By: Ken La Rive
It is so strange when you find in you the means to understand something, and you wonder where it came from. You may try to retrace your steps, but I find time and age distorts, and can’t be trusted. I’ll get to the point as not to be confusing…
The thought I will attempt here is profound, and not easily explained. It journeyed for thirty years with a barrier I tried to overcome back in university called Plato’s Republic. There, I tried to understand a conversation Socrates had with two young Athenians, Glaucon and Adeimantus. They spoke of a chief psychological phenomenon that all men possess, a noble association with what is called courage, and the reasoning behind a reality where one will willingly risk everything, even one’s own life, for such a nebulous ideal. In echoing marble halls, they studied and discussed the motivation of the solder, who’s main objective in life was defense of the city. They wondered what would make a man risk his life for little or no pay, march in punishing conditions, sometime with meager nourishment, and danger. What was his motivation?
It was hard for me to study the writings of Hume, Alexander Hamilton, Hobbs, Machiavelli, and Nietzche, who spoke of “the beast with red cheeks.” I just wanted to take pictures. I was glad for it later, as those ideas became apparent in a simple but intense conversation in an Internet coffee shop of Czech Republic. It was like a ghost from the past…
My young Czech friend, Martin, Maddy and I, in from the snow, was discussing the human condition of pre-democratic Bohemia. Martin mentioned a man named Vaclav Havel, who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1998. He had been previously jailed as a dissident, and became the founder of a human rights organization there called, Charter 77, long before the democratic revolutions of Eastern Europe were achieved. He saw it as inevitable. He realized that men have in them, and assign to the world about them, a degree of worth. Plato called this worth, thymos, where men seek recognition based on what worth they assign to themselves and the world. While in prison, Havel formulated astonishing ideas as to the nature of the evil that was the core of the system that jailed him, and he published these thoughts in the 80’s in an essay called “The Power of the Powerless.” There he tells the story of the greengrocer, and although I don’t have the space to put it all here, in a nutshell it is about a grocer in a totalitarian society who has a sign in his window, “Workers of the World, Unite.” Havel thoroughly questions the many various reasons why the greengrocer would agree to put that sign in his window. It protects the greengrocer, to a degree, from informers, and it gives a message to his superiors that reflect their agenda and interests, while amazingly shields its real meaning. This meaning is evident to all who live by the enslavement of the spirit, and know that the sign should read, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” but indeed it is the semantics that leaves the greengrocer a bit of dignity. It leaves the greengrocer with what is called “disinterested conviction” and allows him to express: “What is wrong with uniting the world?” Havel wrote: “Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is Ideology.”
And why not just admit that he was afraid? The reason is quite simple. The greengrocer believes that he has a certain amount of worth. This is the real reason that totalitarian communism didn’t work. The greengrocer believed that he was more then his fear and need, and even though he didn’t know how to articulate it, he felt stronger, and possibly a bit smarter then those who tried to control him. He displayed that sign because he is capable of choice, no matter how subtle, and sorely for the sake of principle. He is, however, according to Havel, fooling himself, but non-the less believes he is of sound principle, rather then being entirely fearful. But I think it really doesn’t matter, even if, because of fear, he didn’t express it at all. Survival is important, but if there is just a small glimmer of hope, freedom of the spirit surfaces. It is the nature of man.
Havel wrote: “The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.” And then on the other hand he wrote: “…each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie.”
Is this our true reason for being: dignity, and its opposition, humiliation? Both are so evident in our daily lives, and yet those two words are the description Havel gives for life in communist Czechoslovakia! Though Brezhnev totalitarian states attempted to make the populace complicit, not so much by terror, but by the constant dangling of the features, advantages and benefits of modern consumerism before them. This was the fuel, this desire for a better life, of material possessions, i.e., a vacation in the Alps, a refrigerator, and a foreign car, as materialism is the catalysts that pitted the desiring part of the soul with the thymotic part. Once that hunger is there, nothing else will quench it. A true Totalitarian Government must constantly oppress free will, when it can no longer function in its tyranny, it is doomed.
So here we finally come back to Plato’s thymos. It is defined in The Republic as an innate human psychological set of virtues like bravery, courage, idealism, principle, morality, self-sacrifice, and honor. Thymos is the process of evaluating these principles by putting value on them, and this value can be so powerful that it can outweigh life itself. As we evaluate ourselves in relation to how we perceive others to be evaluating us, whether accurate or not, we may then assign a value to ourselves based on that. Indignation is a feeling one gets when self worth is not balanced with what we perceive another’s set of values to be. Perhaps this model can help us ascertain the twisted reasoning that motivated the shootings these past few years in our American schools. These murdering individuals seem to have lost, or displaced, their value or self worth, considered themselves irrevocably separated, and placed that same negativity on the others they massacred. As the value they have for themselves are not shared by their peers, the indignation is too much to bear. So there is a desire here, for simple recognition, and it arises from the thymos. The thymos phenomenon is a psychological attempt to balance by justice and selflessness, but at the same time is itself selfish in nature, and as Socrates pointed out, it has a potential to be an alley of reason, suppressing wrong or foolhardy desire. This duality can twist us into reacting to the world in anger and violence, and its understanding is paramount to getting control of our emotions. When our perceived values of both ourselves and the world are not recognized by others the thymotic self-assertion kicks in with feelings of frustration, questions of self-worth, and then anger. And also then, if a person become angry, for instance by indignation, he may react without regard for anything else, including his own safety. There are some that suggest that thymos is also the starting point for conflict, and the fundamental source of evil. On the other hand if the thymos is nurtured with positive affirmation, it can flower with untold conviction. As an evaluation of one’s self-worth, it can mean the difference between self-esteem or self-reproach.
I have been told that I care too much for what others may think of me. This is something that was taught perhaps in Mother’s lap. What control we have of these emotions, and the thoughts they induce, is proportional to the understanding we have of them, and the effort we set forth. A modification of the values that we held close as a child surely should be reevaluated to fit our adulthood. I’m not saying it’s easy. There are other avenues of the thymos that expands its understanding too. Megalothymia is the thymos at work in the authoritarian, or tyrannical type of person, and it’s opposite the isothymia. It defines a person’s need to be recognized as an equal. To learn more about values and how much of a role they play in how we think and act, there are several sources to go to, beside the ones I’ve mentioned. Read: “The End of History and the Last Man,” by Francis Fukuyama, “Nietzsche’s view of Socrates,” by Werner J. Dannhauser, and “On History” by Immanuel Kant.
“Hagel…believed that work was the true essence, the true essence of man.”