Urfan Ul HassaN
august 2023

Aristotele & the golden mean

12 virtues to practice

the story of daedalus & icarus

Our story takes place at the top of a tower. The tower is mighty and tall. It has no roof, so that if you were to stand there, you’d see the sky above you. You would’ve seen the ocean to the east, and if you gazed towards the west you’d see hint of a city in the horizon.

On top of the tower we find Daedalus and his son Icarus, imprisoned for eternity. Daedalus had previously built a labyrinth for the king – a labyrinth that was impossible to escape from. The king feared that Daedalus would reveal the secrets of the labyrinth. Thus, he chose to imprison both him and his son. The tower also seemed like an impossible place to escape from. Daedalus was a thinker, inventor and an architect - a genius in many areas.

The king had underestimated Daedalus' real value.

For months, Daedalus patiently observed the birds that flew over the tower. He studied them and finally understood the mechanics of aviation. The birds naturally lost their feathers as they flew over the tower, and Daedalus had actively collected them. Over time, he managed to produce two pairs of wings out of the feathers; one pair for himself, and the other for his son.

Icarus was a young man, with natural aggression, curiousity and impulsivity. Daedalus was worried about this; before their great escape, he attempted to teach his son a lesson and wisdom for life:

Daedalus said:
 “If you fly too high, the sun's heat will burn up your wings. If you fly too low, the moisture will cause your wings to become wet, they will then become too heavy to fly with. It is important that you fly and keep to the middle course.

As they started to fly, Icarus felt an overwhelming boost in confidence; he flew higher and higher, and his confidence grew as he reached higher in the sky.

The sun’s intense heat caused his wings to catch fire and burn; Daedalus watched Icarus as he fell from the heights. Fire and smoke blazed behind him as he plunged towards the ocean. The oceans swallowed and made silent both the raging flames and the inner glow of Icarus.

Aristotle's 12 virtues


Bravery in the face of fear. Not ruthless or cowardly.


Greatness in behavior and thinking. Not greedy, vulgar or small.


Mighty mind and heart. A character that strives after improving others, not crush them.


Appropriate levels of emotion in the face of injustice.


Moderation in pleasure.


Healthy level of ambition and pride.


To tell the truth properly - in an appropriate way, so that the truth will improve the situation.


The ability to show anger, channeled by reason and patience. 


Spending on others. However, not excessively or too little.


Humor - not boring, but also not a clown.


Not too agreeable or disagreeable.


A place between shyness and being without shame.

Aristotle and the golden mean 

The story of Daedalus can be interpreted through Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean. In his book, “The Nichomachean ethics”, Aristotle gives us a deeper understanding on how to practice virtue in life. The work builds on Plato’s mathematical conclusion that human happiness can only come from the active pursuit and practice of virtues. 

“What house should I buy? How should I deal with politics and news? How much should I eat or go to the gym? How much should I save each month? How should I talk to my boss at work? Are my views too strong? How productive should I be?” 

All of these daily questions should be answered, but with courage, wisdom and moderation (and other virtues). The story of Daedalus teaches us that following the middle course is key in all things, especially when practicing virtue. Aristotle’s golden mean can be summarized as an attitude that helps us practice several virtues at the same time; whenever one reacts to something, or has to decide on something, the reaction or decision should avoid the extremes. Following Aristotle’s golden mean helps us to react adequately in emotion and to take balanced decisions. Practicing virtue in life provides:


For example, let us look at the virtue of toughness/bravery: 

Cowardice     |     Brave     |     Ruthless 


In war, both cowardice and ruthlessness will cause negative outcomes. Ruthless behavior will most likely lead to death and possibly undesired strategical consequences. Cowardice will definitively lead to loss, the biggest loss being in soul and character. The optimal course of action is to be brave, something that lies between cowardice and ruthlessness. Notice that the brave person might feel both fear and confidence at the same time. 

Imagine being in a disagreement at the workplace. For many people it can be hard to have a confrontational conversation with the boss. Cowardice in this situation will lead to further frustration in oneself as the person will avoid dealing with the problem at hand. Ruthless behavior can cause further conflict because of the way the complaint is presented; the individual’s arguments could be affected by too much emotion. This would also lead to bad arguments.  

A tough and brave individual would have first taken the initiative to have the conversation, even if he or she recognizes that this can cause conflict; the brave individual will present their argument and boundaries in a clear and reflected way. It is possible that this person will have some emotion (anger) in the conversation. No emotion would not be possible, and in that case one would not have followed the golden mean. In some situations, intense anger and rage might be the golden mean, for example in a life-threatening situation. However, even in that situation, reason should still be dominant and leading, so that the emotions can be channeled optimally. 

It is uncertain whether this brave individual is granted his or her wishes at the workplace. However, this person has won something even greater, and that is victory over self. Such victory leads to development of character and strengthens the ability to handle similar challenges another time. The boss might not show it, but all humans by nature and instinct, are forced to respect the individual that displays virtuous behavior. 

Practicing the golden mean 

Most humans use intuition and feel their way to a decision. This behavior is often run on autopilot and does not lead to the practice of the golden mean. An untrained intuition is strongly affected by emotion and existing assumptions. Reason, the higher aspect in humans, must rule over the primary elements from the animalistic soul. However, the primary elements are not to be repressed or attempted to be removed; they must be acknowledged, accepted and channeled in the right direction. The golden mean, given enough practice, sharpens judgement and intuition.

Considering individual personalities

Aristotle was not unfamiliar with personality psychology; individual differences were taken into consideration in his thinking. This means that the golden mean will vary from situation to situation, and from person to person.

An individual with certain personality traits, for example high neuroticism (a reactive nervous system), will by nature have stronger emotional responses than a person that scores lower on the same trait. The brain of someone with the trait of high agreeableness will by nature experience conflict as more uncomfortable than a person scoring lower on agreeableness. This means that for the highly agreeable individual, it will be more difficult to have the confrontational conversation with the boss, as in the example above. Thus, in the real world, following the golden mean for this person will play out differently than for the individual scoring low on agreeableness.

A golden mean in the philosophical life?

Individuals with a higher score on the trait of openness/intellect are more willing to philosophize. They also value philosophy, art and abstract ideas to a higher degree than normal. Individuals scoring low on this trait does not find philosophy as naturally interesting; how should this person follow a golden mean? Such an individual does not necessarily need to understand all the theories and their details, but they can focus on how to practically apply the knowledge in their life. This is why Socrates argued for the importance of good education - a good education does not only give technical knowledge, but it improves human character and soul.

Here lies an assumption that the individual in the example values philosophical knowledge at all. Most individuals lack philosophical inclination, interest or even enlightenment; they do not see the value of philosophy in their own life. This was a tragedy for Nietzsche (and other philosophers), who ultimately thought that philosophy was only for elite human beings.

Socrates argued that the philosopher who claims, or actually has enlightenment, owed the ignorant people knowledge and education; this was the virtuous golden mean for the philosopher to follow. This would be an attempt to enlighten and improve any individual to reach their potential wherever they may find themselves on the journey of life.

Aristotle concluded that the philosophical life was the highest, most worthy life to live for a human being. This would be a life dedicated to knowledge, reflection and the development of one's soul. Political life came in 2nd place; this would be the practical life dedicated to improving society. Notice that the political life Aristotle talks about is not about focusing on one's career. Such a life falls into the next category. The lowest life was that of pleasure and hedonism. Pleasure can come through the senses, but also in the form of focusing solely on one's career, prestige, luxury and other activities that seek to please the animalistic soul.

Is there a golden mean here? The golden mean would not lead to suppressing the animalistic soul; such a force needs to be accepted and channeled correctly. The animalistic soul must be dominated and directed by the rational soul. Plato might have argued that the philosopher king would accept mild-moderate pleasure and participated in politics for the good of society (and not for furthering one's career or seeking prestige). This would be anchored in the highest human activity possible, namely philosophy. Those that do not want or can philosophize, should still focus on practicing virtue for the development of their own soul. Interestingly, human beings by instinct attempt to practice virtue every day. Most people are not aware that they have this project going on for themselves. Those with wisdom understand that within the human unconscious, virtue is considered the highest good. Humans intuitively value virtue in themselves and others. This conclusion should be reflected upon on a deeper level than evolutionary psychology.