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.