In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes several references to navigation:
…And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics… 1112b5
…as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation… 1104a9
…being a principle in which nothing is contributed by the person who is acting or is feeling the passion, e.g. if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind… 1110a3
As the birthplace of Homer’s Odyssey, Ancient Greece holds an especially deep relationship to the sea, as it is primarily consists of islands. And yet, in a discussion of human excellence, both moral and intellectual, where do these skills play a role? Why did Aristotle choose to use seamanship as an activity having anything to do with ethics, or at least more so than other activities? Do we not identify more with his consistent reference to the doctor, for it deals directly with a particular human good, namely the health of people? An equally expected example is his brave warrior who concerns himself with fighting battles for the safety of people, or the excellent lyre player for the enjoyment and refinement of people.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished two kinds of “virtue,” or human excellence: moral and intellectual. Unlike medicine, politics, or philosophy, navigation seems on the outset to be quite unconcerned with these virtues. We can reduce the purpose of navigation to the science or art of conducting ships or vessels from one place to another. Why not then speak of chariotship or horsemanship?
Furthermore, in an inquiry on ethics, our concern is philosophical, while to put navigational skill to practice, one must have a vessel. The “activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” of the sailor depends on this external good to achieve his ends; without his vessel, he is an armchair sailor. Would not such practices as civics, teaching and the liberal arts, which are not inherently dependant on any external object, be more appropriate in illustrating his investigation of the pursuit of virtue? Aristotle points out:
Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
But pleasantest is it to win what we love. For all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one- the best- of these, we identify with happiness.
Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. 1099b2
The most excellent navigator must be able to show excellence even with sparse equipment, and that is even the definition of an excellent navigator. Indeed, too deficient equipment and the navigator would be imprudent to launch. In the other extreme, he who possesses a lavish or excess of maritime equipment will never truly learn how to navigate, only how to operate the equipment. This is our first encounter of the navigator’s necessity for the Golden Mean.
Let us first behold the theoretical, “pure” navigator, who has no concern over crew and vessel, but merely concerns himself with navigation alone. For Aristotle, virtuous action lies in a disposition to choose the mean (“the right balance”) between extremes, in particular choosing the mean between the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. This is, briefly put, precisely the concern of navigation. The following table gives some specific examples of how excess and deficiency play a key role in navigation:
Points too far into the wind, leading to sudden, dangerous jibe
Points as close to target as possible
Points too far away from the wind, leading to sudden tack, completely steering vessel off course
Ignores current, runs adrift, missing target
Meets the target at landfall
Fights current too much, runs aground, sinking or damaging the vessel
Hoists insufficient sail
surface leading to bumpy ride, inability to counter current and waves, delaying or impeding landfall
Hoists just the right amount
of sail, allowing for maximal speed, safety and comfort
Hoists too much sail surface leading to
wet ride, ripped sails, broken spars, weakened rig
Note that, in order to achieve the mean in all the above cases, the navigator must always act in light of the given variables (wind and weather, currents, waves, boat length, mast height, etc.). As Aristotle misattributes to Calypso:
Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what
is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises-
Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.
For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore,
since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second
best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be
done best in the way we describe. 1109a31
The variables a navigator faces are entirely outside his control and, as in the case of Odysseus, often do not offer entirely ideal conditions. It will be these conditions which will determine whether he must head for the mean, or towards one or another extreme in order to achieve the closest to the mean possible.
In practice, excellent navigation necessitates not merely the equipment and how to use it, but an understanding of engineering, oceanography, geography and meteorology, of astronomy and topography, of kinetics, physics, geometry and mathematics. This only reflects the skills (as opposed to virtues) needed to get from Point A to Point B. Aristotle also seems to understand that the virtue of a navigator consists of more than mere techne when he mentions:
Something of the sort happens also with regard to the
throwing of goods overboard in a storm; for in the abstract no one
throws goods away voluntarily, but on condition of its securing the
safety of himself and his crew any sensible man does so. 1110a11
One could argue that this sensibility is needed by every seaman, but here he specifies “his crew,” so he is in fact discussing the captain of a ship. Except for the occasional solo sailor, success in “the sensible man” mentioned above depends on more than his navigational savvy. He must also have strong insight into the micropolitical, and a keen sense of sociology and psychology. Here we can begin to address his moral virtues, for according to Aristotle:
Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate. 1106b21
The Nicomachean Ethics uses a teleological approach which looks to the end, goal or purpose of human existence in order to determine how we ought to act. In all of his actions, the excellent navigator must look for and achieve the golden mean in order to make this determination. He must understand how to harness Neptune’s nature, as well as his own nature, to his benefit, honing and sculpting his sails in accordance with the variables placed before him. An excess of courage leads to shipwreck, a deficiency and the vessel will never leave port or will not attain the destination. An excess of generosity and he will use up the ship’s stores too quickly, while a deficiency of generosity will lead to a hungry, sick, tired, ineffective crew. Both a too harsh or too soft temper (control over his crew) entices mutiny. The golden mean in these virtues, however, best assures a satisfied crew, a functional vessel and successful sea passages. Since he will search for and achieve a juste milieu in the virtues, the excellent navigator may be considered by Aristotle to exemplify the excellent man.
Upon reflecting in these waters we can see how the navigational arts, by and with nature, in analogy as well as practice, reveal Aristotle’s golden mean.