August 25, 2017

Jesus' Golden Rule Perfects Aristotle’s Golden Mean

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos, is the embodiment of truth, beauty, and goodness. Aristotle's insight is but a dim reflection of God's perfect wisdom and infinite love. (A version of this article was originally published in July 2016.)

The brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his treatise on ethical conduct, Nicomachean Ethics, discusses the "Golden Mean." It is a way of acting that enables us to live according to our ideal nature, improve our character, and deal effectively with life's hardships while striving for the good of all. The golden mean is the desired middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example, to Aristotle, courage is a virtue, which if taken to its extreme is recklessness, and, in absence or insufficiency, is cowardice.

Aristotle's ethics is practical and decidedly teleological. He believed the end of human life is happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). Today, happiness is understood as the emotional state of joy, contentment, and bliss. Such happiness is ephemeral. Aristotle's conception of happiness is a state of virtue resulting from the habitual practice of right action, unrelated to our feelings or personal fortunes. Therefore, it is possible for one to be happy (virtuous) even amid tremendous suffering and difficulty. Aristotle's golden mean is a seminal development in ethics, synthesizing Greek notions of moderation with a defined understanding of personal morality.

Four centuries later, Jesus Christ would teach humanity, through His words and example, how we should live. His "Golden Rule" is a positive articulation of our moral responsibility for others. Two passages in Sacred Scripture show Christ expressing this rule. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus states: "'Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.' This is the law and the prophets." In Luke 6:31, Our Lord again declares: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Christ's golden rule perfects Aristotle's golden mean in two respects. The moral principle of treating others as you would like them to treat you is universal, unconditional, and objective. It applies to our enemies as well as our friends. Aristotle's mean is dependent upon the individual and the circumstances in question. Aristotle's mean evokes the timeless Greek maxim that we should do all things in moderation. (A sentiment inscribed on the edifice of the temple at Delphi.) While Christianity has always espoused moderation in relation to our appetites, Christ's golden rule commands us to love selflessly and without limit.

1 comment :

Doug said...

There was a time when Aristotle was greatly admired by the RCC. Quotations of him were often ended with the phrase 'Ipse dixit Aristotle', as if to say, like the bumper sticker, 'The Bible says it; I believe it: that settles it!'
But Ethics is not the Bible and the second phrase is usually attributed to those who know little about the Bible and understand less.
In fact, scripture has the same teachings and from a better source. On moderation, see 1Tim 3:1 ff., where an overseer* is admonished to be temperate, or moderate in ALL things, several of which are listed there and at other places. This protects his flock and serves as an example of Christ-like authority. The Bible also has cautionary tales of those who were immoderate.
Aristotle was concerned with none of this. He was ignorant of Yahweh and Jesus. For example, Solomon's inspired and quite different idea of the "end of human life" is found at Ec 12:13,14. And v.12 has a pertinent reminder about the writings of 'brilliant philosophers'.
The Scholastic period of religious thought is now denigrated by those who understand that its concerns had nothing to do with the yearnings of ordinary men, the kind Jesus sought out and taught. Men like us.

*The Greek is episcopos, which gives us our word bishop.