The ancient Greeks had a concept called thymus which, they believed, explained our unconscious impulses to act. In the Iliad, Achilles does not act consciously, but rather it is Apollo who inspires him to go to battle by stimulating his thymus.
Of course, as a subconscious driving force, thymus can be likened to will, or a physical, personal receiver and motivator of will. Julian Jaynes’, in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, argues that the meaning of the word evolved in its classical usage from an original concept of motion or agitation in the unconscious bicameral man, to eventually become something like our emotional soul. Perhaps in its original meaning we could sometimes associate it with energy – when a man grows tired of moving it is because his thymus leaves his limbs – but it must be given a spiritual or psychological quality as well which seems to come and go and even gives us directions. It speaks to us. The thymus can tell a man to eat and drink, or to fight. Diomedes in the Iliad says that Achilles will fight: “when the thymus in his chest tells him and a god rouses him.” Thymus then, is associated with passion.
Fukuyama introduces thymus to us through Plato. From the Republic, Fukuyama tells us that Plato envisaged the soul in three parts: desire, reason and thymus, which Fukuyama translates as spiritedness.
What Fukuyama is looking for constantly in his book is a handy definition of human nature. Definitions which can correspond to liberal-democratic intentions and thus prove Fukuyama’s thesis that liberal-democracy is the most perfect system because it reflects human nature far better than any other. Plato’s triumvirate-soul is perfect for Fukuyama and capitalism: a will to spirited desire that also has a sprinkle of reasonableness to it. Plato of course saw the triumvirate working in a different way. Its tri-nature being an explanation for the constant moral dilemma between our reasoning and our desires. Plato asks: shouldn’t we subject our desires to the judgement of reason against the danger of allowing it to be subjected to passion? Capitalism of course would argue NO. It’s better for the consumer to desire with a passion and consume with a frenzy. Capitalism wants a passionate element to reign in our souls. The kind of passion propounded by the Romantics, the kind advocated by Nietzsche.
To act with passion the consumer needs freedom, and so the liberal-plutocracy encourages it, or at least a hallucinatory version of that freedom. While you are allowed to consume with passion, you will be fully motivated to work in our system, the one, the only one that can provide the drugs one needs to feed one’s consumer-addiction – which is making the few who are pulling the strings get richer whilst the rest sink deeper and deeper into their addiction. Welcome to Huxley’s Brave New World.
For Fukuyama: “Desire and reason are together sufficient to explain the process of industrialisation and a large part of economic life more generally.”[i] But what room is there for reason in a soul that is driven by a spirited, passionate desire? How much reason can we see in an industrialisation which has scarred the planet? How much reason behind those ideas that created a slave-class of factory workers that are now abandoned to unemployment as the system mechanises the same industries? Instead of the noble concept of reason, we see only egotistical ambition. Only selfish reasons based on greed and desire.
Fukuyama perverts Plato’s idea of the soul by associating it with a singularity that is human nature. Plato himself, however, does not make this association, and in the dialogue Socrates is searching for the best individual natures to fit certain positions (e.g. what would be the right soul for an ideal guardian of the city). Plato’s argument is that the appetitive part of the soul that is desire needs to be controlled, not unleashed as capitalism does.
Fukuyama seems quite liberal (no pun intended) with Plato’s thymus. In Republic IV, 436a ff., Socrates asks: “Do we do things with the same part of ourselves or do we do them with three different parts? Do we learn with one part, get angry with another, and with some third part desire the pleasures of food drink, sex, and the others that are closely akin to them? Or when we set out after something, do we act with the whole of our soul in each case?” Or in other words the three parts that Fukuyama refers to are: that with which we learn (reason), that which gets us angry (thymus), and that which fills us with desire. Here Fukuyama’s translation of thymus, spiritedness, would probably be better rendered as passion, for thymus here is the faculty for arousing anger. Drawing this same line of argument Socrates says that he prefers the term appetite to desire, for appetite implies both desire and non-desire. Non-will is just as an important concept for Plato as will. My revulsion at the idea of eating shit is stronger than my love of eating shell-fish. My will for wanting one thing is often measured alongside a will for not wanting something else. It is between will and non-will that choices are made, and preferences. Only a monster will desire everything, and there is another perversion: the culture that wants everything is a monstrous abomination. The natural thing (and this was Plato’s point), the authentically natural thing is that desire should be moderated by a courageous will to not-want, or want-less.
Nevertheless, in Fukuyama’s perverted misreading of Plato, thymus becomes a perfectly positive drive and one necessary for human satisfaction, in fact it is related by Fukuyama to human dignity.
Peter Sloterdijk sees thymus, and capitalism, from another angle. After locating the origin of the word thymus in a kind of receptacle through which the gods activated mankind, Sloterdijk suggests that we are still subject to thymotic power. But now it is via the State or the system that thymus returns to its receptacle like function. Instead of being activated by gods it is now programmed by the system. He says: “Current consumerism achieves, in a significant way, the same elimination of pride in favour of the erotic without holistic, altruistic and elegant excuses, by buying from man his interest in dignity, offering material favours in exchange.” The system now functions not as a body-snatcher, but as a dignity-snatcher: “In this way, the construct of the Homo-economicus, at first totally incredible, arrives at his goal of becoming the post-modern consumer. A simple consumer is he or she that doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know different appetites that… proceed from the erotic or demanding part of the soul.”[ii]
For Sloterdijk the rediscovery of the neo-thymotic human image in the Renaissance played an important role in the rise of the Nation State in terms of that which referred to its output. He lists Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Hamilton and Hegel as they who considered men’s passions as their most important qualities: their lust for fame, vanity, self-love, ambition and the desire to be recognised. All of them saw the dangers in their passions but most of them still dared to sell these vices as positive, productive aspects for society.
The thymotic drive is a creative, productive one, but it is also an angry, jealous, violent one. The will-to-want-more (Nietzschean) thymus coupled to the will-to-be-recognised (Hegelian) thymus is a pyrotechnic combination, an act of madness, throwing gunpowder into the fire. But it is what our system has always advocated. Sloterdijk makes a connection between Thymus and the Hippocratic temperament of Choleric. Both the will-to-want-more and the desire for recognition are areas in the thymotic field of psychology. They are questions of appetite and pride, of longing for success and fortune. Dreams: American Disneyland Dreams, fomented by the surplus-consumer society, our dynamic civilisation creating dynamic individuals from thymotic fantasies.
The greatest effect of the French Revolution, and the American War of Independence that preceded it, was not freedom, brotherhood and equality, but the creation of a dynamic civilisation based on the power of competitiveness, constantly fuelled by personal pride, needs for recognition, greedy ambition and motivating envy. It is these drives, applied to politics, which forces us to question our civilisation’s greatest apparent virtue – our liberal democracy.
“For the people, by the people”: by – to a certain, virtual extent; for – hardly.
Our party system is a reflection of our System, which is made of the essentially thymotic so necessary for making the market work in a dynamic way. Thus our parties are passionately competitive, power-hungry machines made up of power-hungry individuals. The parties themselves are divided into hungry factions, and each faction in ambitious individuals. How could we ever expect these vain-glorious competitors to even really care about those who voted for them except when it is useful? For the party to win it needs succulent policies and needs to sell those ideas seductively. It also needs the competitive, power hungry individuals to appear unified, and to seem to believe in the party principles. Principles that even the most utopian democrats will sacrifice to pragmatism. Over and over again the democratic politicians surprise us by their lack of vision, lack of principles and constant bowing to pragmatism.
Pragmatism is really the emergency exit out of all radical ideologies. In the great global liberal-free-market civilisation, political parties function very much like corporate groups. Voters are like customers for Coca-Cola or Pepsi: once they have been won to one side they will be more or less loyal forever. A loyal Coca-Cola consumer will rather have a Fanta than resort to Pepsi if there is no Coke. But more importantly than the loyalties it can create, modern politics is corporate through its internal competitiveness.
If Fukuyama would have been right and the triumph of liberalism had created a politically perfect system, there would no longer be any need for politics. But this is an absurd paradox. The liberal economic system needs competition. It is no surprise that the fall of communism left liberalism euphoric, but also momentarily crippled, and it was actually spiritually wavering until the Twin Towers came crashing down and the War on Terror began. It sounds like a conspiracy theory but for a system based on competition, struggle and ambition, war seems a logical necessity. And since the collapse of the Berlin Wall we have seen the liberal-democracies rushing headlong into almost any conflict that half-rears its head.
On a superficial level Fukuyama’s general thesis that liberal-democracy has triumphed as the only really viable and desirable political system is correct. Even those who don’t vote in the liberal-democrat systems would, if offered a choice, opt for the choice to vote. The grand majority of humankind want the voting option and therefore we can say that we want democracy. We also want all or some of the liberal ideas of freedom, although here we seem to split if we take the ballot-results as a fair measure between market-freedom and human-rights. The bi-partisan system of democracy is liberalism’s finest invention. By possessing its own inner competition it provides itself with its own self-criticism and its own renewal. Apart from the major options of right or left, the liberal-democratic system can offer a multitude of options for more socially complex societies: liberal-nationalism or liberal-catholicism, as well as free-market extremists and soft-core neo-fascisms.
On the surface it seems like a perfectly desirable system. Perfectly?: no, nothing is perfect. Triumphantly waiting it is, for the few last dictatorships to collapse and drop into liberal-democracy mode as well. When that happens it will be able to pronounce, with absolute conviction, that it is the perfect, and now the also the only system. But, ironically Fukuyama himself points to the liberal-democracies’ most dangerous foe. As the political systems to have fallen in the last half century have collapsed so suddenly, often without any pre-warning, taking us all by surprise, could the same happen to liberal-democracy?
[i] Francis Fukuyama, THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, p. xviii
[ii] Peter Sloterdijk, ZORN UND SEIT, author’s own translation from the Spanish edition, p.27