Tag Archives: golden mean

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.





The Golden Mean

I’ve been on IUPUI’s faculty for nearly 15 years, and for the very first time, faculty offices are scheduled for repainting and (gasp!) new furniture. Since the desk I’ve used since I arrived has seen nearly as many birthdays as I have, I welcome the change.

The downside is that we all have to box up our books, files, pictures and the like so the movers can do their thing, and it is amazing–and daunting–to realize just how much…stuff…(aka crap) one can accumulate in 15 years. It’s particularly sobering to realize how seldom that crap gets consulted.

I did come across some interesting reading as I was weeding out my files of “background information.” Case in point, an essay by Benjamin Barber titled “A Failure of Democracy, Not Capitalism,” remarking on the passage of an anti-corporate-corruption measure in 2002. As Barber pointed out,

“..business malfeasance is the consequence neither of systemic capitalist contradictions nor private sin, which are endemic to capitalism and, indeed, to humanity. It arises from a failure of the instruments of democracy, which have been weakened by three decades of market fundamentalism, privatization ideology and resentment of government.”


Fundamentalism is problematic in all areas of national life, not just the economic sphere. As attractive as either-or formulations and beliefs may be–and let’s face it, possession of THE truth, THE answer, is undeniably seductive–such hard and fast, one-size-fits-all approaches just don’t work in the real world.  Unfortunately for market fundamentalists, capitalism requires regulation to ensure an even playing field; unfortunately for proponents of central government control, those regulations need to be carefully calibrated–too much is as bad as too little.

There are areas of our common life that require “socialism”–the communal provision of services like police and fire protection, sanitary sewers and roads, to give a few examples. There are other areas where government needs to tread lightly–retail sales, manufacturing, and other entreprenuerial activities requiring relatively minor rules protecting public health and safety. The level of government activity should depend upon the nature of the activity rather than rigid ideology.

The regulatory failures of the past decades have–predictably–spawned a movement intent upon “replacing capitalism.” Americans tend to lurch from one fundamentalism to another, and we don’t seem to recognize that such pendulum swings are unhelpful. Barber’s insight remains an important one; we don’t need to give up capitalism, which has served us well overall. We just need social and legal structures that channel its energies and control its corrupting tendencies.

The Greeks had it right when they advocated for the golden mean.