Superphysics
Chapters 5-6

# What Kind of a State is Virtue?

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Virtue is a state. But what kind of a state is it?

All excellence makes that whereof it is the excellence both to be itself in a good state and to perform its work well.

The excellence of the eye, for instance, makes both the eye good and its work also: for by the excellence of the eye we see well.

So too the excellence of the horse makes a horse good, and good in speed, and in carrying his rider, and standing up against the enemy. If then this is universally the case, the excellence of Man, i.e. Virtue, must be a state whereby Man comes to be good and whereby he will perform well his proper work.

How this shall be it is true we have said already, but still perhaps it may throw light on the subject to see what is its characteristic nature.

In all quantity then, whether continuous or discrete,[11] one may take the greater part, the less, or the exactly equal, and these either with reference to the thing itself, or relatively to us: and the exactly equal is a mean between excess and defect.

The absolute mean of the thing is something that is equidistant from either extreme.

The mean relatively to ourselves is that which is neither too much nor too little for the particular individual.

This is not one nor the same to all.

For instance, suppose 10 is too much and 2 is too little.

People take 6 for the absolute mean because it exceeds the smaller sum by exactly as much as it is itself exceeded by the larger.

This mean is according to arithmetical proportion.[12]

But the mean relatively to ourselves is not found like that. It does not follow if 10 minæ[13] is too large a quantity to eat and 2 is too small, that the trainer will order his man 6.

For Milo, it would be too little, but for a man just commencing his athletic exercises, it is too much.

So then it seems every one possessed of skill avoids excess and defect, but seeks for and chooses the mean, not the absolute but the relative.

If all skill thus accomplishes well its work by keeping an eye on the mean, and bringing the works to this point (whence it is common enough to say of such works as are in a good state, “one cannot add to or take ought from them,” under the notion of excess or defect destroying goodness but the mean state preserving it), and good artisans, as we say, work with their eye on this, and excellence, like nature, is more exact and better than any art in the world, it must have an aptitude to aim at the mean.

It is moral excellence, i.e. Virtue, of course which I mean, because this it is which is concerned with feelings and actions, and in these there can be excess and defect and the mean:

It is possible, for instance, to feel the emotions of fear, confidence, lust, anger, compassion, and pleasure and pain generally, too much or too little, and in either case wrongly;

But to feel them when we ought, on what occasions, towards whom, why, and as, we should do, is the mean, or in other words the best state, and this is the property of Virtue.

With respect to the actions, there may be excess and defect and the mean.

Virtue is concerned with feelings and actions, in which the excess is wrong and the defect is blamed but the mean is praised and goes right.

Both these circumstances belong to Virtue.

Virtue then is in a sense a mean state, since it certainly has an aptitude for aiming at the mean.

Again, one may go wrong in many different ways (because, as the Pythagoreans expressed it, evil is of the class of the infinite, good of the finite), but right only in one; and so the former is easy, the latter difficult; easy to miss the mark, but hard to hit it: and for these reasons, therefore, both the excess and defect belong to Vice, and the mean state to Virtue; for, as the poet has it,

“Men may be bad in many ways, But good in one alone.”

## Chapter 6

Virtue then is “a state apt to exercise deliberate choice, being in the relative mean, determined by reason, and[14] as the man of practical wisdom would determine.”

It is a middle state between too faulty ones, in the way of excess on one side and of defect on the other: and it is so moreover, because the faulty states on one side fall short of, and those on the other exceed, what is right, both in the case of the feelings and the actions; but Virtue finds, and when found adopts, the mean.

And so, viewing it in respect of its essence and definition, Virtue is a mean state; but in reference to the chief good and to excellence it is the highest state possible.

But it must not be supposed that every action or every feeling is capable of subsisting in this mean state, because some there are which are so named as immediately to convey the notion of badness, as malevolence, shamelessness, envy; or, to instance in actions, adultery, theft, homicide; for all these and suchlike are blamed because they are in themselves bad, not the having too much or too little of them.

In these then you never can go right, but must always be wrong: nor in such does the right or wrong depend on the selection of a proper person, time, or manner (take adultery for instance), but simply doing any one soever of those things is being wrong.

You might as well require that there should be determined a mean state, an excess and a defect in respect of acting unjustly, being cowardly, or giving up all control of the passions: for at this rate there will be of excess and defect a mean state; of excess, excess; and of defect, defect.

But just as of perfected self-mastery and courage there is no excess and defect, because the mean is in one point of view the highest possible state, so neither of those faulty states can you have a mean state, excess, or defect, but howsoever done they are wrong: you cannot, in short, have of excess and defect a mean state, nor of a mean state excess and defect.