Golden mean (philosophy)

From New World Encyclopedia

Golden mean or "middle way" is an ancient concept described in various traditions. The concept was often discussed within ethical contexts and considered as a virtue.

In ancient Western civilization, the Golden Mean is found in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus, in the inscription of "Nothing in Excess" at the temple of Delphi, and in the ideas of Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato; the Golden Mean was an attribute of beauty.

In Western philosophy, Aristotle in particular elaborated the concept in his Nicomachean Ethics. The "golden mean" is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

In Confucianism, the golden mean or the doctrine of the mean was understood as a primary virtue and was described in the Confucian classic, the Doctrine of the Mean. For centuries, the text has been integrated into the education system in China. In Buddhism, the golden mean, or better known as the Middle Way, expresses the discourse of emancipation.

Greek tradition before Socrates


The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his son to "fly the middle course," between the sea spray and the sun's heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings.


Another early elaboration is the Doric saying carved on the front of the temple at Delphi: "Nothing in Excess."


The first work on the golden mean is often attributed to Theano, a student of Pythagorus.[1]


Socrates teaches that a man "must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible."

In education, Socrates asks us to consider the effect of either an exclusive devotion to gymnastics or an exclusive devotion to music. It either "produced a temper of hardness and ferocity, (or) the other of softness and effeminacy." Having both qualities, he believed, produces harmony; i.e., beauty and goodness. He additionally stresses the importance of mathematics in education for the understanding of beauty and truth.


According to Plato, something disproportionate was evil and was therefore to be despised.

In the Laws, Plato applies this principle to electing a government in the ideal state: "Conducted in this way, the election will strike a mean between monarchy and democracy…"


In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle writes on the virtues while repeating the phrase, "… is the Middle state between …." His psychology of the soul and its virtues is based on the golden mean between the extremes. In his Politics, Aristotle criticizes the Spartan Polity by critiquing the disproportionate elements of the constitution; for example, they train the men and not the women, they train for war but not peace, etcetera.

Nicomachean Ethics

Three basic elements

Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean consists of three pillars that work together to form a complete account.

First, there is a sort of equilibrium that the good person is in (1106a). This is related to a medical idea that a healthy person is in a balanced state. For example, one’s body temperature is neither too high nor too low. Related to ethics, one’s character does not go to extremes. For example, one does not overreact to situations, but rather keeps his composure. Equilibrium is the right feelings at the right time about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way (1106b).

The second pillar states that the mean we should strive for is relative to us. The intermediate of an object is unchanging; if twelve is excess and four is deficiency, then roughly eight is the intermediate in that object. Aristotle proposes something different for finding an intermediate relative to oneself. Aristotle’s ethics are not a one-size-fits-all system; what he is looking for is the mean that is good for a particular individual. For example, watering a small plant with a gallon of water is excessive but watering a tree with a gallon of water is deficient. This is because different plants have different needs for water intake and if the requirements for each plant are not met, the plant will die from root rot (excess) or dehydration (deficiency).

The third pillar is that each virtue falls between two vices. Virtue is like the mean because it is the intermediate between two vices. On this model a triad is formed with one vice on either end (excess or deficiency) and the virtue as the intermediate. If one’s character is too near either vice, then the person will incur blame but if one’s character is near the intermediate, the person deserves praise. Proper participation in each of these three pillars is necessary for a person to lead a virtuous and therefore happy life.


According to the principle of the Golden Mean in ancient Greek philosophy, one may be able to clarify a code of conduct. A general must seek courage, the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, in order to gain honor. A person who seeks pleasure through eating must find the mean between being a glutton and starving. A person who seeks knowledge must find the mean between ignorance and seeking knowledge to excess; excess knowledge is not wisdom, but the mind turned to cunning.

We must not understand Aristotle to mean that virtue lies exactly at the center of two vices. Aristotle only means that virtue is in between the two vices. Different degrees are needed for different situations. Knowing exactly what is appropriate in a given situation is difficult and that is why we need a long moral training. For example, being very angry at the fact that your wife is murdered is appropriate even though the state is closer to extreme anger (a vice) than it is to indifference (a vice). In that case, it is right for the virtuous man to be angry. However, if some water has been spilt in the garden by accident then the virtuous response is much closer to indifference.

Aristotle cited epikairekakia as part of his classification of virtues and emotions.[2] The philosopher uses a three part classification of virtues and emotions.[2] In this case, epicaricacy is the opposite of phthonos and nemesis occupies the mean. Nemesis is "a painful response to another's undeserved good fortune," while phthonos is "a painful response to any good fortune," deserved or not. The epikhairekakos person, actually takes pleasure in another's ill fortune.[2][3]


The Doctrine of the Mean (Chinese: 中庸; pinyin: zhōng yōng), is both a concept and the name of a Neo-Confucian text. The composition of the text is attributed to Zisi (or Kong Ji) the only grandson of Confucius. The term is originally derived from a verse of the Analects which reads:

The Master [Confucius] said, The virtue embodied in the doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order. But it has long been rare among people [6:26, Burton Watson tr.]

However, the Analects never expands on what this term means.

The Doctrine of the Mean as a text belongs to the later Confucian Canon of the Neo-Confucian movement as compiled by Zhu Xi, and delves into great detail the meaning of this term, as well as how to apply it to one's life.

Alternate Translations

Alternate translations of the term include:

  • the "Constant Mean" (James, Legge)
  • the "Middle Way" (Simon, Leys)
  • the "Middle Use" (Arthur Waley)
  • the "Unwobbling Pivot" or "Pivot" (Ezra Pound)
  • "Chung Yung" (Ezra Pound)

Interpreting the Text and the Purpose of the Mean

The Doctrine of the Mean is a text rich with symbolism and guidance to perfecting oneself. The mean is also described as the 'unwobbling pivot' or 'chung yung'. "Chung" means bent neither one way nor another, and "yung" represents unchanging (The Great Digest and Unwobbling Pivot, 1951). In James Legge's translation of the text, the goal of the mean is to maintain balance and harmony by directing the mind to a state of constant equilibrium. The person who follows the mean is on a path of duty and must never leave it. A superior person is cautious, a gentle teacher, and shows no contempt for his or her inferiors. Such a person always does what is natural according to his or her status in the world. Even common men and women can carry the mean into their practices, as long as they do not exceed their natural order (Internet Sacred Text Archive, 2008).

The Doctrine of the Mean can represent moderation, rectitude, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2008). The guiding principle of the mean being that one should never act in excess. The Doctrine of the Mean is divided into three parts:

  1. The Axis - Confucian Metaphysics
  2. The Process - Politics
  3. The Perfect Word/Sincerity - Ethics (The Great Digest and Unwobbling Pivot, 1951).

Tsze Sze's First Thesis, as stated in "The Great Digest and Unwobbling Pivot" (1951, p. 99) further describes their connection:

What heaven has disposed and sealed is called the inborn nature. The realization of this nature is called the process. The clarification of this process [the understanding or making intelligible of this process] is called education (Pound's translation (1951)).

Doctrine of the Mean in Chinese Society

In China prior to the twentieth century the Doctrine of the Mean was integrated into the education system state wide. In addition, one of the prerequisites for employment in the imperial government was the study and understanding of the Four Classics, which included the Doctrine of the Mean. The imperial state wanted to reinforce the three bonds of society that were the foundation for peaceful homes and an orderly state: parent and child, husband and wife, and ruler and subject.

Recently, Neo-Confucian scholars have revisited the Doctrine of the Mean for its relevance to education.

Middle Way in Buddhism

In general, the Middle Way or Middle Path (Sanskrit: madhyamā-pratipad; Pali: majjhimā paipadā)[4] is the Buddhist practice of non-extremism.[5]

More specifically, in Theravada Buddhism's Pali Canon, the Middle Way crystallizes the Buddha's Nirvana-bound path of moderation away from the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification and toward the practice of wisdom, morality and mental cultivation. In later Theravada texts as well as in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Middle Way refers to the concept, enunciated in the Canon, of direct knowledge that transcends seemingly antithetical claims about existence.[6]

Noble Eightfold Path

In the Pali canon, the Middle Way (majjhimā paipadā) was said to have been articulated by the Buddha in his first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11):

"Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
"Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata...? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."[7]

Thus, for the attainment of Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana), the Middle Way involves:

  • abstaining from addictive sense-pleasures and self-mortification
  • nurturing the set of "right" actions that are known as the Noble Eightfold Path.


  • "In many things the middle have the best / Be mine a middle station."
    — Phocylides
  • "If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes..., he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way. The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."

See also


  1. Lynn M. Osen, Women in Mathematics (MIT Press, 1975, ISBN 97802626500900). Retrieved March 1, 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Pedrick, Victoria, and Steven M. Oberhelman, The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0226653068).
  3. "The Ethics of Aristotle" Retrieved February 20, 2009.
  4. Kohn (1991), 143. Also see the Pali version of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (available on-line at SLTP, n.d.-b, sutta 12.2.1) where the phrase majjhimā patipadā is repeatedly used. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
  5. Kohn (1991), 143.
  6. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna (Motilal Banarsidass, 2006), 1. "Two aspects of the Buddha's teachings, the philosophical and the practical, which are mutually dependent, are clearly enunciated in two discourses, the Kaccaayanagotta-sutta and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, both of which are held in high esteem by almost all schools of Buddhism in spite of their sectarian rivalries. The Kaccaayanagotta-sutta, quoted by almost all the major schools of Buddhism, deals with the philosophical "middle path," placed against the backdrop of two absolutistic theories in Indian philosophy, namely, permanent existence (atthitaa) propounded in the early Upanishads and nihilistic non-existence (natthitaa) suggested by the Materialists."
  7. Piyadassi (1999).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aristotle, and Terence Irwin. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co, 1985. ISBN 0915145650
  • Aritotle, and F.H. Peters (trans.). Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotle with an introduction by Hye-Kyung Kim. Oxford, 1893.
  • Confucius. The Doctrine of the Mean. Kessinger Publishing's rare reprints. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Pub, 2004. ISBN 978-1419160011
  • Gardner, Daniel. "Confucian Commentary and Chinese Intellectual History." The Journal of Asian Studies 57.2 (1998): 397.
  • Kohn, Michael H. (trans.). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambhala, 1991. ISBN 0877735204
  • Pedrick, Victoria, and Steven M. Oberhelman. The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0226653068
  • Piyadassi Thera (trans.).Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (SN 56.11) 1999. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  • Pound, Ezra (translation and commentary). "The Great Digest & Unwobbling Pivot." New York, NY: New Directions, 1951.
  • Rhys Davids, T.W. and William Stede (eds.). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary (PED). Chipstead: Pali Text Society, 1921-25.
  • Riegel, Jeffrey. "Confucius." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  • Smith, Huston. "The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions." New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Williams, Edward T. "Ancient China." The Harvard Theological Review vol.9, no.3 (1916): 258-268.
  • Wing-Tsit Chan. "Neo-Confucianism: New Ideas on Old Terminology." Philosophy East and West vol.17, no. 1/4 (1967): 15-35.

External links

All links retrieved May 24, 2024.


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