The Golden Mean

The Golden Mean is an idea found in Aristotle’s Ethics, The Tao Te Ching, and the Analects, and describes the right way of being. I’ve talked about the mean, or the way, previously on podcasts and articles. I wanted to revisit it here because I plan on diving deeper into what it is and why it matters. One of the courses coming soon will cover the thinkers from Aristotle and Lao Tsu to C.S. Lewis.

What is 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. Aristotle defines these balances in great detail in Ethics. And, Lao Tzu and Confucius define the ideas of balance, especially in Confucius’ Doctrine of the Mean.

“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.”

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Finding The Mean

In order to follow the mean you must know your situation and act in accord with virtue, given the circumstances. Aristotle called this Practical Wisdom. Practical Wisdom is the ability, to look at a given situation and apply the knowledge you have properly. Sometimes it’s right to stay and fight, others negotiate, and sometimes running and hiding is the best you can do. Most actions are not in and of themselves good or bad, but can be assessed as good or bad given a certain situation.

In order to attain Practical Wisdom, you will need two pieces: knowledge and prudence. As for knowledge, you should be well-versed in many fields, especially the virtues. That way, you can assess a wide range of situations with as many of the facts as possible.

Bioethics, for example, is a tough field to master if you don’t have the scientific and philosophical background to understand the problem. Because our endeavors in life are not so narrowly focused, we must expand our search for knowledge to incorporate all aspects of our lives.

Prudence is the ability to assess the specific situation you’re in and pull from the proper knowledge sources to address that particular circumstance. It is right judgement.

Why the Golden Mean Matters

By looking at the societies of the East and West today, it is obvious. The emphasis on the individual by Aristotle lead to the success of Europe and the United States of America, and the emphasis on propriety by Lao Tzu and Confucius lead to the success of the Chinese Empire and modern-day Japan.

Both of these ideas can be incredibly successful. They are simply different ways at guiding an individual’s understanding and education of virtue.

It is important to understand the differences because they create different weak points. If the idea of liberty collapses in the West, so does its notions of virtue. In the East, when society collapses so does virtue. We can see this as the United States corrodes as it embraces large government and socialistic tendencies. In the East, you can see something similar, as China turned away from its religious ideas- primarily Confucius’ teachings- during the Communist Revolution, as they rejected the long-standing institution of propriety and hierarchy that built and maintained China for millennia.

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Transcript of the Golden Mean

What does the Golden Mean? C. S. Lewis, Lao Tsu, Aristotle, Confucius, and many thinkers talk about it. But how do we find it? And what actually is it? 

If you want to be a virtuous person, the way you do that is by following the Golden Mean. If it’s something that is worthwhile doing, then I think you have to make the argument for why it’s worthwhile. 

About the Courses

And so that’s all that we’re gonna be talking about. And the reason I’m talking about it today in particular is I’m rolling out some courses here soon, and this is going to be one of them. So if you want to find out more about that. Go to the show notes if you’re on there or if you’re on the website right now listening to it, scroll down, you’ll see where it says you can sign up or just go to conversation of our generation dot com slash courses to sign up there and just check the boxes on which ones you’re interested in learning about.

Quote of the Week

Conversation our generation dot com slash courses and sign up there. So let’s hop in to the quote of the week, and this one is from Aristotle, and I think it is perfect for this episode, he says. And I’m pretty sure I’ve used this before, he says. 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. That’s a lot. Lots of commas, lots of different clauses there. Let’s break that down. And so what Aristotle’s idea of the golden mean is is that it’s something that leads you to excellence in a given situation. Excellence for him in virtue is the ability to act properly, given your circumstances. 

And so what he’s saying here is excellence is a state concerned, concerned with choice. So it’s something that is not thrust upon you. It’s something that you choose actively. And it lies within a mean. And if you listen, If you read his ethics, his work on ethics, what he talks about is, for example, courage is what lies between rash nous and cowardice. Right? You’re if you’re too far one side and you’re not active enough. You’re a coward, right? You. If you don’t rise to the occasion, you’re scared of it. You you have fear and you given to your fear your coward. But on the other end, if you have no fear, if your illogical about the bold actions you take, then you’re not courageous. 

What Courage Really Is

You’re just being rash. You’re just an idiot sometimes, right when you see drunken idiots do a stunt that they definitely shouldn’t be doing, that’s not courage. It’s rations. It’s stupidity, right? Courage is saying I understand the risk. I understand the action that I’m taking, what it is and why I’m doing it. And I’m willing to take on that risk and sacrifice something, whether that’s my job, whether that’s my life, whether that’s humiliation, whatever it is and steak my put myself out there knowing that those bad consequences can come because I know it’s the right thing to do because I thought it out. A business person going out and saying, I’ve done the math and I and I have a gut intuition and I have a lot of data, but I have to take the jump toe, try something and put something out there that’s courage.

That’s courage, right? Soldiers going into war because they know what they’re fighting for. That’s courage. Asking a girl, that you’ve been dating for a little while to marry you or asking a girl out on a date who you are interested in. That’s courage, right? That’s taking a calculated risk. That’s courage. And then he goes on to say this being determined by reason. So right, that’s what I’m talking about. Here is it has to be a rational choice. You’re not just doing it willy nilly. You’re not just going out there and giving into your senses or your pleasure or your fear. You’re doing what is rational right, and it’s in the in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it, and practical wisdom is something that Aristotle talks a lot about in his work on ethics. 

Practical Wisdom

And what practical wisdom is, as I’ve talked about before is the ability to look at a given situation and apply this vast amount of knowledge that you have accrued to the situation properly. It’s the ability to say, I know X, y and Z and all of these different facts and figures and ideas and belief systems, whatever it is. But now I’m given this situation. I am presented these circumstances. How do I apply my knowledge to the given set of circumstances? How do I categorize these circumstances in front of me and break apart the problem and solve it with the knowledge that I have? That’s what practical wisdom is, and that’s what you have to have. If you want Thio discover what the golden mean is forgiven situation. 

So, What Is the Golden Mean?

And so what, then, is the golden mean well at a high level? The golden mean is an idea found in Aristotle’s ethics. Like I mentioned the Tao Te Ching the Analects by Confucius, even C. S. Lewis’s abolition of man, right talks about it, and what it is is it describes a way of being. I’ve talked about the mean in the past. And what the golden mean is is that middle road between the extremes that is proper to the situation. It is what I mean. What Aristotle said here is pretty tough to beat, right? It’s that excellence that he’s talking about, where you choose rationally the proper path, right? Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life. What he’s saying there is, I am the way forward. I am the proper path. I offer you truth. 

I offer you that right way of being, and I do it with all the knowledge and facts and figures and wisdom. I have all of that for you and offer it to you in the truth and what that if you take that truth and you apply it to your circumstances and you trust in me, then it multiplies into an abundance of life. And that’s what he’s giving you there as the way the truth and the life and so the golden mean is this manner of behaving where your life is balanced and virtuous. You find this by acting in a virtuous manner, given your situation, and I think it’s also relevant to point out that I’ve talked a little bit about Lao Tzu and Confucius. 

Lao Tzu, Confucius and the Tao

They have a tremendous philosophy on ethics, and I think it’s very, very correct in many, many ways. And I think that the Tao Te Ching is a beautiful work of literature that feels very much like E feel like a lot of Eastern Orthodox Eastern Catholics would love it because it has this mysteriousness to it. This very good sense of mystery. It is clear that we can’t fully understand the reality that’s behind this ethics, and you find that a lot. And then, if you like the Gospels and Jesus is teaching or played the works of Plato, where he has Socrates and dialogue with people. If you like that style style of philosophy and teaching, then read Confucius is Analects and the doctrine of the mean because he walks through well, really, what it is, is his students recording his sayings and in dialogue with people. 

So it’s very much like when the scribes and Pharisees would question Jesus when, uh, different philosophers and I cannot think of names about the top of my head would question Socrates, right, that sort of similar situation where you have students and pupils and peers sort of cross examining the teacher. And I love that sort of work. So I definitely recommend you read those and you read all of these books and we’ll go through the the TA Teaching the Analects, the doctrine of the mean the Nicomachean ethics. I just say Aristotle’s ethics because I do not know how to pronounce the other word fully. I’m very bad about it. I learned how to pronounce things in Spanish, in high school and in college. 

Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

And so that’s what you got. I can speak a little bit of Spanish to you if you want that. But when it comes to my Greek and my Latin and all of those, sorry, I’m gonna butcher it and especially French. I’m gonna butcher it. But we’re gonna walk through those works on and also even abolition a man. I think I’ve done a book review on that, and I recommend you check that out. But I think the abolition man is another great one that talks about the Tao talks about the way. But all that is just a way of talking about this Golden mean Andi like the golden mean because I mean, gold is great and the mean, I think, gives you this idea because the way is great and I think it describes it well. But you have to recognize that it is the way that is proper to you, right? 

The Mean is a Balance

The mean, I think. I guess I think what I’m trying to get at is I like the way the mean is talked about. And Confucius and Aristotle have this idea, but it’s because you have to balance things. I think that the way is a great way of showing that it’s a journey. It’s a path for you in life, and it’s something that you have to do. But the mean is also a idea of balancing it. 

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, and Billy Joel has a great song on that. If you want to listen to the song, I go to extremes. Uh, I think that we see we see that sort of temperament and a lot of people, and so this means is that right way of being that is proper to your circumstances, to your situation, to your so you have to take into account, then your talents, your knowledge, right?

Know What’s Proper for You

What is proper for you as a very smart person, like the Ben Shapiro’s of the World or the Jordan Pietersen’s Who Are, you know, 595 10 and not super athletic. What is proper for you is probably not the n b a right. What is proper for LeBron James? Obviously with his talent, you know Tom Brady with his talent. It is proper for those guys to go into the athletics that they went into. They had the talent for it. Could they have done other things? Sure, but that is a great way for them to use their talents. 

So you have to understand that you have to understand your limitations and your abilities, right, your talents and your limitations and find the path that is proper for you. And that’s what I think the golden mean is all about, you know, is the hokey Pokey says. That’s what it’s all about. Um, but what do we do about finding it? Then how do we know what that is for ourselves in what you have to do? There is look at practical wisdom, and I talked about this a little bit. But in order to follow the mean, you must know your situation and act in accord with virtue, given the circumstances and practical wisdom is that ability to look at this situation you’re given and apply the knowledge you have properly? 

Find the Golden Mean through Practical Wisdom

I have links in the show notes to more in depth article about attaining virtue through practical wisdom in this section of the show notes. So definitely check that out. And it’s also on the vital masculine podcast block as well. So you can also read it on vitalmasculinity.org. Check it out there. But sometimes the practical wisdom means that you have to stay and fight. That is right. To do that, sometimes it means you have to negotiate and talk about something. Sometimes it means running and hiding is what you should do, right. It depends on the situation. 

If you’re completely outmanned and outgunned, maybe you do have to retreat or run. If mhm, you’re just forced backed into a corner, and your only chance is to fight. You have to fight If you’re in a place where you’re both kind of an uneven ground, maybe you could negotiate yourself out of the fight. Save yourself that and talk about peace and finding a pathway forward without the violence. It just depends on the situation. What what do you faced with at the moment? That’s how you determine that. And it’s hard to do it. It takes a lot of practice, and so if you don’t get it right the first time, that’s okay because no one does, except for Jesus. 

You Will Fail at Times

So don’t worry about it, right? We all struggle with this, and we all fail. I do constantly. I mean, I constantly find myself doing stupid things like losing my temper, spending too much time on social media when I should be paying attention to my wife, for the other people around me, right? We do all of those things that we say we know we shouldn’t do, but maybe there is a good there. Maybe there is a great debate happening on Twitter, and I’m adding my two cents and it might help somebody. Sure, Okay, good, that’s great. But if I’m at Valentine’s Day, dinner with my wife is that really what I’m supposed to be doing? No. 

And so knowing when it’s proper and when it’s good to do the action is important. And the fact of the matter is, very few actions are intrinsically evil, right? Murder is intrinsically evil. Sex outside with someone besides your spouse, Catholics would say, and most Christians is intrinsically evil, right? But there are many things dropping off a package on someone’s doorstep, not intrinsically evil. Is that package a bomb? Now, if you know that it’s a bomb and you’re doing it on purpose, that’s evil. If you are just a delivery guy and someone sent something in the mail and you don’t know you’re not doing the evil, the person who sent it is the one who did the evil right that the circumstances determine what’s good and bad. 

Why I Love Ethics

And I love ethics for this reason, because it gets into the particularities. That’s what’s important. When people talk about morality, they talk about broad principles, and that’s good. You should have some broad principles, but now you have to take those and apply them to the situation. What do you get? That’s where ethics comes in. It’s where morality hits reality, and that’s where we have to deal with it because we are incarnation of beings. We are body and spirit, and so we have to have abstract principles. But we have to act things out. We have to do things. We have to be a person of some sort, and so we might as well be a good person. What does that mean? 

We have to do the things that make you a good person then and so ethics is beautiful because it gets to that reality of being human, of making sure that you are acting properly according to your nature. And so, like I said, most actions are not in and of themselves, good or bad. They’re just fairly ethically neutral. They’re just things that you could do that could be good. That could be bad. That could just be kind of neutral overall, right? 

If you I can’t turn on a light that’s very ethically neutral and just about every case. I can’t think of a case where it’s necessarily moral, where it’s an immoral thing or upright and righteous thing to turn on the light. For the most part, Yeah, I guess if you’re helping someone out. Someone’s fumbling around the dark and you turn on a light for them. That’s a nice thing to do for somebody. 

Applying Moral Principles to Situations

If but most of time you’re just walking into a room and turning on the lights, you can see it’s just a very neutral thing. Most actions air similar to that if you think about the number of actions we do in a day. But the fact of the matter is, there are our moral implications to a huge number of actions that we do as well. And so we have to know what those implications are and discern what is right, what is just what is good. And so in order to attain practical wisdom, you’ll need to pieces. You need the knowledge around about the world around you in general, and you need prudence because you need knowledge so that you can know what you’re talking about. 

You can know things and be able to apply the different knowledge to the situation. You need to know about different fields, especially the virtues, so that okay, all of the situation that you come across this wide range of situations that you’ll find yourself in you’ll have some context because that’s what’s important, right? Going back to the situation with the bomb, right? If you have knowledge about what’s in the package, that will have serious ethical implications for whether or not it’s ethical to deliver the package. If you know that it’s something harmful and it’s gonna hurt somebody and you deliver it anyways, well, that’s a serious ethical transgression. That’s a seriously bad thing. If you don’t know, then you’re innocent of that. 

Can You be Culpable for Negligence?

But maybe should you have known, should you have enquired, Right? Is there someone who’s sending bombs in the mail? And you didn’t think to check, despite the fact that you, you know, should know that that this happening, you don’t listen to the news or anything like that. And so you didn’t know that that was going on and pertaining to your profession? You didn’t read the memo from UPS saying, or whoever you deliver for. I’m not gonna throw them under the bus in this because I don’t want a libel lawsuit. But nothing’s happening to be clear. There’s nothing. This is just an example. I’m not saying anything about UPS or any delivery services.

But, if you should have read some memo from your employer that says, Hey, be on the lookout for these things and you didn’t Well, that’s a failing on your part. But you still may not be ethically responsible for delivering the package. And if you’re the first person that this serial killer going on a rampage delivers through, well, then you you would have no way of knowing. So there’s very different things. It very different implications for your actions, based on the level of knowledge that you have of a situation. And so the more knowledge you have, the better for being able to determine what is right and what is good in a given situation. 

Why Bioethics is a Great Example of How to Find the Golden Mean

Bioethics is a great example because it’s so tough to master. If you don’t have both scientific and philosophical knowledge, you need to be able to understand the science of what’s actually happening in these complex situations, where there’s very gray areas with like, you know, especially like things like the morning after pill or euthanasia. When is euthanasia versus you know, maybe with whole or unethical withholding of care versus ethically, allowing someone to maybe not get some of the things that they should that they need, because the burden that you’re putting on them is actually greater than the good that you’re giving them by maybe feeding somebody because they’re so sick and they’re so close to death that feeding them is just kind of like torturing them almost right. 

There’s play times when that is the case, and so that scientific side of things You have to know what’s going on there. But then philosophically, you have to be able to say, Here’s the action that you’re taking now. What are the moral implications of it? Where what sorts of how do you ground yourself in the different schools of philosophy? Schools of thought to be able to say, Here’s how I categorize this action and this is intrinsically evil. This is something that is morally neutral. This is something that is morally good. And now how now, in this situation, this morally neutral thing might be good or bad? We have to discuss that, Okay, that’s that’s all knowledge. That’s all understanding the different situations in the different backgrounds, so you can apply that broad based to a particular instance. 

You’ll Need Prudence to find the Golden Mean

Prudence is the ability to assess the specific situation you’re in so it’s important to understand what the situation is that you’re currently in by parsing out the details and categorizing things based on what you understand already. So that’s where prudence comes in and your ability to learn and sort of divide and understand the situation. But then you also have to be able to pull from the proper knowledge. Because if we’re talking about bioethics and we’re discussing this and I’m saying well but you know be comes after seeing the alphabet, it’s like, Yeah, that’s true ABC. We get it, But why are you talking about that right now when we’re talking about whether or not withholding care at this point is morally licit? 

Well, it would be stupid to bring that up in the discussion, most likely right that point, because it’s irrelevant. So knowing what is. And that’s an extreme example. But knowing what is relevant to the given situation is important. If you’re talking about euthanasia issues and you’re giving examples of abortion, well, it might be relevant. But there’s a very good chance that it’s not also so understanding that, and having the right judgment and being able to make the right connections between the different pieces of knowledge that you have, knowing what’s analogous and where the analogy starts to fail. That’s important because philosophy relies ah, lot on analogy. But you also have to recognize the limits of that. And so practical wisdom is key to finding the mean. 

Why is the Golden Mean Important?

But then why is this important? Why should you even care right? Well, by looking at the societies of the East and West, I think it’s pretty obvious the emphasis on the individual by Aristotle lead to, AH, huge success of Europe. But the emphasis on propriety and on the culture at large on society, kind of by allow Sue and Confucius led to the success of the Chinese Empire and modern day Japan. Those are very similar situations where they have this but there very different right those air, very different ways of finding success. But it’s because of the different cultural context this western side of things had. A strong focus on individual is, um, the Eastern societies have a very strong emphasis on the collective on the group. That’s just how their culture are. 

They prioritize things differently, and so they could both be successful, but they’re doing it finding that in different ways based on the context and the golden mean matters. Because when you look at this broader set the success of Western culture over centuries, when you look at the success of the China over centuries, really even millennia for both West and China and Japan, the reason these societies have thrived for so long is because they’ve found a way to balance is they’ve found ways to instill in each of their people a set of ethical guidelines and the ability for each person to make good ethical decisions throughout their life as well. That’s an important part of what this is. That’s why it matters, right? 

Know Why Something is Right

Christianity is my religion. I’m a Catholic, and I believe that there are things that come with that. There are precepts put on me because of my religion. But I don’t just look at it as here’s a way to think about doing good things. For people as much as here is the truth. And here is I guess it’s a lot more right than just an ethical code of conduct. But I look at Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, and I look at Lao Tzu and Confucius and their writings. I look at Aristotle in his ethics, and now I can start to pull out philosophically. Okay, how do we learn to map what is right? How do we map the actions that I should be taking on to the world around me? 

And that’s where I think the Golden Mean is, so helpful, Because it is a way of enquiring about the world around us, looking at our nature, looking at the facts of the case, assessing what is right, and that’s why it’s important, because Christianity has a lot of great precepts, and it is You should follow it, and I think it you as a Catholic. I think that everything that the Catholic Church teaches is what we should follow. I think that we have to have a means of understanding that because the church is guided, I believe by the Holy Spirit to not come to errant ideas on morals, on faith and morals. 

But those people who are coming to those ideas are using these methods, and so I want to understand how they come to these conclusions about ethics and about morality. And so I want if I want to just follow what the church says. I think I’ll be fine. But if I want to understand why the church says what it says and to be able to determine for myself, given the situation as best I can, then I think I have to understand the mean. 

Evaluate Ethical Situations for Yourself

I have to understand how to evaluate ethical situations. And if you don’t have a Christian faith or faith of some sort, that gives you those guidelines. You definitely need this more you do because you do have to act ethically and morally. We know that that’s the case, and if you don’t have ah system of beliefs that or a system of doctrines that guides your actions, then you need to understand how to discover those. Because the fact of the matter is, I think Nietzsche was wrong about being able to create that for yourself. Aristotle was right and that you could discover it for yourself, that it’s written into our nature and you could discover that. But it takes a lot, and so there’s a lot of people who have done a lot of great work on it. 

Learn From Others About the Golden Mean

So read the great thinkers, and that’s what we’re going to do in my course that I and gonna be rolling out. We’re gonna be going through what the’s great thinkers prescribed. Where I think they may be wrong. Where there, right where their innovative and unique where there definitely a part of kind of falling in line with everyone else. And we’re gonna go through that because I think that that is important to understand. That’s so much of what the conversation for generation about is being in dialogue with these great thinkers of the past and using their wisdom to solve our problems today. And so you don’t have to discover this for yourself in the sense that you have to recreate it. 

You just have to go and learn it and you can read. I recommend the church fathers and other church doctors, but I definitely recommend I I barely talked about them. I’ve talked mostly about Aristotle, about Confucius. Lao Tzu C.S. Lewis, his, uh, work on Abolition of Man is great.

Yearning For the Golden Mean

There’s a lot of great places to find that, and so definitely I think it’s important to understand ethics because if are like C. S. Lewis says, you know, if there is a sense that is hunger, then it’s because it can be satisfied by food. If you have thirst is because it could be satisfied by drink. If you have ah, since that we if there is a thirst for God, then, is because there is a God out there to quench that, uh, not thirst, I guess. But if there is a yearning for God, then there is a god out there toe quench that yearning. But if we have this sense that things are to be ordered in a certain way, that there is morally good and morally bad, then there is a moral order that we can understand and discover that can answer those questions in particulars.

And just like there’s an answer for gravity, I think it’s really more along those lines.  There’s a reason why gravity works and why all these different laws of physics works while there’s moral laws that guide our ethics and our understanding of that that have to be discovered that had to be worked out and have to be fine tuned over time and we can do that. But that’s why the mean matters, because that golden mean is the perfect understanding of that moral law and the perfect application of that moral law to the given situation. That’s what the golden mean is, and why it matters to you is because you want to be able to perfectly applied that you should yearned for the perfect understanding of the moral law and the ability to live that out in your life perfectly. That is the best achievement that a person can have, and that’s why it’s so important. 

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