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Maimonides vs. Aristotle on the Golden Mean
Numbers 12:3 informs us that “the man Moses was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” Midrash Sifrei elaborates: although Moses’s humility did not hinder him from confronting Pharaoh and demanding the release of the Israelites from the horrors of Egyptian slavery, when it came to his own life, he listened humbly and refused to defend himself from the criticism of his sister and brother who censored him regarding his wife.
1. What is the “golden mean”?
2. How does humility fit into the “golden mean”?
3. Did Maimonides expect more enlightened people to follow the “golden mean”?
Maimonides and Aristotle
There are many areas of thought where Maimonides (1138–1204) agreed with much of what the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) taught. This included Aristotle’s basic ethical teaching of the “golden mean,” that people should develop habits of behavior according to the middle course between two extremes. However, he did disagree on a few items, one of which was that he felt that the golden mean did not apply to humility.
Aristotle deemed the modest man a ridiculous violator of the golden mean. He was untruthful if he was wise but claimed otherwise. He was a fool if he let modesty keep him from his due. In his Nichomachean Ethics 4:3, Aristotle wrote: “The unduly humble man, being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things, and seems to not know himself; else he would have desired the things he was worthy of, since these are good.”
The Aristotelian view reflected the ancient Greek oracle. For atop the temple of Delphi, one of the instructive maxims besides “Know thyself” was “Nothing overmuch.”
Maimonides, in contrast, stated that the modest person is acting properly. He discussed the value of the golden mean in many places, especially in his Shemoneh Perakim chapter 4, his Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot chapter 2, and his commentary to Pirke Avot 4:4. In essence, he states:
1. Proper conduct is the middle path “between two extremes, each of which is unfavorable: one is excess and the other restriction.” “For example,” he explains, “restraint is the middle path between indulgence and the absence of desire…. Similarly, generosity is the median between stinginess and extravagance.” A person acquires the proper character trait by habituating himself to action according to the golden mean.
2. When a person sees that he is improperly leaning to one extreme, he should immediately correct his actions by conducting himself according to the other extreme until he feels certain that “an equilibrium is established. Once he reaches equilibrium, he should turn away from the other extreme” and follow the proper middle path. For example, if a person developed miserly characteristics, he should “spend freely constantly…until he has driven out the miserly character trait.” It is necessary to take this extreme measure because a shift to the middle path of generosity would not be sufficient to “cure his affliction.”
3. There are several exceptions to the second rule. These include pride, anger, improper speech, jesting and greed. These are such exceptionally bad qualities that “it is proper to distance himself from these qualities as much as possible by adopting behavior at the opposite extreme.” In regard to pride, Maimonides suggests, it is proper to “act lowly and unassuming. This is why it is said about Moses that he was ‘very humble,’ not just ‘humble.’”
Maimonides recognized that virtually everyone is prideful and that it is extremely difficult to eradicate this emotion. Since pride is so inappropriate and reprehensible, Maimonides agreed with the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 4b, that people who are arrogant act as if they deny God. The rabbis recognized that God created everyone in “the divine image” and that people show that they deny this fact when they treat others unsuitably.
Does the rule of the “golden mean” apply to everyone?
Maimonides wrote all of his writings for two different groups of people: intellectuals and the average person. He wrote his works in a clever fashion so that the average person would understand his books in one way and benefit from what he wrote, while intellectuals would see that what is obvious in the writing is to help the general public, but they need to delve into the writings to discover how they should act.
The “golden mean” is an excellent guide for the general population. When they follow this guide, it aids them and society. However, since guides are general statements, no guideline, even the “golden mean,” can address every situation. In the second chapter of his Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides teaches that people who can think, evaluate situations, and see the advantages and disadvantages of taking a particular action. They should then act based on an intelligent evaluation of the situation.
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My late father Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin was a brilliant man, and although recognized as such, he was very humble. For example, father knew the entire Torah by heart, but never showed off his knowledge.
Father asked how it is possible to be both truthful and humble. The Torah tells us to be both. But if people know that they are smart, how can they be humble when they are supposed to be truthful?
Father answered that a truly smart people understand that other people know things that they do not know. Thus it is truthful and proper for a person to act humbly toward all people.
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The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.
–T. S. Eliot
 This essay is based on what I wrote in my “A rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Press.