Got Thumos?

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 11, 2013 · 55 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood, On Virtue, Personal Development


Last week we explored Plato’s allegory of the chariot, which the ancient philosopher used to explain the tripartite nature of the soul or psyche. In the allegory, a chariot (representing the soul) is pulled by a rebellious dark horse (symbolizing man’s appetites) and a spirited white horse (symbolizing thumos). The charioteer, or Reason, is tasked with harnessing the energy of both horses, getting the disparate steeds into sync, and successfully piloting the chariot into the heavens where he can behold Truth and become like the gods.

We presented the allegory not simply because of the insights it can offer into the nature of man and how we may progress in our lives, but even more importantly, to lay the foundation for a discussion of thumos.

While the other components of Plato’s vision of the soul have ready modern equivalents, there is no word in our language that truly corresponds to thumos. This is most telling. When a culture lacks the word for something, it is because they lack the concept of it.

The Greeks believed thumos was essential to andreia — manliness. It is mentioned over seven hundred times in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Philosopher Allan Bloom called it “the central natural passion in men’s souls.” If we have lost the ability to recognize, appreciate, cultivate, and utilize one of the three main components of our nature, we should not be surprised when negative consequences follow. When one hears of a lack of virility, fight, energy, and ambition in modern men, of a malaise of spirit that has settled over our sex, what is really being spoken of is a shortage of thumos. For millions of men, thumos lies dormant, an energy source left untapped. It is as if each of us had a potential Kentucky Derby-caliber thoroughbred waiting in the stable, ready and eager to run, but we kept him locked away, only trotting him out for pony rides at children’s birthday parties.

Recovering an understanding of thumos, and its role as the vital life and energy source of men’s souls, will be our task today.

What Is Thumos?

As we mentioned last time, Plato envisioned the three components of one’s soul as independent entities. Thumos was thought to be the most independent of the bunch. The Greeks believed it was found in animals, humans, and the gods. Thumos could act separately from you, or in cooperation with you — as an accompaniment, tool, or motivation behind some action. Because it was a distinct part of yourself, you could talk to it, tell it to endure, to be strong, or to be young (thumos was associated with the passion and power of youth, but older people could have it too). In the Iliad, Achilles speaks “to his great-hearted thumos” when anxious about the fate of Patroculus. He also delights his thumos by playing the lyre.

The Greek philosopher Empedocles called thumos the “seat of life.” If it left you entirely, you would faint, and permanent separation meant death.

Thumos likewise constitutes the “seat of energy that can fill a person,” and serves as the active agent within man. It is the stimulus, the drive, the juice to action — the thing that makes the blood surge in your veins. Philosopher Sam Keen got at the idea with his concept of “the fire in the belly.”

The Romans held a similar belief, equating energy with virtus, or manliness. “The whole glory of virtus,” Cicero declared, “resides in activity.”

What is the nature of this energy and where does it lead? The Greeks saw thumos as serving several distinct, yet interrelated functions. As with honor, it is a concept that was once so implicitly understood that it did not have to be explained, and attempting to describe it at a great remove makes what was once a natural, lived experienced seem much more complicated. The best we can do is illustrate it from its different angles, and hope that the pieces resonate and come together into a recognizable mosaic.

Note: In this post we use phrases like, “The Greeks believed…” This is not to imply that the ancient Greeks were monolithic in their philosophy – different ideas on manliness and thumos existed. What we have done here is distilled out the core threads of thumos on which there was a good amount of agreement, and woven them together along with our own interpretation.

The Functions of Thumos

Seat of Emotion

Thumos is both the source of emotion and the emotion itself. The agent and the function are fused. Thumos births and embodies things like joy, pain, fear, hope, and grief. Thumos is also tied up with love. The Greeks would say you could love someone “out of your thumos.”

Thumos is most closely associated, however, with anger. In Greek writings thumos “seethes,” “rages,” and “boils.” It is a special kind of anger – activated when a man’s honor is violated, when his reputation is on the line, when his family and property are threatened. It drives a man to stand up for himself, for his country, for his loved ones.

The anger of thumos can not only be directed at others and external enemies, but also towards oneself. Thumos makes you angry at yourself when you fail to live up to your principles and code of honor. Plato uses the example of a man who sees a pile of corpses, looks away, and keeps on walking, but then returns to gaze upon it again. He is angry with himself for giving into a base inclination. Thumos can make you indignant of your own desires, if those desires compel you to do something contrary to the dictates of Reason.

Drive to Fight


Thumos not only produces anger, but then channels that anger into the impulse to fight. When Nestor, King of Pylos, recalls his past exploits, he says, “My hard-enduring heart [thumos] in its daring drove me to fight.” Thumos motivates warriors before and during combat. The Greeks said courageous soldiers had a “valiant thumos” during war. In Seven Against Thebes, it is said that before battle the soldiers’ “iron-lunged thumos, blazing with valor, breathed out as if from lions glaring with the war-god’s might.” Valor here is translated from andreia – manliness. The warriors’ thumos blazes with manliness in anticipation of the fight.

A man of thumos glories in a fight – whether against others, the elements of nature, or his baser desires — as a way to test his mettle and prove himself.

Courage, Steadfastness, Indomitability

Once a man is in a fight, thumos spurs him on, motivating him to stay in the arena and continue fearlessly striving for victory. This “gameness” is a quality of thumos man shares with the beasts. In Sam Sheridan’s exploration of The Fighter’s Heart, he observes the centrality of gameness in dogfighting. “We almost don’t care how good the dog fights,” he notes, “the fight is just an elaborate test to check his gameness.” Adds a dog trainer Sheridan speaks with: “Give me a game dog any day, a dog that bites as tissue paper but keeps coming back and I’ll take him.”

Fearless indomitability is central to the success of the human warrior as well, who must not lose heart as the heat of battle intensifies, and his morale flags. To encourage their respective armies to fight harder in the midst of combat, Ajax and Hector “stirred up the thumos and strength” of each of their men.

Plato did not see human gameness as being of the same kind demonstrated by animals, however. Rather, he argued that man’s thumos, at least when properly trained, is born of a rational type of courage — that man is andreios (manly) when his thumos “holds fast to the orders of reason about what he ought or ought not to fear, in spite of pleasure and pain.” In other words, when engaged in a worthy fight, you neither recklessly underestimate real threats that should be feared, nor overestimate threats that shouldn’t be feared, and are not swayed from your course by either the satisfaction of pursuing blind revenge nor the fear of being hurt and the love of comfort and luxury. Plato argued that andreia meant conquering fear and pain of any sort – being the kind of man “who confronts misfortune in all cases with steadfast endurance.”

Evaluation, Discernment, Decision-Making

So thumos keeps you in a fight that your Reason has decided is indeed a worthy one. But how do you make that determination?

Plato believed, as Angela Hobbs put it, that “courage involves both emotional commitment and evaluative belief, an intellectual and emotional appreciation of what things are worth taking risks for and in what circumstances.”

Thumos plays a role in both the emotional and evaluative parts of that equation. As we mentioned last time, the task of Reason as the “charioteer” is to take stock of his own desires, and those of his two horses, and then to choose to satisfy only his best and truest ones – those that lead to virtue and arête, or excellence. Reason’s ally in this task is his white horse, or thumos, which can be trained to help make this kind of judgment.

Shirley Sullivan offers examples of this function of thumos in Greek literature:

Thumos is mentioned in connection with several intellectual activities. These include pondering, thinking, knowing, deliberation, planning and perceiving. Often too a person puts things into thumos for consideration. Odysseus ‘ponders evils in his thumos’ for the suitors. Zeus ‘thinks about events’ in his thumos as he watches the battle of Troy…Hermes ‘deliberates in thumos’ how to take Priam safely from Achilles’ camp. Circe tells Odysseus ‘to plan in his thumos’ the course he will take after passing the Sirens. Telemachus tells Penelope that now that he has grown up, ‘he perceives and knows in his thumos’ good and evil. It is in thumos that Hesiod tells Perses to ‘consider’ the value of the competitive spirit.”

Thumos is the place in which you ponder possibilities, and at the same time, it helps you know and understand which of those possibilities to choose. It’s related to gut feelings and intuition — what Jeffrey Barnouw calls “visceral thinking” — and it also has a prophetic quality – giving you a sense of foreboding about where a decision may lead, or something bad to come.

I personally believe you can know a decision is right when both your mind and heart agree – when your Reason and thumos align. When you feel that swelling of the heart, that course of excitement and inspiration running through your veins, that’s thumos telling you you’re on the right course.

Ambition and the Drive for Recognition and Honor

In contrast to the lower desires of the dark horse simply for pleasure and material wealth, thumos seeks independence over possessions and sensuality, and recognition and honor over security. Thumos desires pride and prestige for its own sake. This drive for recognition will motivate him to risk much, even his own life, for his reputation, and also for the reputation of a group to which he is devoted. Plato calls thumos “the ambitious part [of the soul] and that which is covetous of honor.”

Thumos pushes a man to despise mediocrity and to want to excel his fellow men, to dominate, and be the best of the best. Thumos is ultimately what drives a man to seek glory, and above all, legacy.

So now we can see that while thumos is often translated today as spiritedness, heart, passion, will, courage, anger, boldness, or fierceness, it is really a combination of all those descriptions and yet still something more – something that no modern word is able to fully convey. Perhaps the best and simplest definition I’ve come across is “energetic thinking that leads to action.”

Harnessing the White Horse

Just like the dark horse of our appetites, the white horse of thumos can be used for either good or ill. The Greeks called it both “dark-faced,” “vain,” “terrible,” “greedy,” and “pitiless”…as well as “courageous,” “noble,” “kindly,” “moderate,” and “strong.” Properly harnessed and guided it has even more potential to lead a man towards eudemonia, or full human flourishing, than the dark horse, but if allowed to run wild, it can lead a man to destructive ends. It’s up to the charioteer to steer his thumos in a noble path.

Unused Thumos


The charioteer may err by failing to hitch the white horse to the chariot at all, or not exercising him to build up his strength. The Greeks said that a man’s thumos could be “sluggish,” and certainly there are a good number of men today who match that description. A man lacking in thumos is the “nice guy” who can’t stand up for himself when others push him around. He is placid. Nothing arouses him. He has no ideals for which he fights and no real drive or ambition in life. He is content with mediocrity, or at least doesn’t have the will to figure out how to make things better. He’s the kind of guy who thinks the whole idea of “manliness” is really rather silly and feels he is above the kind of  “unenlightened” competitions and jockeying for position that occur amongst men, when really, deep down, he’s simply ashamed that he doesn’t think he could make the cut and stand among them.

Unbridled Thumos


A man may also run to the other extreme of failing to rein in his thumos at all. The Greeks called this “yielding to thumos,” or letting one’s thumos “run beyond measure.” The consequences of letting one’s white horse run wild vary. When the Greeks used thumos in a negative sense, it was most often in the context of the emotions, which they thought of as passions. Being ruled by one’s passions could be dangerous if it usurped the role of Reason and overruled a man’s rational faculties.

Of the emotions, anger was the most important to check and channel, and restraining anger and restraining thumos were closely connected. One type of man with unbridled thumos is he who wants to fight everyone about everything. The guy at the bar who starts a shoving match if he simply thinks you looked at him funny. He’s filled with anger, but it has no specific target – it’s just boiling inside him all the time, and the littlest thing can set it off. Thumos is much like fire – control it and it becomes an enormous power, handle is loosely and it can burn you and consume everything you touch.

For the Greeks, Achilles was the archetype of a man who yielded too much to his thumos. Achilles’ thumos imparts many good qualities to this consummate warrior; he is strong, brave, aggressive when wronged, driven to success, and nearly invulnerable. But his white-hot anger and concern for honor sometimes lead him to stubbornness and dishonor. The Iliad describes him as being moved by menos [anger] and overweening thumos,” and its first two lines tellingly read: “Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles/the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.” When Agamemnon robs Achilles of his war prize and lover, Briseis, Achilles bristles at this dishonor and refuses to fight or lead his troops. Before he slays Hector, his nemesis pleads for an honorable burial, but Achilles roars in reply: “my rage, my fury [thumos] would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me!” He then kills Hector, ties him to a chariot, and shamefully drags his lifeless body around the gates of Troy. Because of such acts, Ajax says that Achilles has let his thumos become “savage, implacable, and even straightforwardly bad,” and Apollo labels his thumos as “arrogant.”

The Greeks also warned that unbridled thumos could be “foolish” and “flighty,” carrying a man after one flash of inspiration after another. They were speaking to the  second type of man who leaves his thumos unbridled – he who gets a new idea, burns with excitement for it for a few days or weeks, but doesn’t have the drive to keep it going. He quickly gets bored and moves onto the next thing he’s “super passionate” about. His thumos is always chasing after one thing or another without clear aim or purpose.

Thumos Under the Sway of the Dark Horse

Besides failing to utilize the white horse, or letting it run wild, an additional problem the charioteer must avoid is letting his thumos get in-sync with the dark horse, rather than the other way around.

As you’ll remember from last time, the white horse, when properly trained, becomes the ally of the charioteer. Ideally, Reason and thumos work together to pull the rebellious dark horse in line with their mission and cadence. When there is a conflict between what Reason knows is right, and what the appetites want to do, thumos springs into action to defend Reason’s aims. But if Reason isn’t careful, the dark horse can get the white horse to team up with it instead.

When this happens, what you get is what we’ll call “spirited hedonism” — something the Greeks saw young people as especially susceptible to. Thumos feels the desire to do great things, to be passionate, to take on adventure and risk, and live life to the fullest, but the dark horse takes this motivation and shunts it off into a narrow and inferior channel – the mere penchant for partying hard. Thumos wants to really live, and the appetites convince him that nights out getting smashed at the same bars, repeated on an infinite loop, is real living. Part of this man bemoans the fact that he never really seems to go anywhere or see anything, but the dark horse quiets that concern, saying he really is living it up, while encouraging him to get another drink.

Thumos Properly Employed


Thumos, properly trained and harnessed, can be one of man’s greatest allies — inspiring and guiding him, stirring him up, and driving and urging him on towards the peaks of greatness. It can perceive his possibilities and make them real. The Greeks believed that a man experienced true happiness “in thumos.”

The way to best make use of thumos is “simple:” directing it towards its natural aims – that which is noble and fine, honorable and excellent. Plato believed that thumos was made to “fight on behalf of what seems to be just,” and the Greeks saw this force of the soul as essential in making moral choices. In the poetry of Bacchylides, Apollo declares that the way to “delight thumos” is by “doing holy acts…for this is the highest of gains.”

In order to get thumos to pursue noble aims, Plato argued, you had to teach it to respond to Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. This can be done, I believe, by learning to use, and finely tuning your innate radar for such things. When you encounter what is Good, you can feel it resonate in your soul and swell your heart. Interestingly, one of the functions the Greeks assigned to thumos was the producer of “reverent awe.” The proof that something is Good is that it helps make you a better man – it bears good fruit. The more your thumos picks up on these signals, and responds to them, the better it gets at doing so, and as this virtuous cycle continues, your thumos grows ever stronger and you progress as a man.

Thumos does not simply draw you to that which is good, it inspires you to fight for it. Thumos’ natural home is the battlefield. Its most essential nature is that of an aid to courage, strength, and indomitability for the warrior in combat. But its spur to fight operates off the battlefield as well. It drives a man to stand up for his ideals, cherished causes, and moral choices. It also fuels his desire for recognition, honor, and status – the drive to become the best of the best in any arena of competition – whether sports, profession, or even simply life itself. In any situation where you choose not to back down from your beliefs and goals despite opposition, and refuse to give in when others try to crush you, thumos is by your side.

Thumos is also what drives a man to fight for a life less ordinary – one filled with more risk and adventure. Thumos is that source of vitality that pushes a man to live life as fully as possible, to drink deep from it, to choose “the strenuous life” over self-indulgence and mediocrity.

Thumos and Technical Skills


In whatever kind of fight a man is engaged, Plato argued that the acquirement of technical skills – mastery – can act as a stimulus to courage and an aid to thumos. Training gives a man confidence that can bolster him in the midst of stress and opposition. For example, the more a soldier has been trained in and has rigorously practiced the arts of war and defense, the more he is able to fall back on that training in the heat of the battle, and the less likely he is to become paralyzed or give up. As Hobbs puts it:

“Technical skills on their own will not make for courage; nor can they provide thumos, if thumos is altogether lacking. They can, however, help bolster thumos and make it more effective…Plato does not confuse technique with virtue, but he is clear-eyed about the need to provide the best possible environment for virtue to develop.”

Thumos Neutered

Why is it that many men seem so lacking in thumos today?

Thumos is a potent force – left wild it destroys, but harnessed it creates. The thumos of man is responsible for the lion’s share of society’s progress.

Yet in our modern day, instead of helping men to harness their thumos for positive ends, society has decided it is better to neuter the force altogether. To protect some people from getting hurt, we’ve tried to breed it out of men, even if it means its positive effects will be sacrificed along with the negative. It is like getting rid of electricity, and all the benefits that have come with it, because some people get electrocuted.

From an early age, boys are taught to sit still, to be quiet. Physical fighting of any kind results in suspension. Competition is frowned upon because it means some will be left out and feel bad. Rewards and recognition are distributed equally; everyone is given a prize to avoid hurt feelings. As a result, boys feel less motivated to fight to rise to the top.

We’ve unfortunately come to think of elements of thumos, like anger, as entirely bad. Instead, what we need is an understanding that anger is neither bad nor good – it’s all in how it’s directed. There is such a thing as righteous indignation. The anger that drives one to stand up for that which is just and right. If you snuff out the force that makes bad men hurt the weak, you also eliminate the force that moves good men to protect the vulnerable.

Plato argued that you didn’t breed fierceness out of men, you trained it. Men of the warrior class, he argued, should be trained to neither be watchdogs who barked at everything – even innocent noises — nor watchdogs that only whimpered and rolled over when someone invaded the house. They were gentle with those they knew, and fierce with strangers of ill-intent. Their thumos was ready, if needed, to fight.

Thumos Seeking Role Models

I can imagine that much of this seems very abstract and it may be hard to see how it applies to your own life. What can help make it more tangible is observing how thumos has operated in the lives of other men.

Plato believed that thumos naturally seeks heroic role models. These role models can inspire thumos, and also, as Hobbs put it, “give life shape and structure.”

Our own lives can seem like an amorphous stream – it’s just one thing after another. We see the world through our own eyes, so it’s hard to get a real perspective on how we’re doing and where we’re at in our journey. Because we can view them as outside observers, it is much easier to see the shape and structure of the lives of others, especially when you can read their biography and take in the sweep of their lives from start to finish. It’s easy to identify the different seasons they went through, their rises and falls, the important turning points. We can see how certain choices they made led to certain outcomes. And we can get a sense of the kind of things it’s possible for a man to accomplish and what sorts of aims we might seek in our own lives.

By studying how other men throughout history succeeded (and failed) to harness their thumos, we can get a sense of the nature of thumos and how to guide our own white horse.

With that in mind we will conclude this series with a case study of the life of  Jack London, who stands as the perfect example of both the power and perils of thumos. By examining the influence of thumos on a modern man, hopefully you will be able to much more easily grasp the nature of thumos and how you might cultivate it in your own life.




Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good by Angela Hobbs

The Laws of Plato By Plato, Thomas L. Pangle

Psychological and Ethical Ideas: What Early Greeks Say by Shirley Darcus Sullivan

Odysseus, Hero Of Practical Intelligence: Deliberation And Signs In Homer’s Odyssey by Jeffrey Barnouw

Retrieving Political Emotion: Thumos, Aristotle, and Gender by Barbara Koziak

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Amey March 11, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Fabulous article, and great website, by the way. We are seeing the same thing in Australia. Young blokes have no outlet for their anger, or ‘thumos’, so get drunk then into fights that result in one, or other, being hospitalised. At the other extreme, older men, after a lifetime of quelling their masculinity, become depressed, introspective, and, sometimes suicidal. Some blokes get it right, they’re the ones who, run harder, cycle faster and longer, lift heavier weights, or, at work, motivate people, find innovative ways to do things, and so on.

2 Adam March 11, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Great article. I was familiar with arete, but mostly ignorant of Thumos. What a great concept and I felt inspired by reading this.
Looking forward to the case study on one of my favorite writers next article.

3 Taylor March 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Thumos seems to be an almost similar concept to the Chines chi.

4 marc March 11, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Great read! Seems like i’ve been harnessing my thumos all along ;)

5 FeatherBlade March 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Fantastic set of articles… can’t wait for the next one.

Some of the description given makes it seem like “righteousness” might be an equivalent concept to thumos… but not if it is also a place within a man.

Heart, perhaps? Or soul? At least if you use them in a more archaic (“and he pondered these things in his heart”) sense, and not with the wimpy modern (“listen to your heart”) understanding.

6 Joe March 11, 2013 at 9:45 pm

This was a really cool article. As an undergraduate classicist, I was able to really appreciate the concept of “thumos” and its appearances in classical literature.

7 Stephen P March 12, 2013 at 6:13 am

Thank you for writing this.

8 Bill Thomas March 12, 2013 at 6:18 am

Great article, Thumos really is a valuable but forgotten concept for men today. Thanks for making this such a great and accesible read guys – first class work!

9 Tom March 12, 2013 at 6:36 am

One of the most fitting pieces I’ve read in a long long long time.
Forgive me if I’m being silly here but I can’t seem to locate the Jack London case study mentioned at the end of the article?

10 kete March 12, 2013 at 7:35 am


I loved this article. Your explanation of Thumos is great and incredibly relevant. I particularly could identify with your explanation of Thumos paired with the dark horse.
“Thumos feels the desire to do great things, to be passionate, to take on adventure and risk, and live life to the fullest, but the dark horse takes this motivation and shunts it off into a narrow and inferior channel – the mere penchant for partying hard. Thumos wants to really live, and the appetites convince him that nights out getting smashed at the same bars, repeated on an infinite loop, ”is” real living.”
This is an excellent explanation of how youths noble intents can be corrupted to lower outlets. Like you said cultures that don’t have a word for something often have difficulty understanding the concept. I think leaving the term Thumos as it is, without trying to rename it or relate it to another word makes sense. Thank you for this sage bit of wisdom.

11 Daren Redekopp March 12, 2013 at 8:15 am

Fascinating. I’m really looking forward to the next one on Jack London. Here’s to being gentle and fierce. (Sounds like Jesus.)

12 mattoomba March 12, 2013 at 8:37 am

Another outstanding series, yet again.

I have always viewed our selves as being tripartite, but using the traditional division of body-mind-soul covering the physical-mental-spiritual facets of our development. I thought at first that this might equate to the dark horse-charioteer-white horse metaphors of this allegory, but I see that’s not a perfect correlation.

One difference being that I thought of the soul being the part that guides and directs the mental and physical pursuits (the soul being eternal, while intelligence and physicality are tied to the temporal world); Plato instead believes that reason (mind) provides the guidance. Also, I thought of the spirit being solely positive and divine; Plato believes that thumos can have a dark side.

Thumos seems much more complicated than my concept of “spirit” or “soul”. Also, as I understand it, the Ancient Greeks tied the soul to our consciousness, while these days much of what we consider as consciousness is tied to the mental side and the unconscious is often tied to the divine. Perhaps, in the end, we’re discussing the same things, just organizing them differently.

13 Mike March 12, 2013 at 8:45 am

This site never ceases to inspire. Thank you for being a consistent source of positive motivation in the otherwise bleak “manosphere.”

14 AC March 12, 2013 at 8:52 am

In other words, thumos=testosterone.

15 Sam I. March 12, 2013 at 9:48 am

Excellent article!

16 Skinner March 12, 2013 at 11:35 am

I’ve spent the last 5 years teaching high school and coaching the sport of wrestling. This article rings true. Students are no longer allowed to push themselves or others because they have tried to bring everyone to a sort of equal playing field. We no longer have the “weak”, but we have also lost the “great”, they are all now taught to be complacent, very depressing and discouraging.

17 Jacob W March 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Brilliant article. Thank you writing this. Couldn’t have come at a better time!

18 Rob March 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm

2 things:
1) You used a lot of bolded sentences in the article. More than I usually see. It’s not good or bad, just something I noticed.
2) I am looking forward to seeing the failings of Jack London. I read biographies of great men (Rise of T.R., Ben Franklin, etc) but never the bios of failed or falling men. You bring up a great point there. I need to broaden my view to see what lead men to defeat too. Thanks for jumping into that pool for us. Maybe you could also suggest a list of ‘failed men’ bios for us too?

19 Brett McKay March 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm

You’re having trouble finding the Jack London piece because we haven’t written it yet! We’re working on it right now, and it’s on the docket for next week (hopefully!).

We decided to do more bolding because the article is more than 4,000 words, making it one of the longest ever, and we wanted people who were looking through it quickly to be able to pick up the main points. It is also lent itself to bolding more than a lot of posts do.

I wouldn’t say London was a “failed man” — he accomplished and did more in his short life than 99% of other people do. We’ll be talking both about his successes and failures in the next article — with really more emphasis on the former than the latter. He’s like all men — a mixture of worthy qualities and flaws, just to varying degrees. Truly failed men don’t get biographies written about them! So I don’t have any recommendations on that front. Really all biographies are records of both men’s successes and failures, including TR and BF, so I think reading any bio can help teach us about both what to strive for and what to avoid.

20 aaron March 12, 2013 at 1:55 pm

this reminds me of the song “red and black” from Les Mis.

“Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men.”

21 Chris March 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm

What is the source of your Harold Bloom quote?

22 Brett McKay March 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm

The quote is actually from Allan Bloom from The Closing of the American Mind — I just made the correction. Harold has done some literary criticisms of the Iliad and Odyssey, which is maybe why I confused the two. Funnily, when I just looked up Harold Bloom on Wikipedia it says at the very top: “Harold Bloom should not be confused with American philosopher Allan Bloom.” Yes indeed!

23 Caleb March 12, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Any thoughts on how to “train” the thumos of young boys?

I have two, they fight…. constantly. I don’t have a problem with fighting so long as it’s for the right cause. They however, seem to bully one-another, which I’m not fond of. I don’t want to teach them not fight at all, just not with each other, at least not all the time.

24 Warren Moore March 12, 2013 at 5:35 pm

This article inspired me. The charioteer image helped me to understand what I have always felt behind the scenes.

25 Ash March 12, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Amazing article. There’s only one place in all the internet I can hope to find writing of this quality, and that’s Art of Manliness! Thank you, Brett.

We’re privileged in a way these days… we’ve got a greater scope to analyse history than any generation of men before us. It’s not a perfect substitute for the old heroics of the past, but at least it can provide some inspiration. The Greeks and Romans certainly had the unrestrained will and drive for life and civilisation that our men and society as a whole are lacking now. I will try to kindle my thumos into something more powerful!

Also, a shout-out to the cartoonist–wonderful work. The pictures cooperate beautifully with text and make something altogether more impactful. I can’t wait to see the analysis of Jack London–I’ve only ever read White Fang of his, but I’ll be glad to read more.

26 Donald March 13, 2013 at 2:28 am

MOJO seems like a good modern word for thumos. Not exactly the same but it captures a lot of it.

27 marko March 13, 2013 at 5:02 am

Great article, and some food for thought about the great men in history and even still in existance around us: Thumos becomes almost tangeable when listening to great speeches for instance.

@Taylor(3) I like the chinese link to chi!

Really got me thinking; are chi, yin and yang comparable to the thumos, the chariot and the dark horse?

28 Ted March 13, 2013 at 6:24 am

Superb article – it may be unnecessary to say so.

Brett, perhaps we could work on a “Thumos” cell phone wallpaper or some kind of daily reminder. I want a constant reminder of Thumos – until it becomes engrained in my psyche. I would think many readers here would benefit and enjoy having something like that.

Also, I can’t wait for the piece on Jack London. Lately, I’ve been on a Hemingway reading kick and I couldn’t help but think of him while reading this. Hemingway is a great example of a man with Thumos and possibly an example of a little unbridled thumos.

I will be rereading this multiple times and will do my best to apply it to my life in 2013 and on!

29 Triston March 13, 2013 at 7:32 am

What a great series. I just recently discovered AOM, and have been gorging myself on all the great content. This piece and its predecessor, particularly, are well-written and thought-provoking. I’d love to see a full book developed on the topic of modern manliness blending chapters on introspection and external behavior.

30 Heath March 13, 2013 at 9:43 am

Something was burning deep inside me as I read this, and now I know what it is. Thanks so much for this article.

31 Colin Ryne March 13, 2013 at 9:44 am

Brett, this is one of the most important things I think you’ve researched and written. Imagine that: we lack an entire concept that we don’t have a single word for. This is a great allegory to use when analyzing ones self entirely.
The point of how we coddle kids as well as how college-age males use their dark and white horses in-sync is amazingly accurate and astute.
I’m thinking about getting a peice of art (or making one myself) to illustrate this concept, and putting it in my man-bathroom. Brett, you do good things. Keep it up.

32 Kristaps B. March 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Ahh! Jack London. That’s something every man should look forward to.

33 Gustavo Solivellas March 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm
34 jimbob March 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm

brilliant article, thanks so much B&K for the inspiration to better myself, that i honestly find NOWHERE else in modern society. (and im 22 year old whippersnapper.)

35 r3v March 13, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Excellent post Brett! I’m really enjoying your posts on Plato’s ideas. Looking forward to the dark horse and learning more about Jack (the manovational was a great read).

Keep up the top work, you’re a leading expert in this field in my own opinion.

36 J March 14, 2013 at 6:15 am

I never really comment but … I really enjoyed this mini-series. Good article, Brett and Kate!

37 Zach March 14, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Tonight’s realization: Fight Club is about wrestling with unbridled thumos. The narrator’s alt lashes out at society because he considers his ideals – and the pursuit of them. In that pursuit, he lashes out in pure, unfiltered anger. The narrator, then, spends the duration of the book/film attempting to rationalize and reason his alt away. Marla poses an alternate problem by appealing to the narrator’s eros…sort of completing our analogy.

38 jason taylor March 16, 2013 at 10:33 am

The problem I see with this, is not that it is not a worthy thought but that it is so much depenent on circumstances. A cripple has few chances to properly show Thumos nor does a slave. As a less extreme point, neither do millions who are forced into occupations like office work. It is in fact an aristocratic ideal meant primarily for those in aristocratic circumstances. Most people are not born in a position to act like a Greek hero and neither were they in Aristotle’s time when philosophers became philosophers because they had enough slaves to till their fields. It can be said that the Greek Philosophers made better use of their good fortune then many in such a position. Still there is something problematic about a moral ideal that is so dependent on one’s Earthly circumstances. Only Rich Sahibs can go round climbing mountains because they are there.

39 jason taylor March 16, 2013 at 10:51 am

Another problem I see with glorifying the drive to excell is that it is inherantly competitive. To “excell” is to “do better then” While there is nothing wrong with competition per se, if you make excelling the measure of manliness, what you have said is that most men aren’t manly because the definition of excellance innately ensures that most will not in fact partake of it except vicariously.

40 Christian A. March 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Dear Brett and Kate,

I wanted to voice, as a young man in his early twenties, that the Art of Manliness has been an incredible fountain of knowledge and wisdom. I have been an avid reader of your articles for the past year and I have found them therapeutic, without really understanding why.

Until this article.

Your ability to describe this concept of Thumos as an idea that our culture has no clear equivalent for, in a way that relates it to every part of what it is to be human is astounding. In fact, it was downright epiphanic for me.
As I completed my high school years, I always felt alienated by my peers’ apparent lack of passion or adventure and I was more than excited to dive into college and indulge in experience. I tried to let my dark horse run free, but I always felt like I was missing something in that culture as well. After putting college on hiatus and living at home for a year, I returned, but I held the reigns of the dark horse far too firmly and I believe I missed out on great opportunities by trying to “do the right thing.” I was really struggling with my academic and social life and I quit my job. I was beginning to fear that I just didn’t belong.
But you revived my Thumos. It took knowing his name and his affectations to realize who he was and that he had been there long before I had begun doubting myself, just waiting to be harnessed. In little over a week, I not only have turned my habits around, but I have had a renewal of spirit: my Thumos is no longer something to hide because I don’t see it in others, but something that I will ally with in every aspect of my life.

It is as important for you to know the impact that your work has had as it was for me to stop being a cynic and post my gratitude online. So to keep it simple, thank you both.


41 Matt March 18, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Thumos is the same as chi/prana/ straight up enlightenment will do. It’s not separate from you either. It lies dormant waiting for you to give a shit about yourself. It can be achieved in many ways through seminars like discovery/Landmark/ as well as through yoga and meditation. Become Present in the moment and you will see the light. Presence gives you access to higher intelligence. Aka if you are not focused on the “now” and are thinking about something else constantly, you are not present. Also: Trust your higher intuitions. not your lower ones.

42 Joe March 24, 2013 at 1:52 pm

This is the greatest most insightful article on this website. Thanks for enlightening me on our Thumos. The closest thing I can compare this to in our culture is perhaps the ‘heart’ you hear about in sports, yet thumos encompasses much more.

43 Archer March 24, 2013 at 9:45 pm

I liked the article a lot, and the amount of time and research you put into it is evident.

I feel like we just stopped short though. The training of Thumos to remain within certain limits, can easily be considered neutered when too much tempering is applied. Conversely, when not enough constraint is displayed, (as in the example of Achilles “Sing, Goddess…) then the individual is considered beast-like.

It occurs to me, that the next reasonable jump is to find balance to align thumos (and any derivative action) within a certain range of behaviors or reactions which would be appropriate considering a certain set of circumstances. What the article seems to suggest but doesn’t come out and say is that that thumos best serves men when aligned to a mean between extremes, a la Aristotle.

Balancing all portions of our “self,” and directing action accordingly, leads to flourishing (eudiamonia).

I don’t think we teach thumos to appreciate..well anything, as it is a primal portion of us, but rather we learn to apply reason to express thumos in a constructive manner.

Finding constructive and positive outlets for thumos in accord with virtue is the hard portion, and should be considered a lifelong goal. “Moreover, in a complete life. As one swallow does not a make a spring,nor does one day; nor similarly, does one day or a short time make us happy.”

44 Brett McKay March 24, 2013 at 10:47 pm


I definitely agree. We talked about that precise point — finding moderation between extremes, ala Aristotle –, in the precursor to this post on the allegory of the chariot as a whole, and the dark horse. For that reason, we didn’t mention it here. Our hope is that in a series like this, people will read the antecedents first, because each article builds on the next. Obviously though, we realize that realistically people are going to land on and read the posts independent from each other quite often of course.

45 Archer March 25, 2013 at 7:34 am

@ Brett McKay.

Thank you for the info. I’ll make sure to first read the precursory articles in the future.

46 Izzy March 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm

@ Brett, I liked your article and thought that you make a good case for giving an outlet for ones passions. I especially like that you started from the Odyssey, it’s a damn good poem.

Two pedantic notes: *thumos* only occurs around 322 times in the Odyssey. Though it occurs quite a bit more in the Iliad (around 445 times). As for your mention of ‘richeous indignation’ there is a separate word for that: *tisis*. Neither of these are a big deal for your article, I just thought that you might want to know.

47 Brett McKay March 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm


Good catch on the first point. I meant to say that thumos is used over 700 times in the Odyssey AND the Iliad. I have made the correction.

With righteous indignation, I did not mean to imply that it is equivalent to thumos, simply that like heart, passion, fierceness, fight, and so on, it can be one of thumos’ elements and manifestations.

Thanks for adding your knowledge.

48 Alberto Guadarrama March 26, 2013 at 1:25 am

I shed a tear. This is fantastic!

49 gabriel tellier March 26, 2013 at 1:23 pm

I like manifestaytions as long as they dont involve pain & or strife.

50 Mark March 26, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Amazing article. As you eloquently described, I was a man with quelled thumos, and saw competition as unnecessary. Just recently I began noticing that the will to compete against others is actually essential to growing in any aspect of my life. This article has confirmed these notions and even gave me the roadmap to becoming a more motivated man.
Being an undergraduate college student I am thankful that I have learned this information so young.

I sincerely thank you for this article and for this entire website.

51 SGJ March 31, 2013 at 9:42 am

Does the concept of thumos also apply to females? Or did the ancient Greeks not consider the other half as it was men who waged war and held positions of authority. Any information will be appreciated.

52 paul crombie March 31, 2013 at 11:37 am

After being thumped by Thumos a few times you begin to mistrust it. Thumos is so easily manipulated by a corrupt charioteer. No one can argue that the Wehrmacht did not have Thumos in spades. One man’s thumos is another’s oppressor.
I push back however on the concept of “Thumos Neutered”. The position is just too simplistic and cliché’ and is just a political statement. Society is “breading it out men”…really? Come on. Like maybe the Big Giant Head has taken away our balls…and for what purpose? Maybe thumos has been used incorrectly for so long by corrupt charioteers that it has lost its standing of honor. Or maybe it’s all BS and does not really exist. In any case this position would, by extension, hold that “manliness” is “under attack” by “them”. American values seem to be always under attack by some entity called them. Once a person starts judging, parsing and blaming they immediately become blind to other possibilities of causation. More importantly it creates a sense of victimhood; They did it to us again and we poor men are emasculated by them (read: women).
I propose instead the “evaporation of Thumos”, that modern man suffers from a lack of clarity and purpose and a very deep disconnection with the natural world. I doubt that Jack London had the pleasure of suffering from lack of clarity whilst wrestling an 80 ton schooner in a typhoon. One thing our society breads in spades it lack of clarity. Probably for the first time in human history we have it all, everything a human ever needed to survive. We have it all and we are still dissatisfied. Surely it must be somebody else’s fault. We cannot find thumos until we change our expectations. Thumos is not “leverage” on the world which is precisely why it evaporated. Personal corruption is where to look. And until we are willing to grow up and give up all our prejudices and ridiculous expectations we will never really find thumos. How much do you want to give up to find thumos? That’s the question.

53 pug April 7, 2013 at 11:43 pm

It’s a lot of reading but worth it. Very thought provoking. I disagree with the last comment and agree with the position that societal changes, as cliche as it may be or sound (read: molly coddling, ie. everyone’s a winner) of our children that is bound to have an effect and does nothing, in my opinion, to help prepare them for the real world. It is the feminizing of our society through decades of so-called ‘progressive’ policies. Call me a dinosaur. I make no apologies for not being politically correct. That’s just the way I see it.
If Achilles is the archetype of unbridled thumos then surely King Leonidas was one of the greatest examples “courage, steadfastness and indomitability ” After reading this I appreciated even more the performance of the late Richard Eagan as King Leonidas in the original 1960′s movie of the 300 Spartans. He simply radiated courage, clarity and calmness of purpose greater than himself.
I also found the allegory of the chariot and two horses to be similar to the Cherokee Proverb of the Two Wolves. ie. “There is a battle of two wolves inside all of us – One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins. The one you feed”.

54 william November 6, 2013 at 9:21 pm

i could make a long winded speech about exactly how and why your site is great and writing insightful, but the praise would only be a mask of the truth needing expression, that you put out some of the best stuff ever, and im lucky to stumble upon it exactly when i need it.

55 Sean March 11, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Great article. My wife and I were having a discussion about this concept last night about how we wanted to instill this in our boys, but 1 thought we were alone in this and 2 were able to describe it but didn’t have a reference or words for what we were describing. She kept asking if she was crazy for thinking that we should not raise our boys to be neutered as you put it. Thank you for writing this piece, I think it hit home both literally and figuratively.

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