ideas is the fact that everything that anyone thinks of other people is relative. This is very important because when judging character, who is to say that one person is more correct than the other. Aristotle goes on to say that “the mean” is relative as well. This is because if one person is used to living a more lavish lifestyle that another, to that poorer person, it might seem that the later is living a life on the “excess” side. Likewise, the richer person will see and think that the poor man is living his life with deficiency. This again supports the idea that all things (not only Aristotle’s idea’s) are relative.
Also, Aristotle covers on how to achieve this mean that he talks about. Obviously, throwing out ideas about some “mean” in one thing, but also explaining on how to achieve this state of virtue is completely different. After all, how good would all of these ideas be if there were no known ways of every achieving virtue via Aristotle’s mean? Aristotle says that it is nearly impossible to be aimed at exactly the “mean” and middle of anything. To go around this, he proposes that one should aim for the lesser of two evils. Meaning that if one is more tended to lean towards the deficiency side of the spectrum, as opposed to the excess extreme, then that person should be more cautions of acting in a deficient way than in excess. Therefore, that person will veer away from the deficient side, while still avoiding the excess as well. Through this, that person will inevitably end up in (or as close as possible) to mean.
In summary, the ideas portrayed in the books of Aristotle have gone through history nearly unchanged. They have survived the book burnings of Aristotle’s time all the way through to the twentieth century. The idea’s themselves have been adapted by individuals to help them gain an insight on life and to lend a hand in living a life that is neither in excess or deficiency. Additionally, the ideas themselves, even though many centuries old, are not out of date or ineffective. They can still be used to judge character just as well today as they have throughout time. And although Aristotle advocates aiming for the mean, his own brilliance may even be in excess.
· From Plato to Derrida, 4th Edition, Forrest E. Baird, Prentice Hall 2003