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The Future of Thymos
by Thomas G. Dineen III

Thymos: What terrorists and conventional soldiers have in common, and what the rest of us could probably use a little of - our higher need.



As violence engulfs Israel and the fight against terrorism continues in Afghanistan, it is worth moving beyond media reports of military maneuvers and suicide bombings to consider the psychological roots of war. Despite their different strategies, tactics, and justifications for fighting, conventional soldiers and terrorist foes have something fundamental in common: thymos.

Meaning "spiritedness" in Greek, Plato described thymos as the part of the soul comprising pride, indignation, shame, and the need for recognition. Thymos was an indispensable warlike attribute in the ancient world, and remains so today. It is an aspect of inner life that galvanizes commitment to armed conflict and gives it meaning for many combatants--even for civilians who experience it vicariously. Thymos is the human undercurrent that flows amid the geopolitical externalities of war.

Without thymos, man amounts to little more than a highly intelligent animal--all brain and physical need, with no moral autonomy. Plato believed thymos exists in us along with our godlike reason and our base appetite. Appetite constitutes our lowest side, embracing the desire to eat, sleep, reproduce, and live on as the physically dependent mammals we are. Reason, on the other hand, enables us to understand and master life's complexities. Man can use his potent reasoning power to fulfill bodily appetites (a hunter trapping an animal; an employee angling for a raise), or to enjoy intellectual speculation. Thymos, however, sometimes causes us to act unreasonably, out of pride, and strive for ends inimical to our physical well-being.

Some philosophers have regarded thymos warily. Pride could, for instance, impel a gentleman to fight a duel over a punctilio of honor instead of preserving his life for other uses. Many thinkers have asserted that man should--rather than let spiritedness dominate behavior--stick with using his mind to protect and gratify his body. Thomas Hobbes claimed that man is motivated primarily by fear of death and other selfish concerns. John Locke, whose political theories profoundly influenced our Founding Fathers, emphasized man's calculating, acquisitive side by extolling "life, health, liberty, [and] possessions."

G.W.F. Hegel, however, later maintained that man's humanity flourishes most when he transcends survivalist, materialist inclinations and engages his thymotic side by voluntarily risking his life in armed conflict (or other dangerous yet high-minded undertakings). Doing so proves to the courageous person and those who observe him that, while bodily a mere animal, internally he is also a masterful being...free to exercise moral choice, perhaps stake his life, and show himself superior to narrow concern with himself or his goods.

According to Hegel, man is thus most truly human when pursuing self-sacrificing, risky courses of action, as Hegelians Alexandre Kojève and Francis Fukuyama have pointed out. The person who swims into rough seas to rescue a stranger; the soldier who storms an enemy machine gun nest to save his mates; the fireman or policeman who risks his life to help those in peril--these people are living thymotically, well beyond their vestigial animal nature and their sometimes over-circumspect sense of reason.

But this breed is rare. Most people spend much of their time happily absorbed in their lower needs. Americans generally epitomize the "productive," rather timid bourgeois ideal, and have a woefully diminished thymos. The complacency and mediocrity of the middle class type ascendant in the West--his petty aspirations and lack of public spiritedness--have drawn scorn from intellectuals on both the Right and Left for centuries.

A good side effect of the war against terrorism has therefore been to jolt the average citizen--when hearing of heroic soldiers, hijacking victims, firemen, et al.--out of his mundane concerns, at least momentarily. This phenomenon has occurred all over America in response to the gross hubris that Muslim extremists displayed in destroying the World Trade Center. And our military actions since 9/11, while having the pragmatic goal of stopping terrorism, clearly reflect a striving for thymotic retribution on a national scale.

One need not, however, be involved in combat to exemplify the spirited attitude of warriors. Most educated Westerners obviously have little chance of ever experiencing battle, and would best engage their thymos in bloodless yet vigorous conflicts of the mind. More theoretically, when some on the contemporary Right entertain physical aggression as a possible way to achieve their ends, they lower themselves to embrace the coerciveness characteristic of many leftist revolutionaries and ideologues they have despised since the French Revolution. True conservatism, as Russell Kirk and other eminent traditionalists suggest, derives from long- standing social customs and assumptions that are impossible to eradicate by political violence. Similarly, conservatives should not seek to impose or perpetuate their values by force.

Americans, particularly conservatives, should strive to live thymotically in less overtly warlike times, as well. We should cultivate a spirited attitude when fighting battles that involve not bombs and bullets, but ideas and ideologies. This will be crucial as the nature of warfare shifts to one based on clashing worldviews and religions--e.g., militant forms of Islam versus Judeo-Christianity--rather than on confrontations between nation- states. The war against terrorism is clearly emerging as a conflict between global cultures: often oppressive, sometimes belligerent Islam against the overwhelmingly free, open West. It is therefore essential that we consolidate our Judeo-Christian heritage here at home. How can we do this? Above all, Americans should repudiate the pernicious influences of Political Correctness and "multiculturalism," which demand a benign "tolerance" of all peoples and beliefs...even when those beliefs themselves advocate intolerance and often violence (e.g., some Muslim sects). By rejecting Political Correctness, traditionalists can help preserve a culturally conservative ethos that is cohesive and vitally self-affirming.

In the Republic, Plato wrote that thymotic people are good to those who share their values, but not to their enemies: "If not, they will destroy themselves without waiting for their enemies to destroy them." We must understand that "multiculturalism" and Political Correctness corrupt Judeo-Christianity and facilitate the efforts of its enemies--those who would exploit the PC dictum "Be tolerant" to advance their own extremist ends and cause our culture to collapse from within. We must unify and resist this by fostering traditional Western values. If we don't, those who hate us will need to carry out fewer and fewer terrorist attacks, as our culture works overtime to defeat itself.


Thomas G. Dineen III is the founder and editor of www.CulturalConservatism.org, a compendium of traditionalist thought on politics, literature, the fine arts, and other matters.

Born in 1967 in Virginia, Tom grew up near Philadelphia in Wallingford, PA. He received a B.A. in English literature from Columbia University, an M.A. in law from Oxford University, and an LL.M. (advanced law degree) from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He practiced as a litigator in a corporate law firm in Providence, RI, and thereafter gravitated to the world of public relations and financial consulting. He worked for several years in large PR agencies in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and is now a financial advisor in the Baltimore, MD-DC-VA area.