Aristotelian Moderation in The Doctrine of the Mean

The Doctrine of the Mean has been attributed to Confucius’s only grandson, sometimes called Zisi or Kong-Ji. Others attribute the text directly to Confucius. The title comes from a particular teaching on the nature of moderation, found in the Analects (also found in the writings of Aristotle). Ezra Pound alternatively called it the “unswerving pivot.” It is considered the fourth essential text of ancient Confucian philosophy in ancient China.

In the text “Nature” is understood to mean whatever “heaven has conferred” and it is a path we are unable to stray from. In other words, Nature is not relative or mutable. However, this path can regulated by teaching/instruction. In fact, the superior man regulates himself, or holds himself accountable, even when he is alone. This regulation can lead to equilibrium and harmony within and without the superior man. It leads to a “happy order” on heaven and earth. This is the teaching of “The Mean.”

Once this exhortation has been made, the text lists a series of quotations from “The Master” (a.k.a Master Kong, or Confucius) in similar fashion to the Analects. For reference, the text also regularly cites the ancient Chinese classic entitled the “Book of Poetry.”

Some other Confucian characteristics of the superior man (what we might call a gentleman) who is guided by the the “doctrine of the mean” include: the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak. He stands upright and rules with principle in his country. He also rules his household well, has a happy relationship with his wife, and with his children. The superior man is not a busy-body, not over-burdening with excessive scheduling and anxiety. He honors his ancestors. This man will be sure to receive the “appointment of heaven” with blessings upon his mind and his household.

The text addresses a curious quality of political philosophy – the superior man is intended to be a leader of a city. It is imperative that good men rule the administration of government otherwise the city falls into disrepair. However, the rule of the city begins with Nature, and the rule of oneself first. The ruler must cultivate his own character and cultivate his own greatness, while not attempting to stray from the path of Nature.

Perhaps the teaching of this relatively short text can be summarized with the following quotation:

“Therefore, the superior man honors his virtuous nature, and maintains constant inquiry and study, seeking to carry it out to its breadth and greatness, so as to omit none of the more exquisite and minute points which it embraces, and to raise it to its greatest height and brilliancy, so as to pursue the course of the Mean. He cherishes his old knowledge, and is continually acquiring new. He exerts an honest, generous earnestness, in the esteem and practice of all propriety.”

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