The Golden Mean: Cognitive Brilliance!

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

~ Aristotle

David Brooks does it again with his thought-provoking summary of‘s “The Edge Question 2011.” The event organizers asked participants: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”and what came back was fascinating.

According to, “The term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or ‘in a phrase’) but has broad application to understanding the world.” Some of the tools nominated include:

  • “path dependence” – defined as “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice”
  • “Einstellung Effect” – “the idea that we often try to solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms.”
  • “emergence” – an increasingly popular concept described as the attempt “to understand problems by taking apart and studying their constituent parts. But emergent problems can’t be understood this way. Emergent systems are ones in which many different elements interact. The pattern of interaction then produces a new element that is greater than the sum of the parts, which then exercises a top-down influence on the constituent elements.”

Were I too add a personal favorite to the list, I would suggest a more holistic application of the principle of the “Golden Mean.” Of all of the definitions and applications of the notion of the golden mean, I am partial to Aristotle’s theory outlined in his fabulous work called Nichomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle explains the origin and nature of virtues which are necessary to realizing the ultimate goal of “eudaimonia” or “happiness.”

Beyond material or carnal pleasure, the happiness of which Aristotle spoke is attainable only through continuous application of the virtues. Such dedication is challenging, especially during times of material abundance. Add to that the constant stream of social conditioning which says that happiness comes as a result of material wealth and you have a world in which the carrot looks larger than life while still remaining just out of reach.

We cannot know “eudaimonia” until we develop minds conscious of right, capable of discerning the virtue which sits at the golden mean between excess and deficiency, for example, the virtue courage, which lies between cowardice and recklessness. The golden mean is available in every moment, decision, conversation, relationship, and action.

Seek it, develop a constant awareness of virtue in all things, and you will find the elusive Holy Grail of self-expression and self-awareness.

5 thoughts on “The Golden Mean: Cognitive Brilliance!

  1. Colin

    I’ve heard of the golden mean before, but I’ve always thought of it in terms of aesthetics, and not in terms of proportion in other things. It makes perfect sense, because a central pillar that supports a successful life is balance. Thanks for another viewpoint on this!


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