The new transatlantic buzzword is actually a very old one — ancient Greek, in fact. Thumos is defined by Robert Kagan as “a spiritedness and ferocity in defence of clan, tribe, city, or state”.
In his new book The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Atlantic) Kagan argues that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Europeans and Americans anticipated the demise of thumos and with it the end of war — or even (in the case of Francis Fukuyama) of history. However, thumos has stubbornly refused to be banished from human nature; indeed, it is ubiquitous.
It was not Kagan who popularised thumos, but the Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield. In his 2005 book Manliness and again in his 2007 Jefferson Lecture, Mansfield offered an apologia for thumos, charting its pedigree in Homer, Plato and Aristotle. Thumos, Mansfield claims, is much more than an atavistic instinct. It is also what motivates us to sacrifice ourselves for a higher purpose. It is opposed to self-interest, which Mansfield tells us “calms you down; thumos pumps you up”.
Interestingly, the most characteristic modern example of thumos in action cited by Mansfield is actually a woman: Margaret Thatcher. But unless men — and it usually is men — preserve enough thumos to be prepared to die for their country, they become decadent and ultimately subservient. Without thumos, the West lacks the manly qualities that a civilisation requires to survive.
In his Jefferson Lecture Mansfield makes very large claims indeed for thumos. It illuminates, he insists, “the contrast between anger and gain; the insistence on victory; the function of protectiveness; the stubbornness of partisanship; the role of assertiveness; the ever-presence of one’s own; the task of religion; the result of individuality; the ambition of greatness.”
What should we make of this mobilisation of a concept from the era of Achilles for action in the era of Ahmadinejad? By appropriating Greek thought for the arsenal of democracy, Mansfield and Kagan are following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of émigré thinkers who fled Nazism and fought Communism: among them Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. This was not uncontroversial at the time: had not Martin Heidegger pressed Greek philosophy into the service of the Third Reich? Another refugee, Karl Popper, saw Plato not as an ally but as the enemy of the open society.
Back in the Cold War, nobody talked about thumos. The omnipresent threat of mutually assured destruction did not leave much room for spirited temperaments at the helm. But the world since 2001 is learning the importance of sheer bloody-mindedness in seeing off a ferocious foe. Mansfield and Kagan are right: this is an old idea whose time has come. The answer to terror and tyranny may indeed be thumos.
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