March 19, 2006
All Politics Is Thymotic
By DAVID BROOKS
Let me tell you what men want. Let me tell you why some middle-age men wear the sports jerseys of semiliterate behemoths half their age while others customize their cars with so many speakers they sound like the hip-hop version of the San Francisco earthquake as they roll down the street.
Recognition. Men want others to recognize their significance. They want to feel important and part of something important.
Some people believe men are motivated by greed for money or lust for power. But money and power are means to get recognition. They are markers of success, and success makes men feel important and causes others to pay attention when they walk in the room.
Plato famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, eros (desire) and thymos (the hunger for recognition). Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things men do. It drives them to seek glory and assert themselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives them to rage if others don't recognize their worth. Sometimes it even causes them to kill over a trifle if they feel disrespected.
Plato went on to point out that people are not only sensitive about their own self-worth, they are also sensitive about the dignity of their group, and the dignity of others. If a group is denied the dignity it deserves, we call that injustice. Thymotic people mobilize to assert their group's significance if they feel they are being rendered invisible by society. Thymotic people mobilize on behalf of those made voiceless by the powerful. As Plato indicated, thymos is the psychological origin of political action.
If I had the attention of the world's politicians for one afternoon, I'd lead a discussion on the nature of the thymotic urge. I'd point out that if politicians weren't consumed by a hunger for recognition, none of them would agree to lead the miserable lives they do. I'd point out that in the thymotic urge, selfishness and selflessness are intertwined. Men compete for personal glory. But thymos also induces them to sacrifice for causes larger than themselves.
I'd point out that if you see politics as a competition for recognition, many things become clear. The economic and literary backwardness of the Arab world has set off a thymotic crisis, as Arab men lash out to make the world pay attention to them. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not only a squabble over land; it's intractable because each side wants the other to recognize its moral superiority. Democracy still has good long-term prospects in that region because it's the only system that meets rising expectations about individual dignity.
In this country, when workers strike, they're not enraged over a few cents an hour. They're enraged because they feel their company is not acknowledging their worth. When social liberals squabble with social conservatives, each group is trying to assert the dignity of its own lifestyle.
The partisanship in Washington is a thymotic contest on stilts. The Bush administration goes out of its way to show how little it respects the Democratic opposition. The history of the Democratic Party over the last five years is the history of a party trying ever more furiously to assert its dignity. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are extremely thymotic men. President Bush is a thymotic man partially chastened by Christianity. Democratic activists have increasingly spurned measured, reasonable men for aggressive, thymotic ones: Howard Dean, James Carville and the post-2000 Al Gore.
If I had those politicians for an afternoon, I'd point out that even though the thymotic urge drives so much of public life, we really don't talk about thymos anymore. I'd add that when you read the ancient political philosophers on thymos, they treat it as a male trait. But over the past century women have been expressing their thymotic urges more and more, and people over 40 have a complex about female thymos that people under 40 generally don't have.
I'd ask them to read Harvey Mansfield's new book, "Manliness," which is two books in one. First, it's a subtle exploration about the virtues and vices of the thymotic urge. It's also a series of troublemaking generalizations about the differences between men and women.
Over the next few weeks, Mansfield and his feminist critics are going to brawl — thymotically — over his assertions. I'm not as impressed by Mansfield's generalizations as he is, but he'll have one advantage: he understands the nature of thymos, which shapes this fight, and so much of our political life.