Golden mean (philosophy)

In philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

To the Greek mentality, it was an attribute of beauty. Both ancients and moderns realized that "there is a close association in mathematics between beauty and truth". The poet John Keats, in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn", put it this way:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The Greeks believed there to be three concomitants of beauty: symmetry, proportion, and harmony. This triad of principles infused their life. They were very much attuned to beauty as an object of love and something that was to be imitated and reproduced in their lives, architecture, Paideia and politics. They judged life by this mentality.

History of the golden mean in philosophy


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 son 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.


Another early elaboration is the Doric saying carved on the front of the temple at Delphi: "Nothing in Excess".


According to legend, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras discovered the concept of harmony when he began his studies of proportion while listening to the different sounds made when blacksmiths' hammers hit their anvils. The weights of the hammers and of the anvils all gave off different sounds. From here he moved to the study of stringed instruments and the different notes they produced. He started with a single string and produced a monochord in the ratio of 1:1 called the Unison. By varying the strings, he produced other chords: a ratio of 2:1 produced notes an octave apart. (Modern music theory calls a 5:4 ratio a "major third" and an 8:5 ratio a "major sixth".) In further studies of nature, he observed certain patterns and numbers recurring. Pythagoras believed that beauty was associated with ratios of small integers.

With this discovery, the Pythagoreans saw the essence of the cosmos as numbers, so numbers took on special meaning and significance. Astonished by this discovery and awed by it, the Pythagoreans endeavored to keep it secret: they vowed that anyone who revealed the secret would be put to death. Fact|date=September 2007

The symbol of the Pythagorean brotherhood was the pentagram, the proportions of which embody the golden ratio.


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

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". Having both qualities, he believed, produces harmony; i.e., beauty and goodness. He additionally stresses the importance of mathematics in education for the understanding of beauty and truth.


Something disproportionate was evil and therefore to be despised. Plato says, "If we disregard due proportion by giving anything what is too much for it; too much canvas to a boat, too much nutriment to a body, too much authority to a soul, the consequence is always shipwreck."

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. 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.


*"In many things the middle have the best / Be mine a middle station."
— Phocylides

*"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."
— J. 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."
— Maimonides


*Jacques Maritain, throughout his "Introduction to Philosophy", uses the idea of the golden mean to place Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy between the deficiencies and extremes of other philosophers and systems.
*Confucius in the Analects taught excess is similar to deficiency(過猶不及). A way of living in the mean is the way of Zhongyong(中庸之道).
*Gautama Buddha taught middle Way.
*Zhuangzi had a similar idea.
*Hu Shi wrote an article 'the tales of Mr. Chabuduo'(差不多先生傳) on people who did not mind accuracy on matters.

ee also

*Argument to moderation (fallacy)


* "Republic" 619, Jowett p. 394.
*"Laws", 691c,756e-757a .
* "Eudemian Ethics", 1233b15; Loeb Classical Library, p. 351-355.
* "Politics", Aristotle, 1270af and 1271b; Loeb p. 137 and p. 147.


*"The Greek Way", Edith Hamilton, W. W. Norton & Co., NY, l993.
*"Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Why the Greeks Matter", Thomas Cahill, Nan A. Talese an imprint of Doubleday, NY, 2003.

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