Erik Larson

Nov 30, 2008

Forgotten Thymos

We have, mainly, two great axes today upon which modern explanations of social phenomena turn. One, the economic/Marxist reduction; two, the religious/secular dichotomy, the latter a distinction which has carried such a load of late that it is in danger of spilling out and spoiling everyone’s complacency.

A third analysis of why we do what we do comes from German philosopher Hegel, who plucked from Ancient Greece the tripartite conception of the person (reason, desire, and thymos). It is the thymos, he said, that drives history. Thymos is roughly the desire to be recognized . It’s what makes us feel shame. Or pride. It is rooted in a conception of human freedom that is, at bottom, the notion that we are not understood completely by desires or by reason (roughly, by Marx or by Enlightenment secularism). The thymotic urge is a warriors urge, in us all, and finds its basic expression in the willingness to risks one’s life to prove that one is free . Animals, when thirsty, just drink. People have the ability to delay desire, and they have the ultimate capacity to demonstrate that they are not animals by risking their lives (in modern times, we can cash this out as “dying for symbols of freedom”, like medals, or honors).

Unfortunately I’m travelling tomorrow and have (true to form) hardly packed or even gotten my hotel room yet, so I can’t burrow into this to the depth that it deserves.

Suffice it for now to say that the modern mind, trying to fit bad things around us into either an economically disadvantaged model (Marx) or a whacky-religious model (Enlightenment), is I think inadequate. What they want, and what makes them feel so alive, and so much better than the desiring “last men” who no longer care about honor but just material comforts before they too perish from the Earth, is recognition . How to change the debate such that they can have it, is surely worth talking about.