Aristotle And The Mean Of Virtue

Have you ever met a person with a magical personality? The one who seems able to deal with people on all levels, all demeanor, characters, and social status? He can light a dark tunnel with his personality. Or this man can be very graceful under pressure, can be very generous but not extravagant, can be confident enough without being haughty, and always seem to know what to say.

You bet, everyone is dreaming to be one and to meet this kind of person or personality. But first, we have to define what really an ideal personality is and what manly virtue (if virtue is the right ingredient) is in the making of the most ideal personality of all time.

To define and mold that person on the potter’s molding platform is Aristotle, a 385 BC Greek philosopher who was born during the time where everyone is a wide-eyed wanderer on this planet about our existence. Aristotle facuses and uses the word or human quality named as virtue to start molding that pleasing personality.


The Virtue Theory

The virtue theory by Aristotle is a theory that emphasizes on human character. One odd feature of his theory is that it doesn’t give any sort of imperatives or commands. Which means, it doesn’t command you to be this and that in order for you to be the right guy among the crowd. You ask yourself, “how do I become a good mechanical engineer?” Well, you go school, follow this and that by your professor, you graduate and voila, you’re now an engineer!

But things are little different when you want to be the best guy. You don’t have a university for this. In fact, according to Aristotle:

If you only focus on being good people or being a good guy, then right actions will just follow and sooner acting in the way of an ideal man will be your second nature.”

Really! But how?

This kind of reaction from you never fails. Everyone does – but how do you become and act as a good person?

This seems to be a problem for us, but for Aristotle, it’s simple. He believes that humans come with built-in or fixed nature to function as defined. We may call it essences or nature. Aristotle calls it the “proper functioning.” Which means you are only as good as your function and you are worse if you don’t function according to your nature.

To explain, if you are a man or a human being, act like a real human being. You cannot act like wild animals do – because you are not. And if you are seeing animals doing animalistic functions like dogs copulating on the outdoors, that’s because they are animals, you won’t expect animals or dogs to go check-in a brothel for this.


To give off more examples is that the purpose of a cup is to hold my coffee. The cup is well and good for as long as it is holding my coffee. And if my cup gets a hole or broken into pieces and can no longer hold my coffee, then it’s a bad cup and I will have to replace it with a good one, obviously. Same is true with a knife. The purpose of a knife is to cut. A sharp knife is a good knife, a dull one is a bad one.

You see, the goodness of a knife is concomitant to its purpose, to cut. But for it to cut properly it must carry out a virtue, and that is to be sharp. And a dull knife is not virtuous.

According to Aristotle, the same line of thought applies to human beings. We are what he called “The Rational Animal” and “The Social Animal”. And one of our functions is to get along with the pack as social animals and using reason as rational animals. It’s a little easy to define virtue and function when it comes to defining everyday objects, but when it comes to human beings, things get a little elaborate.

Natural Law Theory

Natural Law Theory is a Thomasian theory by Thomas Aquinas. In fact, Aristotle has a deep impact on Aquinas’ stream of thought when it comes to this theory.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that God has created us with all the necessary elements to function well as a perfect human being and is pleasing to God. But Aristotle differs by asserting that this is not all about God or God’s plan or the Divine Command Theory. For Aristotle, this is all about nature. He believes that nature has built into us the propensity or the drive to be the best human being possible. It’s no different from an acorn when planted and becomes an oak tree. You won’t find an acorn that when planted grows to be otherwise.

But hey, Aris! We’re talking about human beings, they are not acorns.


Human beings can be an embarrassment to nature if he’d be an acorn. You plant him, and he’d grow into a banana or a pear tree or even choose to be a pisky weed at the bottom of the hill. All these are possible because he has what we called “will”, “choice” or “volition.” So, if an acorn cannot do otherwise but be an aok, humans are radically different. He can be acting like a real wild animal if he wants to or even worse than that at will.

The Mean Of Virtue

But hey, how does it really mean to be virtuous as human beings?

For Aristotle, it’s simple again:

“…just do the right thing in the right way, right time, right quantity, and into the right person!”

We’re actually waiting for some breakthrough statement. But it’s plain and simple. As lackluster as the statement may seem, but if you try to strike a deeper note on that, you’ll notice that what is basic and simple is just what humanity needs. Unfortunately, it’s what humanity also missed to do because some of us are waiting for some meteoric statement from some esoterically anointed inspirational speakers. 

Again, Aristotle in his best shot:

“…if you are a virtuous person there is no need to itemize everything. Because that virtue within you (as a human being and not a dog, or any other lowly animals in the wild) will guide you and teach you what to do all the time. It will teach you how to handle yourself, how to get along with others and it will teach you the right things to say. It will teach you what’s right and wrong and the right judgement for everything.”

Looks very reassuring but it seems that I still need to lock my doors.

At this point, Aristotle seems a little triggered. So he gave a very satisfactory parallelism to his virtue theory. We call this “The Mean Of Virtue.

We cannot get enough as long as we cannot pin down a certain virtue of a person with pleasing personality of all times. One of the most necessary and desirable virtues of a man is courage, which we will use here as our protagonist in the illustration.

Click to magnify

Aristotle denotes the polarities of every virtue. A courageous person, for example, cannot have too much of it (which will turn him into a foolhardy person) or too deficient of it (which will turn him into a cowardly person).

You see, a foolhardy person is a person who is not cowardly but neither is he courageous. A foolhardy person can be very brave but without direction, no purpose, no virtue. You cannot be with this guy for real. For he may either break your neck or break his own.

A cowardly person is no different than the foolhardy. He is neither foolhardy nor does he is courageous. If you can’t be with a foolhardy, you might as well distant from a cowardly person because he might not break his neck nor yours, but somebody will.

Just some quickie morals on these two. The foolhardy will make a lot of risks in his life at all times, so does a cowardly person who misses all opportunities by running away from it. Think about it, especially if you’re into financial investment or like doing some stock trading stuff where fear, anger and greed paddles the canoe of the marketplace.

But first, check yourself for this.

Now, how about a courageous person. The courageous person is a perfect blend of the two elements.

So what does it mean?

A courageous person is neither too brave nor too cowardly. In other words, he feels both sides of the spectrum. He is courageous when times and circumstances need it. And use the element of fear or “cowardness” to his own advantage if circumstances are asking for it. You know, you wanna be with this guy.

Aristotle is right by far and wide with this particular example. We always say, “…anything that is too much is not good. Anything that is too little is neither.” Well, that’s it, we know it. Then why was it that we are not still doing it?

We know what a balanced diet means. If having a balanced diet would bring you closer to a perfect and virtuous person you would become, why not do it? If being generous but not being extravagant will bring us so closer to being virtuous, why are we not doing it yet?

Are you still expecting a virtuous person to be a superhuman? No it’s not. It could be you. Who knows, you might have been doing these stuff for a long time. Just ditch out the label and go for the real – honesty, generosity, courage, love, forgiveness, justice and all.


Just bring all these virtues into a fine tune with the Mean of Virtue and you won’t go wrong. Because you know how to tell the brutal truth and when not. You even know how to be forgiving and snap back when necessary. You know that love might be the greatest among all these, but we do believe that too much of it can kill you. So always strike the balance of everything, even if they call it a virtue because going in either direction is neither a virtue.

Again, a virtuous person knows what to do – do not ask. And you don’t even have to worry. Because according to Aristotle, a virtue is a skill that can be developed. The more you do it, the more that you are sharpening the saw, the more that it will become part of you – till it becomes you. Learn from the sages, the exemplars and individuals who have done it and have shown remarkable examples to humanity. And you already know who they are.

For Aristotle, being virtuous is the pinnacle of humanity. It is what you are made for, made from, and made to. And the very purpose of being virtuous is the one these eccentric philosophers called the “Eudaimonia”. Meaning, a “life well-lived” not only for you but for others too.

Virtue, for Aristotle is the full realization of humanity and civilization. It’s like the food we eat. Our industry and technology might have evolved at a blinding pace but not the food we eat. We still need to eat the same food our ancestors have eaten if we need to stay healthy. Our body has not yet evolved into not eating in order to live.

Same is true that we might one day evolve into Level 10 civilization, but I would highly doubt it that the rudimentary virtues we know will be left into insignificant level. For as long as you are human, virtues will define you and will guide you through the ropes of humanity – come what may!



If Aristotle’s Mean of Virtue states that you must not be the excess of everything in order for it to be considered a virtue or you can be considered virtuous.

The question is, how about geniuses? Those extra talented and gifted human beings that desirably breach the bracket of a typical human endeavor?

You mean are they not virtuous? What do you think?

Let me know with your comment people!



Author's Corner

Sweet, I blame you not, for mine the fault was, had I not been made of common clay. I had climbed the higher heights unclimbed yet, seen the fuller air, the larger day. From the wildness of my wasted passion I had struck a better, clearer song, Lit some lighter light of freer freedom, battled with some Hydra-headed wrong. – Oscar Wilde

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