On pushing out the boat
This is quite dense, but interesting. After summarising his argument so far, Aristotle suggests that the best way to aim for the virtuous mean is to lean away (or “hold the ship out”) from the excesses or deficiencies we most naturally tend towards. This leaves us likely to err in the opposite direction, of course, but it gives us the best chance of getting things right.
I try to apply this to generosity, both personally and professionally. For example, it’s often unclear how much (money, leeway, benefit of the doubt) it is right to give to someone in need – or if we should give at all. Given this lack of clarity, the question becomes where we would prefer to err: if we miss the “virtuous mean” would we rather appear stingy, or foolish? I would rather lean away from stinginess and risk being known as a generous fool than a shrewd miser.*
Do you use this in your organisation?
That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated.
Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one 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; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.
Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises-
Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.
For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be done best in the way we describe. But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.
Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.
But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly. The man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.Aristotle – Nichomachean Ethics, Book ii
* John Wimber used to say: “We’re all somebody’s fool. I’m a fool for Christ. Whose fool are you?”