You are on page 1of 10


5 MAY 2012


When speaking about notions of a balance or a mean, what often comes to mind is
Aristotles concept of the mean, otherwise known as the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean is a
concept that many are familiar with. In its simplest formulation, Aristotles Mean refers to
the mean between two extremes of excess and deficiency. 1 However, because of its
widespread familiarity in much of Western thought, the Golden Mean can and does affect
interpretations of Chinese texts, for we rarely consider the possibility that other notions of a
balance/mean are employed in such texts.
To illustrate this problem, I will survey the Nei-yeh ( Inner Cultivation) for
instances alluding to notions of a balance or a mean. And, in this paper, I argue that the
notion of balance/mean employed in the Nei-yeh is that of centrality and, despite its
resemblance with the Golden Mean, centrality is so fundamental to the Nei-yeh as it
consistently underlies the entire process and goal of the inner cultivation practitioner.
To demonstrate this, I will consider two widespread interpretations of the Golden
Mean: (1) the popular interpretation whereby the mean is conceived of simply as a
quantitative mean between excess and deficiency; and (2) the interpretation derived from a
close analysis of what Aristotle meant in the Nicomachean Ethics, as a qualitative mean of
employing the right amount at the right time, with respect to the person and his abilities. I
will show how there are instances in the Nei-yeh that seem to fit these two interpretations.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b16-28

But why consider two interpretations of the Golden Mean here? I will show that the two
possible interpretations of Aristotles mean whether one subscribes to a superficial reading
or to a close analysis clouds our interpretation of Chinese texts, particularly the Nei-yeh in
this case, as these interpretations only fit a few instances but not all the instances where it
alludes to some notion of a balance/mean. Next, I will prove that the notion of balance
employed in the Nei-yeh is that of centrality. I will then show how this is able to coherently
account for all instances of balance/mean in the Nei-yeh, and show just how this
interpretation will allow us to see the bigger picture. Lastly, I will anticipate an objection and
proceed to refute it.
On a superficial reading of Aristotle, the Golden Mean is often regarded as a
quantitative mean that does not stray into the extremes of excess or deficiency.2 Aristotle
gives the example of courage as a virtue that avoids the extremes of cowardice (deficiency)
and foolhardiness (excess).3 The Golden Mean, as the goal for those seeking to be virtuous, is
the aim of moderating ones passions and actions such that it does not stray into the extremes
of excess or deficiency. Moreover, to acquire the mean, one has to apply the opposite of the
extreme that one is in. Aristotle advices that he who aims at the mean must first avoid the
extreme which is more opposed to the mean,4 i.e. if one is in excess, one must strive for
deficiency, and vice versa.
Adapting this concept to the Nei-yeh, the goal of the practitioner is to aim for
moderation, seeking to avoid the evils of excess (and deficiency) so as to ultimately grasp the
Tao ( the Way) and return to it.5 One can find instances in the Nei-yeh that seem to allude

Ibid., 1106b16-28
Ibid., 1107a33-b4
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1109a30-b1
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.135; Ibid., p.54, V; Ibid., p.78, XVII

to this Golden Mean. The Nei-yeh instructs the practitioner to not go to excess.6 It warns of
the dangers of excess. Excessive knowledge can lead one to lose ones vitality,7 and so one
has to chase away the excessive.8 Excess eating and starving are equally harmful to the
body.9 In one instance, the Nei-yeh describes the mean as moderation, the middle ground
between gorging and abstention.10 To acquire this mean, one must make a plan to correct
this,11 by countering ones excesses or deficiencies with the opposite action. For example,
the Nei-yeh prescribes the solution of moving about quickly when too full, and to relax
ones thoughts when hungry.12 With numerous instances in the Nei-yeh that appear similar
to this superficial reading of the Golden Mean, it is very easy to associate these notions with
that of Aristotles Golden Mean.
Another possible interpretation of this Golden Mean is derived from a closer reading
of the Nicomachean Ethics. In this interpretation, the mean is not a quantitative mean (as the
one above) but a qualitative mean, where one is concerned with acting at the right time, for
the right objects, toward the right persons, with the right motive, and in the right way,13 for
it is concerned with what reason deems to be right. Aristotle uses the image of archery as a
model for the mean. He repeatedly uses the expression, hitting the mean (tou mesou
stochastike).14 The word, stochastike, comes from the verb, stochazesthai, which means
to aim at or shoot at.15 The mean is analogous to the bulls eye (the target), as both the right

Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.44, VII.2
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.60, VIII
Ibid., p.78, XVII
Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.53, XIV.1
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.90, XXIII
Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.53, XIV.1
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106b16-28
Ibid., 1106b15, 1106b27-28, 1109a-23, and 1109a30
Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle, p.86

and middle point.16 Excess and deficiency cannot be understood strictly as two extreme
points but as two general headings under which all defective characters and actions are
grouped.17 To hit the mean is to do what is right with respect to the individuals passions
and actions, his unique abilities and circumstances, and to the model example of the
phronimos (who stands as the examplary model for correct deliberations and actions),18
while avoiding the numerous ways in which ones character or action could go wrong. It is
essential to learn from the example of the phronimos for the cultivation of virtue because
virtuous action is not about blindly following universal rules. Courage is usually considered a
virtue and timidity a vice, yet there are some things that a virtuous agent should be afraid of
since the mean of a particular action is contingent on ones abilities, activities, and
circumstances,19 and it is the phronimos who, as the model example in situations relevantly
like our own,20 sets the standards for us to follow. Without this necessary reference to the
phronimos, one may not even realise that one had missed the mean.
Adapting this interpretation to the Nei-yeh, one can find similar instances throughout
the text. Like the phronimos, the sage is the exemplary model described in the Nei-yeh. This
sage is one who is capable of good judgement and remaining quiescient, is consequently
able to remain stable.21 To acquire and remain in this state of quiescence is one of the sagely
qualities which the practitioner is called to model himself after. Just as how virtue, like a
skill, must be cultivated, one has to cultivate a well-regulated mind.22 Having acquired such a
state, the practitioner, like the sage, will then be able to issue well-regulated words from his


Ibid., pp.86-87
Ibid., p.88
May Sim, Harmony and the Mean in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Zhongyong, p.111
Ibid., p.110
Ibid., p.111

mouth, and well-regulated policies are applied to men.23 To cultivate this skill, one must
practice moderation, limiting ones self to the appropriate degree and the practitioner will
naturally reach the mean.24 Though the previous sentence specifically refers to eating, the
same can be said about the other aspects of life, as the Nei-yeh does not precisely state how
much one should moderate it, but leaves it to ones good judgement to decide.25
However, these interpretations of the Golden Mean do not account for other instances
that allude to some notion of a balance/mean. The sage, as the ideal exemplar, is one who is
able to alter with the seasons but does not transform, shifts with things but does not change
places with them.26 Moreover, such a person is capable of transforming without expending
vital energy; to alter without expending wisdom.27 To acquire this sagely ability, the Nei-yeh
instructs the practitioner to practice the Way as follows: You must coil, you must contract,
you must uncoil, you must expand.28 These paradoxical statements are prescriptive. The
descriptions of the sages abilities hold normative weight, as these descriptions of the ideal
case are prescriptions of how one ought to act eventually. Yet, such statements are often not
given much thought. Roth and Rickett, scholars who have written on the Nei-yeh, do not
explain these statements. Often, such statements (in the Nei-yeh and other texts, such as the
Tao Te Ching ) are either construed as mystical statements or literary metaphors.
There is also the temptation to immediately interpret them as instantiations of wuwei (
action by non-action). However, I do believe that these notions do allude to some notion of a
balance/mean, which we often do not realize because of the prevalence of the Golden Mean
in much of Western thought. Balance/mean has been so tightly associated with notions such


Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.84, XX
Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.52, XIII
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.60, VIII
Ibid., p.62, IX
Ibid., p.78, XVII

as moderation, excess, and deficiency in our intellectual context that we do not think twice
that balance/mean could be conceived otherwise.
Since these seemingly paradoxical statements do allude to some notion of a mean, I
will now argue for a different notion of balance/mean, and proceed to show how this other
notion is able to account for all instances alluding to a balance/mean, including the
paradoxical statements above. And I will then show how this other notion systematically
underlies the Nei-yeh itself.
Bodde argues that the notion of centrality is unique to Chinese thought, as it provided
a picture of an extremely and precisely ordered universe, in which things fitted, so exactly
that you could not insert a hair between them.29 Centrality, as the name suggests, is a
symmetrical pair of dualistic concepts with a mean in the centre of the symmetry. This
duality refers to complementary pairs such as light/dark or heat/cold. Centrality adds to the
notion of symmetry by inserting a middle unit/group in the form:30
Concept A / [Mean] / Concept B
Admittedly, the notion of centrality does bear some resemblance with the Golden
Mean, since both employ a linear scale. However, there is a significant difference between
the two notions, which is the way in which the mean is conceived. The Golden Mean
conceives of the mean as moderation between excess and deficiency. It is a mean that
considers having the right amount (construed quantitatively as the right amount there is
neither in excess nor in deficiency; construed qualitatively as the right amount according to
the situation, ones ability, and as the model exemplar would have done). It is for this reason,


Joseph Needham, History of Scientific Thought, cited in Derk Bodde, Chinese Thought, Society,
and Science, p.108
Derk Bodde, Chinese Thought, Society, and Science, p.109

that it is possible to conceive of the deviation from the mean using the categories of excess
and deficiency.
However, the notion of centrality does not have the concept of deficiency since it
consists of symmetry between a complementary pair (concept A and concept B). Moderation
in this sense refers to remaining in the middle of the pair. A deviation from the mean onto
either side is considered going into excess. In some cases, the complementary pair seems to
strongly suggest an excess and deficiency notion (e.g. hot/cold) akin to the Golden Mean.
While it is tempting to view such a pair with an excess-deficiency scale, one must bear in
mind that the notion of centrality posits a centre term as the centre point between concept A
and concept B.
In the Nei-yeh, the state of quiescence is that flawless state31 in which practitioners
strive to attain as a necessary condition for the Tao to abide within the excellent mind.32
The state of quiescence is the mean. The state of quiescence is the mean that lies at the centre
of all dualistic pairs of human passion and desire: sorrow and happiness, joy and anger,
desire and profit seeking.33 These pairs are deviations from the mean that confuses the
mind and the senses, thereby leading one into greater excess. Unlike the Golden Mean,
moderation does not involve moving away from one extreme towards the other, so as to
move closer to the mean. Instead, moderation based on the notion of centrality, involves
going back to the mean, the centre point of all passions and desires, which the Nei-yeh


Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.40, II.1
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.54, V
Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.40, II.1

identifies as that state of quiescence. And by remaining always in this state, the practitioner
never retrogresses, for his is a life without excesses.34
The advantage of the notion of centrality over the Golden Mean is that it is able to
account for those seemingly paradoxical instances in the Nei-yeh that allude to some notion
of a balance/mean (as mentioned in p.5). Once again, these instances present us with a
symmetric duality. What this notion of centrality helps us to see is that there is a clear
systematic consistency throughout the Nei-yeh. The final goal that the practitioner seeks to
attain is this mean state of quiescence in order to attain the Tao. Just as the goal demands
avoidance of excess, the process too equally demands the avoidance of excess. The only way
one can acquire the mean state of quiescence is to acquire it in a mean-like way. Deliberate
methods of attainment, be they positive or negative, are still methods of excess. Nonetheless,
since deliberate methods are unavoidable, one must somehow, avoid these excesses.35 As
such, throughout the process of inner cultivation, from start to finish, one must consistently
and constantly avoid straying into excess in either direction of the dualism.
However, one objection is that these paradoxical instances only seem to allude to a
notion of a balance/mean. It appears that this is just an assumption with no textual support to
justify it. If this is true, the argument about the consistency throughout the Nei-yeh about
abiding in the mean in both the process and the end state, holds no ground.
To this objection, I reply that the Nei-yeh provides sufficient resources to justify these
seemingly paradoxical instances as truly notions of balance/mean. Those familiar with
Chinese philosophy, specifically Taoism, would recognize such instances as statements about
wuwei ( action by non-action). While my interpretation does not make reference to
wuwei, it does not mutually exclude the possibility of it being wuwei. The first clue to suggest


Ibid., p.48, IX.2

A full elaboration of this can be found on p.9 of this paper, as my reply to the anticipated objection.

that these instances are notions of a mean is due to the precise usage of dualistic pairs. These
instances mimic other instances that are more explicit in notioning a balance/mean.
Nonetheless, pointing out such similarities do not suffice to justify them as truly being
notions of balance/mean. I will now refer to the resources in the text for my justification.
What is important to note is that these instances are prescriptive statements, instructing the
practitioner to act in a certain way. If we assume that the other prescriptions in the text are
consistent, and are part of a coherent big picture of inner cultivation, then it is possible to
deduce what these paradoxical statements seem to be saying. The Nei-yeh instructs the
practitioner to engage in certain deliberative activities: to make early plan to correct
foreseeable problems;36 to counter excess by acting in ways to return back to the mean, such
as moving about quickly when too full, and to relax ones thoughts when hungry,37 On
the other hand, the text seems to be prescribing contrary instructions. It instructs the
practitioner to: be calm, do not confuse the senses, do not confuse the mind, do not go into
excess, moderate desires, rid of violent emotions. If we consider this seeming contradictory
set of instructions as an expanded version of those equally contradictory statements
(mentioned on p.5), one finds that these prescriptions coherently echo the same idea, that
even in our actions there should be a kind of balance. Deliberate activity should not go into
excess, but stay instead within the mean.
Seeing such seemingly paradoxical statements as pointing to a notion of a
balance/mean, and reading the Nei-yeh from the viewpoint of the centrality, one is thus able
to see that the notion of centrality is fundamental to the Nei-yeh. Though the notion of
balance/mean alluded to in the Nei-yeh bears resemblance to Aristotles Golden Mean, there
are differences so significant that they affect our interpretation of the text. As it has been


Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training, p.90, XXIII

Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China,
p.53, XIV.1

shown, the notion of centrality is able to account for more instances of the text that alludes to
a balance/mean. Moreover, this notion of centrality is so fundamental that it is consistently
present throughout the stages of inner cultivation. From the process of cultivation right up to
the attainment of such a mean within ones self, the practitioner does must make it a point to
always abide by the mean. In doing so, the practitioner is thus able to abide with the Tao.
(2730 words).

Nicomachean Ethics, in Commentary on Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C.J. Litzinger,
O.P. (Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993).
Bodde, Derk, Chinese Thought, Society, and Science: The Intellectual and Social
Background of Science and Technology in Pre-modern China (Honolulu: University
of Hawaii Press, 1991)
Rickett, W. Allyn, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp.15-55
Roth, Harold D., Original Tao: Inward Training (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1999).
Sim, May, Harmony and the Mean in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Zhongyong in
Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2007), pp.100-133.
Yu, Jiyuan, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle (New York: Routledge, 2007).