Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harvey Mansfield's "Thumos"

FIRST THINGS magazine this month is running an article by Harvey Mansfield, the Harvard political scientist with a distaste for political science. The article is entitled HOW TO UNDERSTAND POLITICS, and is very good. He uses the term thumos, taken from Plato and understood as that part of the human soul concerned with self-importance. And he argues that this is at the very heart of politics. He argues further that since modern political science ignores or denies the soul, insisting instead on understanding human beings in terms of self , it misses the mark when studying politics. This article is available now to online subscribers to FT; view it here. Or borrow the print copy from a friend. Or wait two months when it'll be posted on the FT website.

Some teaser quotes:

"You can tell who is in charge of a society by noticing who is allowed to get angry and for what cause, rather than by trying to gauge how much each group gets."

"Generalized self-esteem arises from the modern concept of the 'self' which has a history back to the sixteenth century that I will not go into. It is enough to say that the self is a simplification of the notion of soul, created to serve the purposes of the modern sciences of psychology and economics, both of which want you to be happy in simple, straightforward ways they can count."

"Thumos" by its nature complicated. Sometimes translated as spiritedness, it names a part of the soul that connects one's own to the good. Thumos represents the spirited defense of one's own characteristic of the animal body, standing for the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat. It is first of all a wary reaction rather than eager forward movement, though it may attack if that is the best defense...To risk one's life to save one's life is the paradox of thumos...As a human animal, you can even condemn your life and say you are sorry and ashamed, for shame is due to thumos.
Is shame in your interest? It's hard to say yes and just as hard to say no. Apparently you have a self above your self that's sometimes critical of your self and makes you ashamed. Let's call that a soul..."

"...Let us not underestimate human ingenuity in reasoning its way around reason". (That at the end of a long comment regarding the relative lack of application of logic to political campaigns.)

In the end, Professor Mansfield (author, you may recall, of the 2006 book , Manliness, which won him such negative acclaim in the feminist press) wants us--and political scientists-- to "consider the importance of human importance" in understanding politics. That is, the importance of the soul--however we are going to define it.

Keep an eye on FIRST THINGS for the full article.


Unknown said...

A secular Greek lexicon lists "soul" for the first meaning of "thumos" (latin animus). It can also mean "desire for something" "mind, temper, will" "spirit, courage" and "the seat of anger."
Politics will always be swinging between the ideas of what is important for the individual and for the community. In the 1500s community was dominant in culture. Each individual had a place in the community and responsibility to one another. Modern culture seems to have reversed this, everything is important because the individual is given freedom to choose.
As much as socialism talks about the rights of the individual, in reality community issues predominate. For only in collective action can the individual have success. Democracies teach that communities succeed where individuals are free to do their best.
The essential role of government officials and bureaucrats is to foster community, since they must be concerned with the good of all citizens, and not favor one individual. Hence those whose ideals promote community will seek those jobs. The phrase "it takes a village" arises from the value of community over the individual. This community role is important so that justice and opportunity for all is fostered.
However, on a personal basis, community concepts will tend to foster dependance rather than a work ethic that promotes acheivement and initiative under a free democracy.
Positives and negatives exist for both ideas. Community-based values promote unity of action, care for others, living for things that are greater than an individual. However, they reduce change, competition, initiative, and the needs of the individual are not considered important.
On the other hand, individual-based values promote innovation, opportunity, choice, etc. Yet, such ideals also promote selfishness, disregard for the needs of others, and self-agrandizement.
The Christian faith addresses both. Each individual soul needs to be connected with God through Christ for salvation. Yet as members of the Church each individual believer is a member of a community that loves one another and seeks a higher good by the use of their time, talents and treasure. Without that faith, the concepts of community and individuality will always be in competition.

Bruce Gee said...

Some of us were discussing last week the Platonic idea of thumos. In the Phaedrus, Plato depicts logos as a charioteer driving the two horses of eros and thumos. Logos, reason, driving the dual passions of emotion and nobility.
Mansfield is not saying we should agree with his thesis that it is thumos which is driving politics. He is just saying that it is a way of understanding politics.
And in the next year or so, understanding politics could be tricky business.

Unknown said...

Notice the different ways in which words are used. Logos is reason, eros is emotion, and thumos is nobility. More crassly logos becomes logic, eros becomes sexual desire and thumos becomes self. The New Testament uses Logos as "word, wisdom;" it does not use eros; and uses psyche for "soul" (thumos becomes fierceness, indignation, and wrath). Thanks for supplying some context.
Was Plato stating that logos/reason is supposed to be the master over eros and thumos, or describing a valued relationship between the two? For in our culture, eros and desire seem to be driving logos/wisdom.

Bruce Gee said...

Well, the PICTURE in Phaedros is of a charioteer, Reason, driving the dual horses of Passion.
I think Plato had reason being the master. But we all know people whose Driver is Eros, or Thumos, or Madness.
And it is only a metaphor, meant to help to understand the human condition but not restrict or stereotype it.
Part of Mansfield's essay was, just as you did, to point out how modern social sciences simplify the human condition in order to "measure" it. What is of concern, of course, is that the tail begins to wag the dog: where sociology started out measuring society--and by so doing claimed the right to be considered a science--it is at the end of the day now starting to tell society how it ought to be. Instead of measuring, it is norming. So is it still, if ever it was, a science?

Unknown said...

From my sociology classes, I was surprized at how much can be measured. Yet the human condition cannot be measured by so many traits and draw conclusions from them, as with physical science. That is why they add the word "social" to their science.
In some ways sociologist and psychologists are more "practicioners" on the same scale as doctors and as such do not deserve the term science in the strict sense.