Erlebnis & Thumos


THUMOS (Homer): “There is no general consciousness in the Iliad … The thumos, which later comes to mean something like emotional soul, is simply motion or agitation. When a man stops moving, the thumos leaves his limbs. But it is also somehow like an organ itself, for when Glaucus prays to Apollo to alleviate his pain and to give him strength to help his friend Sarpedon, Apollo hears his prayer and ‘casts strength through his thumos’ (Iliad, 16:529). The thumos can tell a man to eat, drink or fight … Achilles will fight ‘when the thumos in his chest tells him to and a god rouses him.’ (9:702f) But it is not really an organ and not always localised …” [1]


ERLEBNIS (Dilthey): “… any cognitive, affective or conative act or attitude which is conscious, but distinguished from the object to which it is directed, and not itself the object of any other act or attitude. Erlebnis are too intimate to be focal. We do not know, feel or will them; we know, feel and will through them.”[2]


Whilst reading Dilthey’s idea of Erlebnis, I could not help but be reminded of the Greek idea of Thumos. On the surface they seem completely different concepts: Thumos is an inspiring agent whilst Erlebnis is a vehicle through which our inspiration is made possible (but fundamentally, that could be the same thing). Erlebnis is experience itself, whereas Thumos is a motivating force, yet Dilthey says that we know, feel and will through these experiences, and that is what gives Erlebnis the feeling of ThumosErlebnis is also a motivator.

Homer places thumos like an organ in our body, and makes it a kind of receiver, through which the gods are able to stimulate and move us to action, or turn us off at their will, and the god Apollo uses Achilles like a toy in this manner.

But what is Apollo? Does Erlebnis describe what the Greeks believed was an intervention between the gods and mortals?

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes Erlebnis as immediate experience: “(it) denotes experience in all its direct immediacy and lived fullness,” and should be contrasted with Ehrfarung: “denoting ordinary experience as mediated through intellectual and constructive elements.” Erlebnis is the experience that is not mediated by the intellect – it is pure and direct – which for the Greeks meant that it came straight from the gods; straight from Apollo.

C.D.P.: “As immediate, Erlebnis eludes conceptualisation, in both the lived present and interiority of experience. As direct, Erlebnis is also disclosive and extraordinary: it reveals something real that otherwise escapes thinking … Typical examples include art, religion and love, all of which show the anti-rationalist and polemical uses of the concept.”

By drawing a link between thumos and Erlebnis a new light is shed on each one.

In Julian Jayne’s thesis on the Bicameral Mind, he claims that thymotic inspiration was a fundamental feature of the human mind some three millennia ago, and he sees vestiges of it remaining in what is now called schizophrenia. But Jaynes’ thesis was more concerned with the neurological significance of thumos than with the inspirational power of direct experience. For Jaynes, the inspirational power of our pre-self-conscious ancestors, came from the voices they heard in their schizophrenic minds (part of Jaynes’ theory is that the human mind evolved away from a commonly schizophrenic condition some three millennia ago when the proliferation of city-states formed closer human communities in which hearing voices became an annoyance rather than an inspiring tool).

But could it be that, whilst the voices have disappeared, the direct inspiration of experience has not – and this is what Dilthey was expressing through his concept of Erlebnis.



[2] Wilhelm Dilthey, SCIENCE OF PHILOSOPHY (translator’s preface)

OUR THYMOTIC PATHOLOGY 2: Achilles, Odysseus and the Bicameral Mind

In the evolution of Greek culture from the menis (cholera/rage) of Achilles to the metis (astuteness) of Odysseus we see a new power emerging in our species – the power of consciousness; the power of the mind. It is Odysseus and not Achilles who vanquishes Troy.

If Jaynes’ analysis of Homer and thymus is correct[i] and that an evolutionary leap took place between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey, showing us a literary expression of the transformation of the Bicameral unconscious man (Achilles) and the Conscious man (Odysseus), thymus and menis could also be regarded as biological facets of our temperament that were necessary to the unconscious man in his bicameral state, but became only a troublesome element for the conscious intelligence of our non-bicameral minds.

It is not the Achilles figure bursting with menis, or Hegel’s aristocrat hero sacrificing himself for his slave who should be posited as candidates for the title of the First Man, but rather the wily Odysseus. Odysseus is the first man, the first figure in world literature, who would be the first to display the tremendous advantage of consciousness and the astuteness that that consciousness empowered him with. Rather than a step forward, Fukuyama’s Hegelian idea of the triumph of thymus and the megathymotic instincts of liberal-democracy and capitalist society is in actual fact a backward leap in ontological evolution.

The Iliad man is slave to passions, which are not his passions but drives instilled by gods. It is Achilles’ thymus, stirred by Apollo, that makes him rise, leave his tent and go to battle. Achilles is a kind of schizophrenic automaton. He doesn’t think of himself but only acts when the gods tell him to act or when they stir his thymus. He is a patient potency that will explode when ignited. He will sit and wait, absorbing the world until he is called to act. He is an archetype for the invulnerable power of the masses. The masses who are stirred via their own thymus: the thymus of all religions and all nationalisms; loyal to all flags; the champion of all victims of any injustices. Achilles evolved into the masses and his thymus and his menis were preserved for anyone cunning enough to tap into to use.

Achilles, the archetypal hero of all who act when they are stirred, is a robot warrior. He is superseded in homo sapiens evolution by Odysseus, the genius survivor. As the archetypical automaton-man, Achilles is the first example of Nietzsche’s Last Man. The gods of Olympus are no longer the instigators and thymus stirring invisible protagonists of our current unfolding tragedy. They have been replaced by the cunning sons of Odysseus who learned the art of domesticating all Achilles-men. But now Achilles’ descendants, the Last Men, also have consciousness, or at least a latent consciousness, and the new god-king race of the Odysseus family must apply even more ingenious methods of manipulation to maintain the Achilles-masses automaton-slave condition.

The historical process has become a struggle to manipulate the Achilles-automatons, and keep them unconscious by convincing them that they are really free. But in between the Odysseus-god-kings and the Achilles-automaton-slave-masses are the other classes of men and women. Strange Odysseus-like creatures who use their intelligence not for cunning and manipulation but for knowing and teaching. They evolved in the post-Homeric times of poetry and philosophy (and Homer himself belonged to this same class). They stand on the outskirts of the prayer process of history, part of it, but never really accepted by it or accepting of it. They try to reshape it, redirect it.


If Jaynes is right, mankind as a consciously thinking species, as a true homo sapiens, has only existed for some four thousand years. Hegel saw life as a long process of becoming. A tedious but necessary process. We know that evolution has had its failures and there have been countless extinctions, so how should we imagine mankind in one or four thousand years’ time? If we were to meet such a person time-travelling back to our era we would probably not consider them human any more, just as we would probably have trouble relating in any meaningful way to Achilles. We are always in the middle of what we once were and will eventually become.

In the 1960s, when science-fiction writers tried to envisage an evolved humanity they gave us huge hands and long fingers. But our next great evolutionary leap will probably be like our last, not a physical change but a leap of consciousness. In the future men and women will have a more quantum awareness, perhaps with greater sensitivity to electromagnetic fields and, certainly, areas of the brain will be activated that we have never consciously used up to now. The shift from Jaynes’ bicameral Achilles to conscious Odysseus involved a shutting down of the bicameral activity and an activation of that part of the brain that makes us aware of the I.

We have evolved and we will evolve again if we survive extinction. “The goal is Spirit’s insight into what knowing is,”[ii] wrote Hegel. And for the Spirit to know through mankind then mankind’s perception will have to grow more acute and more finely tuned to nature. In the meantime, we must struggle against the bi-polarising of society into a conscious and unconscious one and the maintenance of that bi-polarised status quo. We still have a segregated society of Odysseus-royal-elites and Achilles-slave-masses, and a power struggle between the two. The automaton class tryies to preserve its dignity by demonstrating that it has clear consciousness, while the royal elite amplifies the servility of its multitude through the machinery of religions, patriotisms, publicity, spectator sports and other spectacular events for the masses.



[ii] G. W. Hegel, PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, p. 17





This is the second part of the interview with Paul David Adkin that was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English. (Part one is also published here, see the link below)

GALIMATIAS: You’re implying that there is a large aesthetic difference between the novella and novel?

ADKIN: Yes, I think there is. A difference embedded in the need to hide the central question of the novel. In the novella that question can be tackled more openly and directly, like a play can. But Art Wars, remember, was also written as an anti-novel. Just as The Clown and Hamlet Rex were anti-theatre.

GALIMATIAS: It almost seems as if you like to throw stones at your own house.

ADKIN: It’s my personal catharsis.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call is also a tragedy, as is, in a sense, Purgatory. Are these works also cathartic?


ADKIN: No, not really. For the same reason that they are novels. The novel forgets the big question, whilst catharsis is a tackling, head-on, of the big question. Let me reiterate it: when one decides to adopt the form of a novel to one’s expression, one needs to sublimate the central theme. That is where the resonance of the novel comes from. By pushing the theme into the subliminal, it attacks the readers on a subconscious level as well.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call has references to the Odyssey, sometimes I the form of direct quotes. There is also your big question of the Home that has its resonances with Homer. How conscious of the big question were you in this regard?

ADKIN: Like many of my works – like Hamlet Rex and The Clown – When Sirens Calls began as a kind of academic experiment or a joke. Hamlet Rex was a re-writing of Oedipus Rex through the conduit of Hamlet, but a Hamlet as a young actor in the 21st century. When Sirens Call began as an experiment to rewrite the Odyssey via Joyce’s Ulysses, but a Ulysses taken out of Dublin and brought back to Greece. I was always conscious of this original idea although the experiment itself dwindled away and became lost in the greater demands of the novel. Nevertheless, this original experimental impetus did help the process of sublimation, for the idea of sifting the Odyssey through Ulysses was itself an alienating method. In a sense, the form itself of When Sirens Call provided the distancing required from the narrative and its theme to allow the novel to freely unfold.

In Purgatory there is a different kind of filtering, but the purpose was basically the same. Purgatory, of course, had an original source – the log books of the explorer Mendaña and his crew – but I needed to distance myself from them in order to make their accounts realistic. And to create that distance I invented the character of Valentín. This also facilitated the possibility of achieving another effect with Purgatory that was “the epic”. For me that meant the creation of a profound sense of journeying through a timeless landscape. I think of the epic as something essentially un-historical, existing in a timeless space. That is what Greek theatre and Shakespeare have in common. One can use any wardrobe one pleases or set the stories in any historical moment one wants. In the epic and its timelessness, there are no anachronisms.

The Terra Australis Incognita Volume 1

GALIMATIAS: And yet Purgatory is a deeply historical work, with tremendous attention to historical detail.

ADKIN: Yes. It is and it isn’t. It could be classified as an historical novel, and yet it’s not, just as you wouldn’t classify the Iliad as an historical work, and yet it is.

GALIMATIAS: According to Hermann Broch – and I’m paraphrasing him through Milan Kundera – the only moral imperative that the novel has is the transmission of knowledge. Do you agree with this?

ADKIN: A novel is obviously never a science book, and any would-be novelist would always fail if all he or she wanted to do was impart knowledge. I don’t know the quote from Broch in its proper context, but I imagine he is really saying that a novel is a description of life that pulls off certain veils and opens certain closed doors in order to reveal a vision of life that we don’t get by simply watching life go by around us. So, I’d say that the novel is a transmission of a certain type of knowledge that is not normally obvious. The imagination of the novelist opens up into life, and this provides a different insight and therefore a different kind of knowledge. And yes, perhaps we could say that there is a moral imperative for this opening and unveiling to take place, and …. as I’ve already said … there is the imperative of the big question. However, as I also said, I think it’s a mistake for the novelist to consciously try and answer the big question in the novel. It’s enough that the question is raised. Finding an answer may even ruin the book. I made that mistake when I was writing the first drafts of Art Wars. They were awful attempts to resolve the questions brought up by the plot. I’ve written more drafts of Art Wars than anything else, mainly in an attempt to rid the book of its resolutions. That was, perhaps, where I learned my most important lessons in novel writing.

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GALIMATIAS: Although you said that Art Wars was an anti-novel.

ADKIN: Which it is. Perhaps the best way to understand what a novel is is to write an anti-novel.