Last year, the inaugural class of NYU Abu Dhabi was invited to read the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers as part of a virtual summer colloquium called “Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens.” After reading the book, students participated in online discussions led by NYUAD philosophy professor Matthew Silverstein, and I recorded a 30-minute video lecture that responded to questions generated by those discussions. Then, during Marhaba Week, I gave a little talk after our first Iftar dinner extending the discussion to the idea of fallibilism and its applicability to a college career.

This year’s colloquium, “Leadership and the Golden Mean,” looks at the idea of cultural change from a different vantage point. It poses questions about how an effective leader should seek to bring about cultural, political, or social change. As a way into the subject, we chose four texts — two ancient and two modern — that address, either explicitly or implicitly — the idea of finding a “golden mean” — either between deficiency and excess, or between opposing points of view.  How should a leader — no matter what his or her field of endeavor — make use of the ideas of moderation or compromise? How does a leader know whether change be promoted gradually or through a sudden revolution of thought or action?

To prime the pump for discussion that will be taking place this week, I posted a set of prompts to the NYUAD students’ “academic portal” website during the past month.

Here’s the introductory prompt:

Welcome to the second annual NYU Abu Dhabi Summer Colloquium. The program is designed to initiate conversations about ideas that are central to one of NYUAD’s cherished goals: offering you an education that will enable you to become global citizens who can meet the challenges of the twenty first century effectively. Last year’s summer colloquium centered on the idea of cosmopolitanism. Through a reading of the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, a set of online conversations, and an online lecture, we examined cosmopolitanism not only as an alternative to nationalism, but also as a way of thinking about human difference. Cosmopolitanism emerged as a way of thinking in which difference emerges not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an opportunity to be embraced. As President Sexton’s “Global Network University Reflection” makes clear, cosmopolitanism is one of the core values of the global network university that is NYU.

So too is the idea of leadership, and this year’s colloquium invites NYUAD students, faculty, and staff to think about how an effective leader, no matter what his or her field of endeavor, promotes necessary change while balancing competing priorities. To start the conversation, we invite you to read four brief pieces that provide different perspectives on the idea of “the Golden Mean,” that middle way between extremes that keeps a virtue from becoming a vice. Often identified in the West with the philosophy of Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the Golden Mean is also an important tenet of Confucianism and is regarded by some interpreters as an important value within Islam as well.The four pieces we’ve chosen to start the conversation are:

Aristotle’s influence in Europe waned during the Middle Ages, and his texts may well have been lost had it not for the reverence of Islamic thinkers for his work. Most of his surviving writings, as well as many Greek commentaries on them, were translated into Arabic and thus preserved. Aristotle’s influence increased after the philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) sought to reconcile his thinking with Islam. In our selection from the Ethics, we find a discussion of the idea that “a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate,” with Aristotle noting that “the intermediate” is found “not in the object but relatively to us.” “The Doctrine of the Mean,” attributed to Confucius (ca. 500 BCE), similarly tells us, “Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.”

But if we take the Doctrine of the Mean to mean, as it were, “all things in moderation,” are there times when moderation itself must be taken in moderation, when it is necessary to abandon moderation for something more emphatic? Lincoln’s “First Inaugural Address” shows us a U.S. President facing an intractable problem: a longstanding institution –– slavery –– that he considers to be evil. How can he promote change without tearing apart the Union that he loves? Obama, who promotes an understanding of the U.S. political system as a form of “deliberative democracy,” looks back to Lincoln as a pragmatist who might serve as a model for today’s world leaders: “Lincoln, who like no man before or since understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation. We remember him for the firmness and depth of his convictions-his unyielding opposition to slavery and his determination that a house divided could not stand. But his presidency was guided by a practicality that would distress us today.”

I invite you to read and think about each of these texts and, if you are moved to do so, to leave a comment on any aspect of any of them below. Each week between now and Marhaba, we will post a comment about one of the texts, beginning with Aristotle and ending with Obama, as a spur to further thought and online conversation. During Marhaba, there will be a panel discussion featuring members of the faculty devoted to some of the ideas raised by the Summer Colloquium. We hope that our virtual conversations this summer and our conversations during Marhaba week will serve as a frame for the coming academic year and help us foster the kind of public intellectual discourse that we hope you will find to be a hallmark of NYU Abu Dhabi.

The second prompt was simply titled, “Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics“:

In many respects, Aristotle was a practical philosopher. He was an empiricist who observed and gathered data about both the natural and social worlds, seeking to understand the fundamental principles underlying each. Why? To enable human beings more effectively to pursue a life devoted to the good. Read his Poetics, for example, and you learn about what makes an effective tragedy, based on concrete evidence from the history of Greek drama. Likewise the Nichomachean Ethics offers a guide to doing good, both by understanding the nature of the good and by putting this knowledge into practice.

The excerpt that you read sets out what is sometimes called “the doctrine of the mean” or the “doctrine of the golden mean,” because Aristotle argues that pursuing virtue consists in finding the “intermediate” point between two extremes, excess and deficiency. For example, too much fear leads to cowardice; too little fear leads to recklessness. “Courage” is a term we use to express the intermediate point between cowardice and recklessness.

Aristotle also points out, however, that the mean is often “relative” and will be different for different people and different circumstances. The right amount of food to consume — the intermediate point between starvation and gluttony — cannot be stipulated for everyone because of physical differences such as age, weight, and metabolism. Can a similar point be made about other forms of conduct? Do we need to adjust our conception of what is courageous, for example, to account for differences of personality or context?

Here’s a hypothesis: an effective leader is someone regulates his or her behavior and decision-making according to the doctrine of the mean. So, then, what is the best way for an individual to determine what is midway between excess and deficiency in order to regulate his or her actions? And then, extrapolating these insights into the social world, how can an effective leader find the golden mean between two opposing points of view?

Please leave a comment below responding to these questions or to any aspect of the reading that interest you. Feel free to offer empirical evidence from either the text or from your life and observations.

For further thought:

In this context, consider the Ayat from the Koran presented below. Also of interest are two articles, on about the translation of Aristotle’s Ethics into Arabic, the other about Aristotle’s influence on Medieval Islamic philosophy:

D. M. Dunlop, “The Nicomachean Ethics in Arabic, Books I-VI,” Oriens, Vol. 15, (Dec. 31, 1962), pp. 18-34 [Stable URL:].

Charles E. Butterworth, “Ethics in Medieval Islamic Philosophy,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall, 1983), pp. 224-239 [Stable URL:].

The third prompt, “The Doctrine of the Mean and Beyond,” made reference to the Confucian text we’d chosen but invited the students to start thinking beyond the texts:

Like the excerpt from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and the ayat from the Qu’ran that we’ve been considering, this text from the Confucian tradition links virtue with the pursuit of “the Mean.” The text quotes from the record of Confucius’s teaching called the Analects: “The Master said, ‘Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Mean! Rare have they long been among the people, who could practice it!’”

Ask yourself whether the ideas about the mean put forth in “The Doctrine of the Mean” differ in any significant way from those found in Aristotle’s Ethics.

Some scholars suggest that the idea of the mean is also an important aspect of Buddhist thought. Given this possible confluence of four major intellectual traditions, we might ask: Is the idea of the golden mean “universal,” applicable to all peoples in all times? Or are there ways in which we might want to limit its applicability? Can you think of any contexts in which the idea of the golden mean might not apply, in which virtue might consist not in moderation, but in either excess or deficiency?

There’s a saying attributed to the ancient Roman writer Petronius, author of the Satyricon: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” Extrapolating from the excerpts you have read, do you think that either Aristotle or Confucius would accept this emendation? Do you believe Petronius’s maxim to be true?

The final prompt, “Deliberative Democracy and Its Limits,” brought together Lincoln’s “First Inaugural Address” and Barack Obama’s thoughts on the U.S. Constitution in order to pose questions about political and cultural change directly:

What’s the best way, if you are a leader, to bring about necessary social, political, or cultural change? Should change happen suddenly, as in a revolution, or gradually, even if it means that the injustice you hope to remedy continues on and on?

In his chapter on the U.S. Constitution from The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama describes that document as providing “framework” that forces Americans “into a conversation, a ‘deliberative democracy’ in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” Obama looks back to Abraham Lincoln as a predecessor who “understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation.”

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln argued, “Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.” His fervent hope was to find some compromise that could enable his countrymen to avoid civil war. Less than two years later, however, the nation was indeed at war, and Lincoln issued perhaps the most momentous piece of executive action in the history of the United States, the “Emancipation Proclamation” that abolished slavery.

Obama does not blame Lincoln for first attempting to seek a gradualist solution to the problem of slavery. Indeed, for Obama, Lincoln’s greatness as a leader was his pragmatism and his ability to find within himself the balance — in our terms, the mean — between “two contradictory ideas — that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence.”

If “deliberative democracy” is about creating conversations between proponents of opposing points of view, how can an effective leader know when it is time to stop talking and to take action?

The NYUAD first-years will be discussing the texts on Thursday in small groups, and we hope to extend the conversation through a series of events during the fall. Readers of this blog are invited to leave any comments about the texts or the idea of the “Golden Mean” below.

[Photo taken on 3 August 2011 from the top of the London Eye using Hipstamatic on an iPhone. 4.]