The ancient Greeks believed that a man’s soul or psyche was made up of three parts: Reason, Appetites, and Thumos. While an understanding of the first two parts of this tripartite model of the soul remains with us, the concept of thumos has been mostly lost in our modern day. We tellingly have no word that directly corresponds to it.
The Greeks believed thumos was essential to andreia (manliness) and conceived of it as an incredibly rich and complex energy. Thumos is a man’s life force – the passion that gives spiritedness to the young, and lends freshness and vigor to the old. It is the seat of emotions, and the emotion itself. The Greeks most associated it with anger, especially a righteous rage that springs to life when a man’s honor, loved ones, or community are threatened. Thumos fuels the drive of action, ambition, and the desire to fight, as well as a man’s gameness, courage, and ability to stay “in the arena” once the battle is underway. It is the “fire in the belly” that pushes a man to leave behind safety and security, to despise mediocrity, and to want to excel his fellow men and become the best of the best.
Not only does thumos represent a man’s fighting spirit, but also the energy of discernment and deliberation. It acts as an aid in decision-making and problem-solving. A man ponders possibilities in his thumos, and in turn, it offers inspiration on what course of action to take.
Because the ancient Greeks thought of thumos as a distinct part of a person, they believed you could talk to it — tell it to endure, to be strong, or to be young. In The Iliad, Achilles delights his thumos by playing the lyre.
Thumos is hard to describe, but easy to feel coursing through you. Luckily, not only can you please your thumos with music, you can also use music to fire it up.
Thumos music is akin to “pump up music” — but not identical. It’s not about whipping yourself into a super agro state, and it doesn’t just prime your body for brute force action. You feel it in your bones and your brain. It activates both the primal and higher parts of your spirit. It sweeps you along through the troughs and pinnacles of the human experience — not just anger and joy, but grief and sorrow. It momentarily pulls back the veil on an ideal that is usually so ineffable and inaccessible — greatness. Basically, thumos music makes you feel alive.
Below are several albums and songs that are guaranteed to invigorate your thumos. It’s what I listened to while writing the Semper Virilis series a few months ago, and it continues to be my soundtrack for thinking and writing about heavy, deep, and complex topics. I’ll also listen to my thumos soundtrack when I’m working out; it makes those deadlifts and HIITs seem even more legendary.
Most of the music in my thumos soundtrack comes from orchestral soundtracks from epic films. There’s something about orchestral music, especially when woven with intense chanting choruses, that deeply stirs the “fire in the belly.” Maybe epic movie soundtracks tap into that primordial, Dionysian part of our brain the same way that the music and chanting choruses that accompanied the tragedies of the ancient Greeks invigorated the Hellenistic spirit. Maybe it’s the timelessness and majesty of orchestral music. I don’t know. I just know that when I listen to it, my heart beats a bit faster, the hairs on my arm stand up, and I feel primed for inspiration and ready for a fight — be it physical, mental, or spiritual. Watching the movies that accompany these soundtracks is another great way to boost your thumos, but that’s another post.
When you need to not only get pumped up for something, but to show up fully alive for it, listen to songs that awaken your thumos. Whether it’s reaching a new PR on your deadlift, playing in the state championship game, writing a research report, shaking off the bad mojo lingering from a break-up, summoning the courage to quit your job, or whatever challenge you’re facing, this is the soundtrack for you. While all the songs on these albums are great for thumos, I’ve handpicked a few of my favorites from each one. Hopefully it will serve as a starting point for creating your own thumos soundtrack.
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Check out “The Battle of Stirling,” “‘Sons of Scotland,'” “‘Freedom,'” and “End Credits.”
“The Battle,” “Strength and Honor,” “Elysium,” and “Honor Him” are great.
The Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack
“Main Title,” “Elk Hunt,” “Fort Battle,” and “Top Of The World” are my favorites on this one.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Soundtrack
Check out “The Prophecy,” “Many Meetings,” and “Amon Hen.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Soundtrack
“The King Of The Golden Hall” and “The White Rider” are two of my favorites from this album.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Soundtrack
Lots of great thumos-inspiring music on this album, but a few of my favorites are “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” “The Fields of the Pelenor,” “The End of All Things,” and “The Return of the King.”
The Last Samurai Soundtrack
“Red Warrior” and “The Way of the Sword” are epic.
Listen to “Time” and “Dream is Collapsing.”
“To Victory,” “Immortals Battle,” and “Returns a King” really get the blood hot with thumos.
Invincible – Two Steps From Hell
I don’t know where I first learned about the group Two Steps From Hell, but I’m glad I discovered them. They’re a music production company in L.A. that makes epic-sounding music for movies, video games, and television. Over the years they’ve put together albums of their most popular tracks. All the music is thumos-inspiring. On Invincible be sure to check out “Heart of Courage,” “Super Strength,” and “To Glory.”
Archangel – Two Steps From Hell
“Strength of a Thousand Men,” “Army of Justice,” and “The Last Stand” are a few of my favorites.
SkyWorld – Two Steps From Hell
Check out “All the Kings Horses” and “For the Win.”
Classics, Vol 1 – Two Steps From Hell
“Sons of War,” “Clash of Empires,” and “Birth of a Hero” are great.
Miracles – Two Steps From Hell
“Men of Honor” is my favorite on this album.
The Magnificent Seven Soundtrack
“Main Title,” “Council of War,” and “The Hallelujah Trail” are especially good from this album.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Soundtrack
“Il Buono, Il Cattivo, Il Brutto” is a classic. Most of the other songs on this album are a variation of the main title song. “Il Triello” has some nice trumpets and thumos-invigorating vocals.
Band of Brothers Soundtrack
“Main Title,” “Band of Brothers Suite Two,” and “Band of Brothers Requiem” are must-listens.
The Pacific Soundtrack
“Honor,” “With the Old Breed,” and “Landing Peleliu” are good listens.
Saving Private Ryan Soundtrack
“Hymn to the Fallen,” “Approaching the Enemy,” and “The Last Battle” are a few of my favorites from this album.
The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place – Explosions in the Sky
This one is a bit different from most of the selections on this list. Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental rock band from Austin, Texas. While not orchestral, their music is definitely thumos-inspiring, which is probably why their songs “Your Hand In Mine” and “First Breath After Coma” off this album were used in both the movie and TV version of Friday Night Lights (my favorite television show of all time). I get chills every time I listen. It reminds me of the emotion and drama of my high school football days, which in turn reminds me to maintain some of that youthful thumotic spiritedness even as I get older.
“Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner
The great military strategist John Boyd would often listen to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” while working out his revolutionary ideas. I figured if it helped him change warfare as we know it, this song could help me write awesome stuff (including posts about him — kind of meta).