On Wisdom: Practice: The Golden Mean

Music: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
By J.S. Bach. Sequenced by George Pollen.

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Nicholas Gordon

1. Aristotle proposed a simple rule for acting wisely: moderation in all things except knowledge. He excepted knowledge because it was the one quality for which he could find no excess. But for every other quality, he said, there is a deficit and an excess, and wisdom lies in finding the mean between them.

2. So, for example, courage would be the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, humility the mean between arrogance and self-effacement, frugality the mean between stinginess and profligacy, and so on.

3. Aristotle did not have a mathematical mean in mind, but one that varied with each person and circumstance, and so the rule, though simple in statement, is complex in application.

4. A person who is prone to cowardice, for example, might have to compensate by aiming higher up the scale in order to achieve the mean of courage, while one prone to profligacy might have to aim lower down to achieve frugality. Self-knowledge, therefore, is necessary if one is to achieve true moderation.

5. Experience is also necessary, since adjustment towards the mean is a matter of trial and error, acting inappropriately and learning from one's mistakes.

6. One can also learn from models of moderation, and from reading and conversation. But only self-knowledge and experience will bring one to an intuitive sense of moderation, as well as an appreciation of its wisdom.

7. The rewards of moderation are health, happiness, and success--all, of course, in moderation.

8. One quality in addition to knowledge that might be excepted from the rule of the Golden Mean is love of being. For while the excess of love is obsession, and one can be obsessively religious, the love of being itself is boundless, informing all other love and providing the vitality that underlies all strength, all activity, and all happiness.


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