Question: "What is the doctrine of the mean?"

Answer: The doctrine of the mean—sometimes referred to as the golden mean—is a Greek dogma often associated with Aristotle’s ethical framework. Aristotle taught that humans are rational agents, with their actions being purposefully directed toward particular ends, which they deem good. These actions are directed toward the Aristotelian concept of Eudaimonia, which can basically be thought of as “the good life.”

Central to achieving Eudaimonia is the exercise of virtue, part of which is moderated by the doctrine of the mean. In this context, mean refers to a mid-point between two extremes. The doctrine of the mean teaches that virtue is found midway between two vices. To attain the golden mean is to live at a point between the extremes of excess and deficiency.

A common example given to explain the doctrine of the mean is the virtue of courage, which is seen as being balanced between the feelings of fear and confidence. Too much confidence could lead to reckless actions; too much fear could lead to cowardice. An individual who has mastered the virtue of courage is said to be one who avoids both extremes.

Shades of the concept of the golden mean can be found in Scripture. For example, Proverbs 30:8–9 says, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” The Christian virtue of contentment could be seen as being achieved through avoiding the extremes or sins of surfeit and greed.

Some Christian teachers have also referred to the golden mean in their writings. For instance, Basil of Caesarea writes, “The upright in heart have thoughts that are inclined neither to excess nor to deficiency, but are directed towards the mean of virtue.” Thomas Aquinas (who revered Aristotle) wrote, “Evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it. . . . Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean.”