Aristotle was wrong about moderation

The main argument of The Ethics is that virtue is found in the mean between extreme positions. The idea has infused Western thinking ever since; but it is wrong.

He was wrong because he was a pagan. He had no anchor on which to ground moral reason, which the Greek religion lacked. He knew that Hesiod was a just poet and not a prophet of truth, and he had to find some ground for some ethical system of common good, and so the Golden Mean was a principle for want of any other.

The first to condemn moderation as a universal principle was Aristotle himself having just propounded it. He wrote that some ethical rules are absolute: there is no middle way between fidelity and adultery, for example, he wrote.

He was a wise man, far wiser than those who set out in later generations to turn his ideas into rules, but he knew no actual foundation grounded outside his own mind. He was a Greek, setting his thinking in order with no knowledge of the law and the prophets of Israel, let alone the teachings of Jesus which were to come centuries after his time.  The result was a philosophy inevitably flawed because it was built on no foundation.

there is nothing so absurd, that the old Philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained. And I beleeve that scarce any thing can be more absurdly said in naturall Philosophy, than that which now is called Aristotles Metaphysiques, nor more repugnant to Government, than much of that hee hath said in his Politiques; nor more ignorantly, than a great part of his Ethiques.

Greece in time accepted Christ, but did not abandon Aristotle for the better revelation, and there Western civilisation had a rot at its heart. Tertullian 200 years after Christ despaired: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ he demanded, but to no avail.

Centuries which followed understood that there is absolute truth and absolute morality and a true basis for it, but still held to pagan Aristotle in philosophy, just as they did to Galen in medicine (it is frightening to think how many perished in pain because no one would apply science to disprove the suggestions of a Graeco-Roman physician).

Aristotle, and other Heathen Philosophers define Good, and Evill, by the Appetite of men; and well enough, as long as we consider them governed every one by his own Law: For in the condition of men that have no other Law but their own Appetites, there can be no generall Rule of Good, and Evill Actions. But in a Common-wealth this measure is false: Not the Appetite of Private men, but the Law, which is the Will and Appetite of the State is the measure.

Hobbes summarises his approach:

though I reverence those men of Ancient time, that either have written Truth perspicuously, or set us in a better way to find it out our selves; yet to the Antiquity it self I think nothing due: For if we will reverence the Age, the Present is the Oldest. If the Antiquity of the Writer, I am not sure, that generally they to whom such honor is given, were more Ancient when they wrote, than I am that am Writing: But if it bee well considered, the praise of Ancient Authors, proceeds not from the reverence of the Dead, but from the competition, and mutuall envy of the Living.

The argument to moderation then must fall. It has no basis. There is goodness in what appears to be moderation, grounded on reason and Christian teaching, but not from the straw Aristotle grasped at, and it is not really moderation.

The Golden Mean assumes a one-dimensional spectrum on one topic alone. No aspect of social relations can be one-dimensional nor go by with no consequence on an infinite network of bonds. Those bonds are restraints on the State of Nature, sometimes stifling; sometimes enabling practical freedom, usually both.  What appears to be moderation is to be balanced on thread of bonds and instincts and motivations to best advantage.  The result looks Aristotelian, but has nothing to do with his idea.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short