19 June 2009

The Golden Mean in Aristotle & the Fathers

This is the first, I hope, of two further posts on specific passages in the Discourses of St Dorotheus of Gaza, inspired when I reopened that book to work on the post in his honour yesterday. Again, I use Eric Wheeler’s translation—Discourses and Sayings (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1977).

St Dorotheus, in his 10th Discourse, ‘On Travelling the Way of God With Vigilance and Sobriety’, writes:

Virtue stands in the middle [between excess and defect]. This is the King’s highway of which one of the elders used to say, ‘Walk by the King’s highway and count up the miles’ (Abba Benjamin 5 [see Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 44]). The virtues, therefore, as we say, are in the middle between too much and too little. Therefore, it is written, ‘Do not deviate to the right or to the left but walk the King’s highway’ (Prov. 4:27). And as St Basil says, ‘A man is upright at heart when his estimation of things is not biased towards excess or defect, but goes straight to the middle path of virute’ (In Ps. 7:7). . . .

Therefore, we say that virtue stands in the middle: and so courage stands in the middle between cowardice and fool-hardiness (cf. Aristotle, Nic. Ethics II.7.2); humility in the middle between arrogance and obsequiousness. Modesty is a mean between bashfulness and boldness—and so on with the other virtues. If then a man is found to possess these virtues, such a man is esteemed by God, and even if he was always seen to eat, drink and sleep like other men, he would still be esteemed for the virtues he has. But unless a man is watchful and keeps guard on himself he easily deviates from the road either to the left or to the right, that is by excess or neglect, and so he brings upon himself that sickness which is wickedness. (pp. 165-6)

Obviously, this whole passage is greatly indebted to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, where, at 1106b in the Bekker text, he famously writes, ‘Virtue, then, is a kind of moderation, at least having the mean as its aim’ (Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle [Grinnell, IA: Peripatetic, 1984], p. 28). In other words, the vicious man is given to extremities, demonstrating either an excess or deficiency of the good, while the virtuous man, the wise man, avoids these. St Dorotheus’s patristic citations suggest to us, and Constantine Cavarnos has affirmed (The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1989], p. 55), that it is an ethical doctrine that has been taken up in many passages of patristic writings. I’ll just mention a few.

First, Cavarnos adds to those we have already seen the example of St Gregory of Sinai, who writes, ‘Select as far as you can that which is best, and do not deviate from the mean, whether in the direction of excess or in that of deficiency’ (qtd. in Cavarnos, p. 55). (Unfortunately, the English edition of the Philokalia renders the passage somewhat more ambiguously, making St Gregory’s debt to Aristotle less obvious: ‘Attentive to these distinctions, choose what is best for you according to your powers, not overstepping the limits’—The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware [London: Faber, 1995], p. 281.) Second, he cites the ‘Treasury of Divine Knowledge’ of St Peter of Damascus, ‘That is why whoever wishes to travel the shortest road to Christ—the road of dispassion and spiritual knowledge—and joyfully to attain perfection, should not turn either to the right or to the left, but in his whole way of life should journey diligently along the royal way’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. III, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 88). Finally, Cavarnos refers in a footnote to The Life of Moses of St Gregory of Nyssa, where we read (The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson [NY: Paulist, 1978], p. 128):

287. When the people are purified of this passion, then they cross through the foreign life. As the Law leads them along the royal highway, they deviate from it in no way at all. It is easy for a traveler to turn aside. Suppose two precipices form a high narrow pass; from its middle the person crossing it veers at his peril in either direction (for the chasm on either side swallows the person who turns aside). In the same way the Law requires the person who keeps in step with it not to leave the way which is, the Lord says, narrow and hard, to the left or to the right.

288. This teaching lays down that virtue is discerned in the mean. Accordingly, all evil naturally operates in a deficiency of or an excess of virtue. In the case of courage, cowardice is the lack of virtue and rashness is its excess. What is pure of each of these is seen to lie between these corresponding evils and is virtue. In the same way all other things which strive for the better also somehow take the middle road between the neighboring evils.

But as helpful as it is to take note of this use by various Fathers of the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean, we must keep in mind two caveats. First, in his study of the ethics of St Gregory Palamas (Passions & Virtues According to St Gregory Palamas, trans. and ed. Hieromonk Alexis [Trader] and Harry Boosalis [South Canaan, PA: STS, 2004], p. 107), my professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Anestis Keselopoulos, has pointed out that even Aristotle has qualified this doctrine when he says at 1107a, ‘Thus, according to its substance or the definition stating its essence, virtue is a mean [of a certain kind], but with respect to the highest good and to excellence, it is an extreme’ (p. 29). So there is certainly a sense in which we are justified in regarding virtue as an extreme, and to me it seems difficult, for example, to regard the so-called ‘theological virtues’ in any other way.

But second, Keselopoulos has also observed that despite its presence in the patristic tradition, the doctrine of the mean as Aristotle has stated it is not the most common use of the term ‘mean’ (μεσότης) with regard to virtue. Keselopoulos writes:

However, even though there may be similarities, the fact is that in the majority of patristic writings, including those of Palamas, the term ‘mean’ is used differently. In addition to how it is used in the general sense of virtue, the ‘mean’ also points to the middle between initiation and conclusion of the spiritual life, that is, between one’s beginning the path of faith and the ultimate destination—perfection in Christ. If the imitation of Christ begins with Holy Baptism as a type of man’s participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and if the end is victory over the passions, then the ‘mean’ is the virtuous life lived according to the Gospel, whose boundaries are set between the beginning of Baptism and the goal of dispassion: ‘For us, the beginning of this imitation is Holy Baptism, a type of the Lord’s Burial and Resurrection. The mean is the life of virtue lived according to the Gospel. The end is the victory over the passions through spiritual struggles, a victory that introduces us to the painless, imperishable and heavenly life’ (Homilies 21; PG 151, 277B; [this passage can be found in The Homilies of St Gregory Palamas, Vol. I: Homilies I-XXI, ed. Christopher Veniamin (South Canaan, PA: STS, 2002), p. 266]). Thus, when Palamas regards virtue as the mean in the believer’s spiritual life and sets the boundaries for virtue between Holy Baptism and dispassion, he dicloses the dynamic dimension and fundamental role that virtue possesses in man’s renewal and theosis in Christ. (pp. 108-9)

On the image above, see this fascinating post.


Anonymous said...

It appears that St. Gregory the Great uses this same "Golden Mean" in his book "Pastoral Care".Good stuff.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

It needs to be clarified that the mean is not one of actions, but of passions. It's in the balance amongst the passions that moderation exists through their harmonious working together, as God intended, so that none outstrips the other.

I think when most people hear talk about the mean, they think of actions. But it is actually a step back, in the realm of internal motivation of actions. Only proper motivation (the mean amongst the passions) can result in excellence of action, just as a good tree can't grow from a bad seed.

aaronandbrighid said...

Joseph> Thank you--I'll have to look for that!

Kevin> Yes, of course. I hope I didn't say anything misleading in that regard. It struck me that that was an important point in J.O. Umson's article, ‘Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean’, in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty [Berkeley: U of California, 1980], p. 157. Because of the pernicious influence of later ethical theories, it seems like there is a temptation to make the mean into 'a piece of moral advice', thereby dissociating it from the nature of the moral agent. Unfortunately, ethicists, whether they wish to be or not, are often in the position of having deal with a question of 'right action' and it can become habitual to think in those terms.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I didn't mean to imply that you'd implied it, only to make the clarification for anyone reading who didn't know the background. Not that I'm writing your posts or anything!

My copy of Salonica: City of Ghosts arrived today. It looks like a great read!

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh, I wasn't implying that you implied that I'd implied it, only that what you said could be taken to imply that I'd implied what you said you didn't imply that I'd implied.

aaronandbrighid said...

Hope you enjoy the Mazower book!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yeah, that!

On Mazower: so far, I like the pictures! Especially the older ones, pre-apartment blocks.