The Golden Mean

Colin Powell has died, and a large measure of grace and public virtue has died with him.

Powell’s passing–and the manner in which he lived his public life–  put me in a reflective mood. Specifically–and for no obvious reason– the news made me think about the ancient Greek emphasis on a “golden mean”–a midpoint between extremes– and the relevance of that concept to public service in our angry, contentious political environment.

Mostly, I’ve been considering what the phrase doesn’t–or shouldn’t–mean.

The golden mean isn’t a center-point between the far-right and the bat-shit crazy–between   Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Green, for example. Just because we live in an era when so many people in positions of influence have embraced autocratic philosophies and succumbed to conspiracy theories doesn’t move the “mean” to a point between fascism and lunacy.

The golden mean also isn’t some halfway point between acquiescence to Joe Manchin’s arrogance and greed and Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism.

If we define the golden mean as some sort of halfway point between the passions of our various culture warriors, it’s just another word meaning “compromise.” (I hasten to clarify that I am generally in favor of honorable compromise.) It is a more meaningful concept. I particularly like one definition I’ve seen, comparing the golden mean to the Buddha’s middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. For Aristotle–who is credited for refining the earlier concept– the golden mean was the path to moral behavior, a point that lies  between excess and deficiency.

The New World Encyclopedia attributes the origin of the concept to Crete and the mythological story of Daedalus.

The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his son to “fly the middle course,” between the sea spray and the sun’s heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings.

The Encyclopedia also cites the warning carved into the front of the temple at Delphi: “Nothing in Excess.”

Today, America is positively marinating in excess. Passion all-too-frequently overwhelms reason, and  participants in our political life generally exhibit far more self-righteousness than the humility that characterizes genuine righteousness.

Which brings me back to Colin Powell, who once described himself to a New York Times reporter as a “problem solver”–someone who has views, but is not an ideologue; someone who has passion, but is not a fanatic.

In other words, someone flying the middle course between the sea spray and the sun.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Powell’s life was, as one headline put it, “the importance of owning your mistakes.” He famously testified to the UN that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; we–and he– later learned that the assertion was false. It is likely that he wasn’t lying, but had been lied to; nevertheless, he was wrong, and accountable for it. He publicly admitted he’d been wrong, and expressed regret. He didn’t blame anyone else. He didn’t offer exculpatory sentiments. He said he’d been wrong and that it was one of the most troubling mistakes of his life.

As the GOP morphed into the White Supremacy Party, Powell–until then, a lifelong Republican–  publicly shared  his deep misgivings about the Party’s rightward march. Unlike other former Republican office-holders, he spoke up as the GOP embraced extremism, racism and  birtherism;  in the run-up to the 2016 election, he pointed out that Trump was a liar who represented a danger to the United States. Unlike so many others, he put country above party.

He was an admirable public figure, an example of someone who tried to act in accordance with the golden mean–and the golden rule. Very few public figures are currently emulating that effort.



  1. I completely disagree with the assessment handed down to Powell. You can’t ride the middle path as a subservient liar. That’s not what men of character do – they stay true to themselves. This whole “country first” patriotism is bullshit. It gives the military a license to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts and justify it under country first and national security.

    Meanwhile, the people who do have character and take a stand, are whittled down into pieces by the propaganda artists of our time. Powell was a coward because he knew he was lying. Obedience to Bush/Cheney over being true to himself.

    Branko Marcetic in Jacobin yesterday:

    “This is, unfortunately, the warped conception of patriotism that prevails in Washington and that Powell embodied, which put the United States on the dark road it went down under Bush. Far from putting “country before self,” as Biden put it, Powell’s most cherished principle was unflinching obedience to authority and hierarchy, and he held to it to the detriment of the country and soldiers he claimed to serve.

    Instead of using it to sell this crime, Powell could have used his considerable public standing to undermine the administration’s push for war by resigning and speaking out about what was going on, preventing countless Iraqi and American deaths. That’s the courageous choice whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden made, at considerable personal cost. Instead, Powell pretended he hadn’t been fired and was always planning to resign, before hitting the lecture circuit, raking in handsome payoffs for speeches to corporate boards.”

  2. I believe you are an admirable public figure that I would like to emulate!

    Happy Birthday Professor Kennedy. May all your wishes come true! All the best today and always.

  3. The term “The Golden Mean” reminded me of President Barack Obama’s 2nd book; “The Audacity of Hope”. His hope was that the two parties could once again sit at the bargaining table to find solutions to our problems. The Republicans who sit mute and idle in the House and the Senate have forgotten, if they ever knew — or understood — the meaning of the legal term, “He who sits silent appears to consent.” So, here we are today with Trump’s turmoil continuing to rule the Legislative Branch of our government, supported by the Judicial Branch at its highest levels. The Democrats who speak the loudest are dividing the party only to be heard in the public forum so their names will be known; their actions aid Trump’s White Supremacy party as he moves closer to regaining the dictatorship he legally lost in 2020.

    The Republican’s fear maintains the nation’s loss of democracy, Rule of Law and loss of support of the Constitution of the United States of America, taking with it our loss of civil and human rights. Colin Powell stepped forward publicly to speak against the White Supremacy Party the GOP became; NOT as a Black man but as an American.

  4. Was Colin Powell sincere – in his famous “lie”? We will probably never know.
    Are Republicans – “fair” or “honorable” or anything faintly similar? No, for the most part not.

    Yet – we are left with Joe Biden (and earlier Barack Obama) – related to the Democrats.
    Biden – or his advisors – shoot themselves in the foot – reasonably often.

    Biden – is supposedly – “the expert” – in various ways, due to his many, many years in the senate. He also is purportedly – empathetic – with a big heart – often- the tragedies of the deaths of his first wife and his son more recently are cited.

    Biden – vs. say: Mighty Mitch – No Comparison at all!

    Afghanistan- No – admission – that the exit itself was a disaster – Admit you made a mistake- you can’t move on easily – with denials – as he tried – though it is fading now – in public discussion the failure won’t go away.

    1.9 trillion, 3+ trillion – promises – public pronouncements – many months ago- WHY? Either – after all these years – he didn’t know Joe Manchin – or he couldn’t keep his mouth shut? If- the Democrats manage to get any money now – it will look like a failure.

    Mitch vs. Joe – no comparison.

    Mitch has to deal with the Donald
    Joe – has multiple people – but do they compare with the Donald – in being a problem? No way!

    Mitch – is clever – not brilliant but clever,
    Joe – is “intelligent” – but foolish.

    The Democrats – should be able to be a huge success- now and in the coming years, but it looks like luck – only – may possibly give them such success.

    Reaching the American People – reaching their fears – their hopes – their ideals – is necessary. Feeding facts (which aren’t accepted as facts) rarely helps much.

    The world is changing! Joe has trouble adapting. Joe – had some trouble adapting – before he “got old”. I hope that the Democrats – won’t seize Defeat from Victory! We will see!

    Black Women – elected Joe Biden – not white women or men. Black Women – won’t rescue the Democrats in 2022 and 2024 – most likely – Fear of Republicans – the Right – won’t be enough! There needs to be some positive – feeling for the Democrats – not just simple fear.

    The positives of the Democrats – remain – often hidden – in the muck. Image- is important – but more substance – strategy and framing things is necessary.

    I hope – that in 2022 – the Democrats – will have a “true” majority – and they can – if necessary – take the power away from the other Joe and the Arizona – staller. We shall see!

  5. George Marx obviously missed the meaning of the title of today’s blog as well as the meaning of those words and why Colin Powell is the primary subject today.

    But he is obviously not one of those silent Republicans to be considered as consenting to anything.

  6. The Republican party really was ordained to become the radical, foaming-at-the-mouth, MTG looney bin once they gave up governing for the sake of the capitalists who executed legal and illegal bribery to get that party to do the bidding of the very few. They never considered the golden mean once they had their perfect stooge, Ronald Reagan in place. His syrupy seduction of the American people brought us the horror that is now the GOP and its wretches like Cruz, Hawley, McConnell and McCarthy, et. al.

    We have only ourselves to blame for allowing the money camels to put their noses under the tent flaps of democracy. Now, we’re left with their shit to shovel out before regaining our sense of fairness and democracy.

  7. Speaking of Republicans, does Jeff Fortenberry now regret that he replied to the Nigerian Prince e-mail? He did end up getting lots of money. He might now get a vacation in a Federal Pen. The Republicans have been extolling the virtues of mediocrity for decades. I hate to break it to them but mediocre isn’t the golden mean, but in some circles it makes you a star.

  8. Sheila, the entire country (world?) needs a reboot. If we do not start this minute to change the way we deal with population, women, children, wealth, poverty and the environment we will all be gone in a few more generations. Can you write about this? If the United States does not reflect and change it’s ways, we will cease to exist as a country. I have spent many months considering where we are headed and I have concluded that, in spite of some really wonderful movements and individuals, we won’t get better unless we ALL change- – starting YESTERDAY. There are a lot of people who also think as I do. The house is on fire and we need to ACT, and act NOW.
    I really appreciate each and every one of your articles. You are wise and passionate. Keep up the great work that you do.

  9. Lovely. Can anyone think of a single time when Trump recognized or even followed through, even once on “the importance of owning your mistakes”?

  10. If our democracy survives it will be due to speeches like the one below that Sen. Angus King delivered yesterday and not the contrite bromides we heard from Sec. Powell. He was a deservedly honorable man until that fateful speech he gave at the UN General Assembly where he “likely” consciously declared the Bush administration to be in possession of unequivocal information that Saddam Hussein either had or was constructing weapons of mass destruction.

    I put the word “likely” in quotes because I simply cannot believe that such a person with his credentials and past experience in the US military and ESPECIALLY the military intelligence apparatus would make such a claim based on such skimpy and UN corroborated evidence provided by a single source that the CIA knew was erratic and unreliable.

    No, he took one for the team. And the team was a cabal of war mongers named Cheney, G. Bush, Wolfowitz, Armitage and others. He ignored everything he said he learned from his experience in the Vietnam conflict for political expediency as did his predecessor Dean Rusk in that era. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil of the W. Bush Administration openly opposed the war in Iraq and was replaced in 2003 before the invasion. But Powell chose to wait until after the 2004 election to resign on the chance that Bush might lose to Kerry and allow him to make a more graceful exit. No, his decision to support the invasion initially was the result of a series of cold calculated political decisions designed to satisfy his own ambition to become President. But he bet wrong.

    I saw Sec. Powell speak at a benefit fundraiser in the late 90’s. He was incredibly insightful and optimistic about America (who WASN’T in the dot-com era?) and we all walked out of there proud of our citizenship. And I see the same thing happening now as he’s being lionized and sanctified in a bipartisan way, but it’s all just being fueled by nostalgia and a yearning for a time gone by. History will likely not be kind to Sec. Colin Powell.

    Spend 30 minutes of your day listening to a real American hero:

  11. Colin Powell was just a human, imperfect but always striving to make a difference. He, and his life, was spent trying to honor these rules:

    Secretary Powell’s 13 Rules:

    It ain’t as bad as you think! It will look better in the morning.

    Get mad then get over it.

    Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

    It can be done.

    Be careful what you choose. You may get it.

    Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

    You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.

    Check small things.

    Share credit.

    Remain calm. Be kind.

    Have a vision. Be demanding.

    Don’t take counsel of your fears.

    He didn’t strive for perfection. He strove to use his intellect to guide his actions through a very gray world (thanks to other humans). He lived enlightened.

  12. I have always wondered how it is the Colin Powell did not know there were no WMD in Iraq when I did. I never once believed there was because a man from the UN was in Iraq checking places at a rapid pace to try and avert a war. Sadly, Bush did not listen to the UN’s investigation.

    This is not to say that Saddam Hussein was not a terrible dictator. He was.

    Bush made another mistake. The origins of ISIS were in Iraq and his administration failed to nip them in the bud.

    The “golden mean”, the middle way. If everyone in the world practiced a “middle way” consumption, we might not have billionaires or if we did, much of their money would be given to charities. Then, perhaps, we could truly reduce global warming.

    I just heard about a book on NPR titled “American Made” in which the author follows 3 people in Indiana who lost their jobs that were farmed out to Mexico. One of them died, one of them is still unemployed and depressed, and one is now working for much less pay. It would be interesting to hear remarks on NAFTA, free trade and who it does not benefit.

  13. It’s great you honor Colin Powell. I assume you’ll be working towards the golden mean as it looks like you’ll have lots of opportunity in the very near future.
    “Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania and David Price of North Carolina brought to 12 the number of House Democrats who have said they will not see re-election.”
    Not looking good for the Biden camp

  14. I’m very proud of Powell’s efforts in covering up the My Lai massacre. Who cares? Really? Those people were just nobodies. Women and children are expendable. Colin was the epitome of exceptionalism. American exceptionalism.

    Good on you Colin Powell. That’s an admirable legacy. May his grace and honor continue to permeate our most excellent empire.

  15. Excellent discussion about the Golden Mean, Sheila. Thank you.

    Colin Powell is interesting. He was so much better than most as he aged, but had flaws that drive some people wild. In this day and age, he seems to stand out for some of his characteristics, but in the end, it seems he entered the realm of the Socrates Test.

    Socrates Test – Was Socrates a man seeking the truth, trying hard to find it, and exposing falsehood along the way OR was Socrates a self-important jerk, who went around putting other people down while trying to prove how clever he was.
    I have always thought that the answer says more about the person giving the answer than about Socrates himself.

    So it seems to be with Colin Powell. I see Colin Powell as a basically good man who had some blind spots that failed him at times. You can probably figure my view of Socrates.

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