Thumos: The Spirited Element

According to Plato, three elements compose a human being: the calculating element, the spirited element, and the desiring element. (Book IV Plato’s Republic, 440e) In other words, the soul has a head, a heart, and a gut. The calculating part of the soul is the center of reason, knowledge, and wisdom. The spirited part of the soul is the seat of emotion and sentiment. The desiring part of the soul is the epicenter of appetite, the part of the soul that desires food, drink, sex and sleep. 

Of all these, the spirited part, or thumos, is the most crucial, the determining factor in a man. It is the locus of decision, bringing strength of will to either the appetite or the mind. Socrates compares thumos to an army, which can support and defend the king or aid the mob in rebellion. The virtue associated with thumos is courage, the ability to act boldly in the face of fear, or the ability to choose principle against gut instinct. In times of temptation, the spirited element is the stronghold of resistance. We cannot expect to outsmart the devil, a centuries-old expert in human weakness. The devil is powerless against thumos, for the devil is not a man but rather a fallen angel, and has no thumos himself. Thumos is our best hope for his defeat.

Jane Eyre, when tempted by Mr. Rochester to become his “wife” unlawfully, uses thumos in her escape. She is desperately in love with Mr. Rochester and he tries to seduce her into doing what she know would be wrong. Jane tells him:

I care for myself… I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane:with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

Jane is not giving reasons for her resistance. She is not giving a rational speech with constructives and rebuttals, or trying to outwit Mr. Rochester. She feels “insane.”Her gut has overcome her mind, and she stands on raw thumos: she will stick to the principles she decided upon when she was in her right mind. Jane ends up leaving her work at Mr. Rochester’s house and wandering alone because she knows she would not be able to withstand temptation for long. 

 Jane is not merely concerned with the good in the abstract; she is concerned for her own good. Jane’s opening words to her speech are “I care for myself.” Thumos is not just concerned with upholding the abstract principles of the mind, or with the good, but is, at its core, concerned with caring for itself. According to Harvey Mansfield, “thumos refers to the part of the soul that makes us want to insist on our own importance.” Thumos is about protection of one’s own, and in this sense human beings share thumos with animals. Thumos is what causes a dog’s heckles to raise, and what causes a mother bear to defend her young. Thumos is what makes animals friendly towards those who are familiar and hostile to those who are strange. 

What ties together our reason and our instincts is the conviction that what is good is good for us. The choice between our own interest and the good is a false one. When we give ourselves up for the good we find we are more our own than when we were working for self-preservation. Human beings were designed to be paradoxes. We must lose our life to find it. This is what Jane Eyre means when she says that she cares for herself. Jane cares for her soul, knowing that the soul needs the good more than the body needs food. Thus her insisting on her own importance is also insisting on the good, because she knows perfectly well that the good is what she needs. Thumos is as innately good as anything in creation, but because it insists on its own importance, there will always be a sense in which thumos will be given up in order to be gained. 

Satan in Paradise Lost, because he is given a sort of human soul by Milton, possesses the sort of thumos that insists on its own importance at the cost of its own happiness. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” Satan is famous for saying. Better to maintain my own autonomy and clout and be miserable than to submit to a happiness found outside of my own importance. Better to follow my own instincts than that of a higher reason. Thumos has defeated itself, because it has looked for importance anywhere but where it is to be found. Thumos has forgotten that it is merely a creature, whose significance will always be derivative from its Creator. The most human element of our soul, perhaps of all the parts of the soul has the most trouble remembering why it is human. This is why the most seemingly spirited athletes can be the most childish, insisting on their own importance. 

In order to feel like soldiers are truly good soldiers they must believe they are serving the true and rightful ruler, even if they are mistaken about who that ruler might be. Thus even when serving the mob, the soldier must tell himself he is furthering whose power is the most right. In the same way, even when serving its own gut desires, the mind wants to believe it has allied itself with the Just. We would give a reason for our emotions, especially our anger. We would justify our instinct to defend our own. Reasoning out our emotions is an especially human thing, for animals do not have reason and humans do not have emotion. 

The Medievals believed that two things could only be united by a third, and in this way thumos becomes the unity between the animal and the angelic, the body and the soul. The body thinks of its need and the soul thinks of the good. To be human, to be spirited, is to think of both. To be human is to make the good our own and make our own into the good. We learn to love what is noble and make what we already love more noble. The human labor is to break down the barriers between abstract and concrete, to bring peace to the tension that comes with living in two worlds, the spiritual and the physical. The Incarnation, the climax of history, broke down the dividing wall of hostility, by making Love, an idea, a real flesh-and-blood person. And so thumos, besides being man’s connection with the animals, is also his connection with the angels, the center of his redemption and the reunion of all things. 

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