The Doctrine of the Mean

One of the most famous aspects of Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s doctrine that virtue exists as a mean state between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, the virtuous mean of courage stands between the vices of rashness and cowardice, which represent excess and deficiency respectively.

For Aristotle, this is not a precise formulation. Saying that courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice does not mean that courage stands exactly in between these two extremes, nor does it mean that courage is the same for all people. Aristotle repeatedly reminds us in Nicomachean Ethics that there are no general laws or exact formulations in the practical sciences. Rather, we need to approach matters case by case, informed by inculcated virtue and a fair dose of practical wisdom.

Aristotle’s claim that virtue can be learned only through constant practice implies that there are no set rules we can learn and then obey. Instead, virtue consists of learning through experience what is the mean path, relative to ourselves, between the vices we may be liable to stumble into.