Be a Happier and Better Person with Aristotle’s ‘Golden Mean’

By Soksambath Pichny

daniel-van-den-berg-545349-unsplash-min-min.jpgPhoto by Daniel van den Berg on Unsplash

We all grow up wanting to be good people and be happy. But, have you ever wondered how to achieve those things? Is there even a formula for you to follow?

Imagine you’re walking down the street in the rain, and you see a homeless guy. You have only 10,000 riels in your pocket. To be a good person, does it mean you have to give him all of the money? Or would 500 or 1,000 riels be enough? If you actually give him all you have, would you be happy because of the good deed that you’ve just done?  

Well, luckily we have some 2000-year-old teachings by Aristotle to help us figure it out. Just in case you might not know who he is, here are some key facts about him:

So, who is Aristotle?

9408643487_43173dd198_o-min-min.jpgPlato (left), Aristotle (right). © NASA Blueshift/2013/CC BY 2.0

Aristotle, who lived about 2,400 years ago, is one of the most influential Ancient Greek philosophers that has ever walked the Earth. He was a student of another revered Greek philosopher Plato and a tutor of Alexander the Great, the powerful king of Ancient Greece famed for his military conquests.

Aristotle had written around 150 works, most of which are lecture notes from his teachings in his school, the Lyceum. His works vary from ethics and arts to metaphysics, biology and mathematics. One of his best-known works on ethics is the Nicomachean Ethics (it’s okay if you can’t pronounce it after reading this. I’ve tried to say it 10 times, and I still can’t get it right). Nicomachean Ethics focuses on how to live a good life, and it’s divided into 10 separate books and the ‘Golden Mean’ was mainly discussed in the second book.

And what is the Golden Mean?

For Aristotle, he thought that what makes humans special and distinctive from other animals is our ability to think, reason, and make rational decisions. Most importantly, we always want to live a good and happy life free from suffering. And Aristotle believed that we could achieve such a life by using reason.

So, when we’ve reasoned what’s good for us, or our ways of achieving things, we would inevitably repeat those activities again and again. For Aristotle, this is known as practical wisdom. We have to practice until we excel at it and it becomes part of who we are. As he had famously stated, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is a habit.”

To put it simply, his idea mainly circles around the notion of “practice makes perfect.” Practice doing what’s good for you, or what makes you happy. Sooner or later those activities will become your habits, and you will grow!

That’s when the Golden Mean comes in!

For Aristotle, the Golden Mean is one of the ways to have a good and fulfilling life, or in a fancier Greek term “eudaimonia”. He thinks that someone is happy if they can maintain the “Golden Mean”, which is the balance between two extremes of too little and too much. The Golden Mean is the middle ground of “just enough or just right”.

To do the right thing and be a good person, one has to choose this middle ground and be moderate when deciding on anything. This middle ground is also known as “virtues”, which for Aristotle, are the ideal ways that people should behave that would eventually become part of our personality once we keep practicing them.

So, how to achieve the virtues or the Golden Mean?

42938800761_2798e19561_o-min-min.jpg© John Reynolds/2018/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Nicomachean, he listed down 11 main virtues including courage, temperance, wittiness, honesty, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, shame, justice and friendliness.

I believe that in our lives, we oftentimes face with the moral dilemma of how to respond in some situations so that our actions wouldn’t come off wrongly. Think of the Golden Mean as the middle point of the scale. To have a balanced scale, each of the sides have to be equal to one another. It’s the same for our actions. Ask yourself a few times before doing something, “Will this action that I’m about to do help me to achieve anything and if so, will it affect anyone else? Or will it cause danger to myself?”

“Practice doing what’s good for you, or what makes you happy. Sooner or later those activities will become your habits, and you will grow!”

Once again, this involves our ability to think and reason. You have to know what are your own capability, limitations, weaknesses and act according to that. In their own ways, the 11 virtues help us to realize that. They’re also making sure that our actions wouldn’t negatively affect other people and put ourselves at risk.

To see how this would, let’s take a look at one of the virtues, honesty.

3073975242_b1fa201839_o-min-min.jpg© radcliffe dacanay/2008/CC BY 2.0

I believe that very frequently, most of us find ourselves in a dilemma between “comforting lies” or “hurtful truth”. Of course, it’s good that people can be honest with you, but not if the truth is too offensive or unnecessarily extra. Therefore, for Aristotle, he believed that honesty is the middle ground of always lying (too little honesty) and always criticizing (too much honesty).

A virtuous person would know that what they’re about to say is somehow honest but not soul-destroying. But this does not mean  they would lie so that you wouldn’t feel bad, no! They just have to know what to say and what not to say. It’s also about replacing harsh criticisms or unpleasant truths with constructive messages.

So, to live a good life is to know how to act. But how about other things, like families, friends, wealth or beauty? Do they matter to our happiness? Well, they do! Aristotle believes that they are beneficial to us and make up the other pieces to complete the puzzle of a happy life. But they need to be combined with the practice of moral virtues in order for us to be truly happy.

To sum up, for Aristotle, happiness is created through acting virtuously by being moderate when making decisions. And when we keep doing this, we will eventually become a better person.

So, if you want to help the homeless man at the beginning of this article, It’s not about all or nothing! You can help by giving  him just the right amount of money that you think is reasonable, so that you would still be able to buy a raincoat or get yourself a ride home.

[Note] Thank you for reading this! My idea of writing about philosophy wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t read the Wapatoa’s philosophy series. I got heavily inspired! There are a lot of goodies there, so don’t forget to check them out!

See you again in the upcoming blogs and have a very nice day!


Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

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