Monday, March 20, 2006

David Brooks goes Greek

It's really, really sad that the old David Brooks is a Moron blog stopped publishing as of last September (that isn't when the whole Times Select thing started, is it? I thought that was later ...). I'm sure I would have enjoyed reading their response to Brooks's latest, "All Politics is Thymotic" (or here for printable version, but you'll have to be a Times Select or NYT print edition subscriber to follow that link, though you can read the entire text here or here). Perhaps their blog has moved to a new site, but I haven't found it ...

Like Brooks's output generally, this column rests on gross over-generalizations and over-simplifications and shows that Brooks still has his genius for missing the point. Nonetheless it does articulate an important insight that is valuable at least to people without a smattering of anthropological or sociological education. The force of Brooks's argument is that politics - and in fact human motivation in general - is driven primarily, sometimes almost exclusively, by the need for respect:

Some people believe men are motivated by greed for money or lust for power. But money and power are means to get recognition. They are markers of success, and success makes men feel important and causes others to pay attention when they walk in the room.
Plato famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, eros (desire) and thymos (the hunger for recognition). Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things men do. It drives them to seek glory and assert themselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives them to rage if others don't recognize their worth. Sometimes it even causes them to kill over a trifle if they feel disrespected.
Plato went on to point out that people are not only sensitive about their own self-worth, they are also sensitive about the dignity of their group, and the dignity of others. If a group is denied the dignity it deserves, we call that injustice. Thymotic people mobilize to assert their group's significance if they feel they are being rendered invisible by society.
Thymotic people mobilize on behalf of those made voiceless by the powerful. As Plato indicated, thymos is the psychological origin of political action.
In other words, politics is all about "the Dis".

Now, this isn't quite as stupid or reductionist as it may sound, though as I will get to in a moment it does go too far. It is important to understand and recognize this motivation when and where it occurs. Brooks is even correct in pointing out that this motivation can have positive as well as negative expressions ("mobilize on behalf of those made voiceless by the powerful").

However, Brooks's trademark penchant for overgeneralization takes over as usual, and he carries things way too far:

In this country, when workers strike, they're not enraged over a few cents an hour. They're enraged because they feel their company is not acknowledging their worth. When social liberals squabble with social conservatives, each group is trying to assert the dignity of its own lifestyle.
This begins to gravitate more to the more wishy-washy concept of "self-esteem" and conjures up images of condoscending HR departments and business gurus giving seminars to corporate middle managers on how to pamper your employees' self-esteem so they don't demand to be treated ethically or paid fairly.

And of course Brooks completely missed the anthropology lectures where they taught us about the difference between shame-culture and guilt-culture. People, particularly males, brought up in a shame-culture are particularly prone to become enraged when they feel somehow "dissed" (or "dishonored"). The Ancient Greeks of Homer's time were a classic shame culture, as were the Japanese, the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, etc. In our day and age, the Muslim world is still very much a shame-culture -- this is why women and girls in such societies are frequently murdered by their own family-members, usually by fathers, brothers, or uncles, if they are perceived have brought "shame" on the family through illicit contact with males outside of their families (even if this contact is not sexual -- in a society that demands Purdah, even allowing a non-related male to see your face or to talk to an unrelated male can be enough to bring a death-sentence from your own family). Even a girl that is raped can be killed by her family to remove the stain of dishonor. In a guilt culture, it isn't about shame -- about being caught or about being seen as shamed or dishonored -- it is about whether you actually did something wrong. The European western world has not had a shame culture for many centuries, except in a few pockets. In the United States, the South still has a large smattering of shame culture, and in fact I remember reading many years ago about a study showing that Southerners are more likely to commit acts of violence if they feel they have been dishonored or disrespected in some way than are people from other parts of the U.S. (I remember that there were even some threatened Southern acts of violence in response to that report).

So although Brooks is certainly imparting an important lesson to people that may not have caught on that male sense of honour is a strong motivation behind a lot of politics, but it certainly has very little to do with strikes or political parties in the West, at least.

I'm curious about what the classicist bloggers will have to say, if anything, about the -- to my mind at least -- rather idiosyncratic definition for "thymos" that Brooks uses.

[Personally, being the inveterate pedant that I am, I prefer the spelling "thumos" for the Greek θῡμός (θυμος if you don't have a unicode font installed, which you should [look here]) . The Greek letter "υ" (capital: "Y"), called since the Middle Ages "Upsilon", is rendered into the Latin alphabet in two different ways depending on context: as "u" when it occurs in dipthongs such as "au" or "eu" (from αυ, ευ) but as the manufactured letter "y" (actually the Greek upsilon, not a Roman letter at all) in other contexts - in fact this was one of Cicero's particular pedantries. The reason for this is that the (reconstructed) Ancient Greek pronunciations of that same letter is believed to be different between those two contexts (as they still are in Modern Greek though in completely different ways): Romans had their own diphthong "au" pronounced identically to the greek αυ, so it made sense for them to spell it that way; but they had no sound corresponding to the contemporary Greek upsilon, which sounded like modern French "u" or German ü.) Nonetheless, it is the same letter in Greek, and it galls me to see it rendered inconsistently as "u" in one place and "y" in another - often in the same word! - especially since there are words, such as "hubris", which we for some reason render inconstently with "u" instead of "y" (if we were to be consistent with the inconsistency that is the conventional Latinate transliteration, it would be "hybris", just as the Greek prepositions ὑπό and ὑπέρ show up in English as the prefixes "hypo-" and "hyper-", beginning with the exact same letters as ὕβρις).

But back to Brooks's definition. I ... have to say that I had never heard it defined as "the hunger for recognition". The word does have quite a large, fluid range of meanings, and it changed meanings over the five centuries from Homer to Plato, but it basically is a Greek word for "spirit", and is often simply used as a synonym for ψυχή ("psyche" or, more pedantically, "psuche": usually translated as "soul" and the source of our words psyche, psychology, psychic, etc.). The LSJ offers these definitions:

A. soul, spirit, as the principle of life, feeling and thought, esp. of strong feeling and passion
I. in physical sense, breath, life
2. spirit, strength

II. soul, as shown by the feelings and passions; and so,
1. desire or inclination, esp. desire for meat and drink, appetite
2. mind, temper, will
3. spirit, courage
4. the seat of anger
5. the heart, as the seat of the emotions, esp. joy or grief
6. mind, soul, as the seat of thought

(There were several other words for "mind" as well.)

And it is well-known that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root "dhu-" (see, e.g., here), meaning "smoke", giving the Latin "fumus", the Russian дым, etc. It makes sense that this particular Greek word for "spirit" would have connotations connected with passions, especially anger: smoke as from a fire. Plato's three divisions would then be reason, desire (the kind of desire that perpetuates life), and spirit/courage/anger.

But to get back to Brooks, there is a little bit more fun we can have with him before we go. How embarrassing for him that his column was published the very same day in the very same newspaper as as this delightful book review, where the reviewer, Walter Kirn, bitch-slaps silly the author of the very book, "Harvey Mansfield's new book, Manliness," which Brooks praises in his column as "a subtle exploration about the virtues and vices of the thymotic urge."

Kirns shreds Mansfield mercilessly and hilariously (we can only hope that for Kirns that there aren't any vestiges of shame-culture left in the Harvard Faculty club) for a 40-years-out-of-date cluelessness and "a pipe-smokey academic baritone that I for one thought had vanished from this planet)":

[Mansfield] shows little awareness of much that's happened recently . . . in the allegedly feminized culture that he aims to shake up. Like Austin Powers, Mansfield seems stuck in a semantic time warp in which it is still possible to write sentences like "Though it's clear that women can be manly, it's just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly as men." A time warp where it's further possible — in a passage on the sexes' characteristic senses of humor — to cite an event from over 40 years ago as his one and only illustration of feminine wit. . . In just which far-off galaxy has Mansfield set up his telescope to scrutinize the doings of us earthlings? Or, if he dwells among us, when was the last time he left the faculty club?
I'm amazed I never noticed this Kirns guy before. Now this guy is not a moron.

Some more links about "thymos/thumos":

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