Stoic News

By Dave Kelly

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Right Mean and Sophrosyne

"In Greek Ethics, the doctrine of the Right Mean has been developed by Plato (Philebus) and Aristotle (Nic. Ethics II. 6-8) principally, on the Pythagorean analogy between the sound mind, the healthy body and the tuned string, which has inspired most of the Greek Moralists. Though it is known as the "Aristotelian Principle of the Mean", it is essentially a Platonic doctrine which is preformed in the Republic and the Statesman and expounded in the Philebus, where we are told that all good things in life belong to the class of the mixed (26 D). This doctrine states that in the application of intelligence to any kind of activity, the supreme wisdom is to know just where to stop, and to stop just there and nowhere else. Hence, the "right-mean" does not concern the quantitative measurement of magnitudes, but simply the qualitative comparison of values with respect to a standard which is the appropriate (prepon), the seasonable (kairos), the morally necessary (deon), or generally the moderate (metrion). The difference between these two kinds of metretics (metretike) is that the former is extrinsic and relative, while the latter is intrinsic and absolute. This explains the Platonic division of the sciences into two classes: those involving reference to relative quantities (mathematical or natural), and those requiring absolute values (ethics and aesthetics). The Aristotelian analysis of the "right mean" considers moral goodness as a fixed and habitual proportion in our appetitions and tempers, which can be reached by training them until they exhibit just the balance required by the right rule. This process of becoming good develops certain habits of virtues consisting in reasonable moderation where both excess and defect are avoided: the virtue of temperance (sophrosyne) is a typical example. In this sense, virtue occupies a middle position between extremes, and is said to be a mean; but it is not a static notion, as it leads to the development of a stable being, when man learns not to over-reach himself. This qualitative conception of the mean involves an adaptation of the agent, his conduct and his environment, similar to the harmony displayed in a work of art. Hence the aesthetic aspect of virtue, which is often overstressed by ancient and neo-pagan writers, at the expense of morality proper" (Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy).


Blogger DT Strain said...

But then one must be able to "compute" the mean to stop at it. I'm not certain here whether we are speaking of the need to figure out what the mean is, or whether the emphasis is on developing the self discipline to act according to the mean (or both)?

Another issue is what I see as a potential danger of misunderstanding here. Those attempting to follow sophrosyne may confuse the "ethics of moderation" with "moderation of ethics". In some cases, to do the ethical (and presumably the mean) one must act in the extreme, given one's surroundings and conditions. I fear some might only be "somewhat" ethical at certain times, thinking that they are therefore being moderate, which would seem to be a distortion of this concept.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I've been trying to get a finer conception of sophrosyne. It's not good that one of the original cardinal virtues is now considered a lost ideal, and that it's difficult to currently find an adequate corresponding word in the English language.

I like Ostwald's use of 'self-control' in his translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, if, as he says, self-control is thought of more positively than it usually is, more as self-mastery.

I believe that one must aim in excess of the mean of temperance, that is, toward total abstinance, in order to break long-standing self-indulgent habits. Once the habit is broken, one should find that one's disposition is closer to sophrosyne.

12:38 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

What about "temperance" or "moderation"? Would these not be similar to sophrosyne? Also, could you give an example of the sort of habit you mean when you talk about abstinence? Thanks :)

12:53 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I don't know the history of the use of 'temperance' in English (have to look that up). Aquinas used the the Latin temperantia? But 'temperance' seems to have lost it's force and definiteness, now commonly used mostly, if ever, with regard to alcohol. Ostwald thought "moderation" to be too 'flabby' to stand for sophrosyne.

I was thinking specifically of masturbation.

1:20 PM  

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