Approaching Excellence

Aristotle is famous for his so-called doctrine of the mean: a particular excellence of character is not the opposite of a single fault (e.g., courage vs. cowardice) but is intermediate between excess and defect (e.g., courage is opposed to both rashness and cowardice). Although some scholars never go deeper than this surface understanding, as I see it “that which is intermediate” (τὸ μέσον) is merely a first approximation to excellence, because there’s an awful lot of space in the middle between going far beyond the mean and falling far short of it.

Within this large realm of the intermediate, then, a second approximation in a given situation might be “that which is appropriate or fitting” (τὸ πρέπον). This is likely what Aristotle had in mind when in Book II, Chapter 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics he said:

Anyone can get angry — that is easy — or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy.

(Actually, all those instances of the word “right” from W.D. Ross’s translation aren’t in the original Greek at line 1109a28, which in Aristotle’s usual compressed style reads only “but to whom and how much and when and for what sake and how”.)

Yet “that which is appropriate” doesn’t sound very inspiring, does it? Perhaps, then, a third approximation to excellence is “that which is beautifully right” (τὸ καλόν), for throughout his ethical works Aristotle emphasizes that the deeply virtuous person acts for the sake of τὸ καλόν. Think, for instance, of a time when someone you know not only did an intermediate thing or an appropriate thing but did something that had an stunning beauty or ineluctable rightness about it: a gift, a compliment, a decision, a remark, an action that was simply magnificent or utterly felicitous or deeply honorable or, as Aristotle says, beautifully right.

Yes, this is a high standard to reach, when we are able. But it just might be the height to which Aristotle calls us.

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