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.
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.
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.”
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