The doctrine of Aristotle (384-322 BC) that moral virtue can be defined as a disposition concerned with choice and lying in a mean.
Any given virtue lies between two extremes, for example courage lies in a mean between rashness and cowardice. The mean, however, is not an arithmetical mean, but is ‘relative to us’; that is, to our natural tendencies.
Since we naturally tend more to cowardice than to rashness, the mean is nearer to rashness. (But sometimes Aristotle seems to say only that we should especially avoid our own pet vices.) The doctrine thus risks being vacuous, the mean being whatever point we ought to pursue; this being determined by the moral insight of the trained and practised ‘man of practical wisdom’.
But Aristotle could say that the doctrine reminds us that there are always two opposite errors which we must avoid.
Whether all virtues can be so classified, without artificiality or triviality, may be disputed, but there is no mean of the mean or extremes: we don’t have to avoid excess of virtue, nor (Aristotle’s example) can a man commit adultery with the right woman at the right time in the right way.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 2, chs 5-9
The Doctrine of the Mean is a text rich with symbolism and guidance to perfecting oneself. The mean is also described as the “unswerving pivot” or zhongyong. Zhong means bent neither one way or another, and yong represents unchanging. In James Legge’s translation of the text, the goal of the mean is to maintain balance and harmony from directing the mind to a state of constant equilibrium. The person who follows the mean is on a path of duty and must never leave it. A superior person is cautious, a gentle teacher and shows no contempt for his or her inferiors. S/he always does what is natural according to her or his status in the world. Even common men and women can carry the mean into their practices, as long as they do not exceed their natural order.
The Doctrine of the Mean represents moderation, rectitude, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety. The guiding principle is that one should never act in excess. The Doctrine of the Mean is divided into three parts:
- The Axis – Confucian Metaphysics
- The Process – Politics
- The Perfect Word/Sincerity – Ethics (The Great Digest and Unwobbling Pivot, 1951).
Doctrine of the Mean instructed three guidelines—Self-watchfulness, Leniency and Sincerity—on how to pursue Doctrine of the Mean, and those who follow these guidelines can be called respectable person:
“Zhong-ni said, ‘The respectable person embodies the course of the Mean; the average person acts contrary to the course of the Mean.”
This guideline requires self-education, self-questioning and self-discipline during the process of self-cultivation. This principle was demonstrated in the first chapter of Doctrine of the Mean:
“The respectable person does not wait till he sees things to be cautious, nor till he hears things to be apprehensive. There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore the superior person is watchful over himself, when he is alone.”
This guideline requires understanding, concern and tolerance towards one another. Leniency was demonstrated in the 13th chapter:
“When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.”
In this chapter, Confucius explained this guideline with four examples: “to serve my father, as I would require my son to serve me”, ” to serve my prince as I would require my minister to serve me”, “to serve my elder brother as I would require my younger brother to serve me”, “to set the example in behaving to a friend, as I would require him to behave to me.”
Sincerity contributes to a close connection between Heaven and human. This guideline was demonstrated in the 23rd chapter:
“It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.”
In Chinese society
In China prior to the twentieth century the Doctrine of the Mean was integrated into the education system statewide. Also, one of the prerequisites for employment in the imperial government was the study and understanding of the Four Classics, included in this is the Doctrine of the Mean. The imperial state wanted to reinforce the three bonds of society; between the parent and child, husband and wife, and ruler and subject. This was believed to emphasize a peaceful home and an orderly state.
Recently in China, the New Confucians revisited the Classics, because of its strong foundation in the educational system. Using the Doctrine of the Mean has become a useful source for New Confucians due to the similarities in the terminology and expression used by them and found within the text. This is further reinforced by the support from ancient sages and worthies who prefer education systems more closely linked to traditional Confucian thought.
Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen both analyzed the doctrine.
Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, viewed Doctrine of the Mean as a mutation of eclecticism, which draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject.
According to Mao’s comment on Ai Siqi’s analysis of Doctrine of the Mean, Doctrine of the Mean is an eclecticism which simultaneously opposes the abolishment of exploitation and excessive exploitation. According to Mao, Doctrine of the Mean failed to realize that something deserves absolute negation, and in compromise, Doctrine of the Mean prevented China from progress.
In his comment, Mao said that Doctrine of the Mean also goes against dialectics as it stops qualitative change by emphasizing maintaining balance and harmony.
Lu Xun, a leading figure of modern Chinese literature, saw Doctrine of the Mean as major contributing factor of the abject ethnic stereotype in modern China, believing it prevented reform from happening.
In his speech Silent China, Lu Xun said that Chinese likes the reconcilable and the compromised. “For example, people will not allow you to add a window to a dark room, but when you threaten to uncover the roof, they would compromise to the idea of adding a window. Without a radical proposal pushing them, Chinese won’t permit even the mildest reform.”
Translation and study
Andrew H. Plaks wrote the essay “The mean, nature and self-realization. European translations of the Zhongyong“, which was published in De l’un au multiple: Traductions du chinois vers les langues européenes. In his essay Plaks argues that since the text of the Doctrine of the Mean is “too easy”, this factor is, as paraphrased by Joshua A. Fogel, an author of a book review for the De l’un au multiple book The Journal of Asian Studies, a “major impediment” to translation.
The Tsinghua bamboo slips feature the text “Bao xun” (保訓) which shares the topos of centrality with the Zhongyong.