Is Aristotle's doctrine of the mean either an empty abstraction
or a recommendation of mediocrity?

No, it is certainly not a recommendation of mediocrity.  Nor is it an empty abstraction.

What is Aristotle's "Doctrine of the Mean"?

Aristotle's "Doctrine of the Mean" was not intended by him to be a piece of moral advice.  Rather it is a part of his efforts to describe what he means by "excellence of character".  What distinguishes excellence of character?

"Virtue [excellence of character], then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it." (NE 2.6)

According to Aristotle's analysis of the "excellences of character", for each specific area of excellence that we recognize there will be some specific emotion whose field it is.  (See the Appendix below.)  And for each such emotion Aristotle wants to claim that excellence of character, or virtue, is just to be disposed, by training and habit, to exhibit just the right amount of emotion, as warranted by the circumstances, and as discernable by "the man of practical wisdom".  Obviously, if it is possible to exhibit this emotion to the proper degree, then is necessarily possible to be disposed to exhibit it either too much or too little.  (Aristotle regards "too much" as inclusive of "on too many occasions" as well as "too violently".  Similarly, "too little" is inclusive of "on too few occasions" as well as "too weakly.")  Since Aristotle calls the disposition to display the proper degree of emotion in the given circumstances a virtue, he calls the disposition to display either an excessive degree or a deficient degree of the particular emotion under these circumstances vices.  Excellence of character, or moral virtue, is then a disposition or tendency of the soul, induced by our habits, to have the appropriate feelings in the circumstances.  Defect of character, or moral vice, is then a disposition or tendency to have inappropriate feelings in those circumstances.

The proper degree of emotion that ought to be displayed is then the middle ground between two extremes -- a virtue positioned between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.  But it needs to be emphasized that Aristotle sees the proper amount to be relative to the individual and the circumstances.

"By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little—and this is not one, nor the same for all. … But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little — too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this — the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us." (NE 2.6)

For Aristotle, any given virtue lies between two extremes - for example courage lies in a mean between rashness and cowardice.  The mean to which he refers is not an arithmetical mean, but is "relative to us", under the circumstances, as a "practically wise person would determine it."  As a description of moral virtue, then, the doctrine of the mean is just a specific description of what it means for the virtuous or temperate man to desire what he ought, to the extent that he ought, in the circumstances he ought.  It is not itself prescriptive moral advice.  (Although it does allow Aristotle to remind us that there are always two opposite errors which we must avoid.) 

Why Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean is Not a Recommendation of Mediocrity

Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean has often been interpreted as a moral recommendation that proper moral behaviour consists in always acting moderately or without excessive feeling.  It is from such an interpretation that the essay title's question can ask whether the doctrine of the mean is a recommendation of mediocrity.  But this is an interpretation that is a Stoic or Christian misrepresentation of what Aristotle actually says. 

As the quote provided above indicates, Aristotle insists that the "mean" he is referring to is not a mathematical mean, or some kind of average between the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess.  What his "mean" involves, he is quite clear, is a mean "relative to us."  He provides several examples where he emphasizes that excellence of character and virtuous action involves a response appropriate to the particular situation in which the moral agent finds himself.  Aristotle is making the point that the important thing, as far as moral virtue is concerned, is to act appropriately to the situation, without overreacting (excess) or under-reacting (deficiency) to a particular set of circumstances.

And in fact, Aristotle makes it clear (at the start of Book VI) that the Doctrine of the Mean alone is not sufficient to guide an individual in determining what constitutes virtuous behaviour in any situation.  This statement is in preparation for his more detailed discussions of the individual virtues, where he promises (but never really delivers) a more specific guide as to what would constitute the "right rule" in any given situation. 

"Since we have previously said that one ought to choose that which is intermediate, not the excess nor the defect, and that the intermediate is determined by the dictates of the right rule, let us discuss the nature of these dictates. In all the states of character we have mentioned, as in all other matters, there is a mark to which the man who has the rule looks, and heightens or relaxes his activity accordingly, and there is a standard which determines the mean states which we say are intermediate between excess and defect, being in accordance with the right rule. But such a statement, though true, is by no means clear; for not only here but in all other pursuits which are objects of knowledge it is indeed true to say that we must not exert ourselves nor relax our efforts too much nor too little, but to an intermediate extent and as the right rule dictates; but if a man had only this knowledge he would be none the wiser e.g. we should not know what sort of medicines to apply to our body if some one were to say 'all those which the medical art prescribes, and which agree with the practice of one who possesses the art'. Hence it is necessary with regard to the states of the soul also not only that this true statement should be made, but also that it should be determined what is the right rule and what is the standard that fixes it." (NE 6.1)

Aristotle here clearly states that his theory that virtue lies between extremes is not intended as a procedure for making decisions.  The doctrine of the mean describes what is attractive about the virtues.  It also systematizes our understanding of which qualities of character are virtues.  Once we recognize that temperance, courage, and other generally praised traits of character are mean states between opposing extremes, we can identify other mean states as virtues, even though they may not have a name, or be generally prized.  Once we recognize that the virtues are to be found between vices of excess and deficiency, we can be more careful not to fall into either extreme in our deliberations about the proper thing to do.  Though Aristotle is guided to some degree by distinctions captured by ordinary terms, his methodology allows him to recognize states for which no names exist.  The doctrine of the mean is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Why Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean is Not an Empty Abstraction

In the Nicomachean Ethics (NE 2.4), Aristotle identifies moral virtue as both an activity and a disposition.  The Greek word he uses is "hexis" which implies an actively maintained disposition somewhat akin to the balance one might maintain while riding a bicycle.  Aristotle confirms this understanding by considering and then dismissing our passive feelings and impulses, and any capacities we may have.  He observes that virtue is never in the action but only in the doer.  Virtue is displayed by action, Aristotle says, only when one acts while holding oneself in a certain way - choosing the action knowingly and for its own sake.  So a virtue is an active state of mind that one maintains by actively balancing one's disposition against the pull of the vices on either side.  This actively maintained stable equilibrium of the soul is what Aristotle means by having a virtuous character.  Aristotle is clear that our irrational impulses, emanating from the appetitive part of our soul, are no less human than reasoning is.  But our desires need not be mindless and random.  They can be moulded and directed by thinking into rational choices - desires informed by deliberation.  Achieving aretē in our management of our bodily pleasures is, by Aristotle's theory, an active process of finding a mean or equilibrium. 

Aristotle doesn't go into much detail about how we learn to maintain this stable equilibrium, except to say that we develop our virtues by working at them -- practicing them until they become reflex in the same manner one learns to ride a bicycle.  However well practiced we become, staying upright on a bicycle remains an active exercise of perceiving our position and adjusting our aim to avoid falling to either side.  In a like manner, Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean is a description of what it is to fall to either side, so that a person aiming to remain balanced may perceive the proper line to take.  And Aristotle is clear that knowing what is the proper response to the circumstances is a matter of proper perception.

So the Doctrine of the Mean is a guide offered by Aristotle in how to recognize (by perception) the equilibrium point between the vices of falling to either side.

Appendix

Sphere of Action
or Feeling

 Vice of Excess 

Virtue of the Mean

Vice of Deficiency

Pleasure and Pain

Licentiousness /
Intemperance /
Self-indulgence

Temperance

Insensibility

Fear and Confidence

Rashness

Courage

Cowardice

Getting and Spending
  (major)

Vulgarity /
Tastelessness

Munificence

Pettiness /
Niggardliness

Getting and Spending
  (minor)

Prodigality

Liberality

Illiberality /
Meanness

Honour and Dishonour
  (major)

Vanity

Magnanimity

Pusillanimity

Honour and Dishonour
  (minor)

Ambition /
empty vanity

Proper /
  Right ambition/pride

Unambitiousness /
undue humility

Anger

Irascibility

Patience /
Good temper

Spiritlessness /
unirascibility

Self-expression

Boastfulness

Truthfulness

Understatement /
mock modesty

Conversation

Buffoonery

Wittiness

Boorishness

Social Conduct

Obsequiousness

Friendliness /
Civility

Cantankerousness /
Surliness

Shame

Shyness /
Bashfulness

Modesty

Shamelessness

Indignation

Envy

Righteous indignation

Malicious enjoyment /
Spitefulness

 

References

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x

Hardie, W.F.R.; "Aristotle's Doctrine That Virtue Is a "Mean"", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 65 (1964 - 1965), Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Aristotelian Society, pp. 183-204

Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.

Urmson, J.R.; "Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean", American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jul., 1973), University of Illinois Press on behalf of North American Philosophical Publications; pp. 223-230

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