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Thymos: An Ancient Concept to Guide Our Modern Quest
Hello everyone! Let’s get right into this week’s Stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action. ”
- William James
ONE FROM TODAY
Economic and political scientist, Francis Fukuyama on the untapped human yearning to prove oneself:
“if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.”
“a civilization devoid of anyone who wanted to be recognized as better than others, and which did not affirm in some way the essential health and goodness of such a desire, would have little art or literature, music or intellectual life. It would be incompetently governed, for few people of quality would choose a life of public service. It would not have much in the way of economic dynamism; its crafts and industries would be pedestrian and unchanging, and its technology second-rate.”
Source: The End of History? by Francis Fukuyama
ONE FROM US
Our primary motivation with IHD is to enact positive change in the world, but there are aspects of what we do that are entirely selfish. Writing to you right now makes me feel good. IHD is a source of satisfaction that makes me feel valuable, significant, intelligent, and helpful. Before you write off IHD as some masturbatory pursuit of two guys who simply want some self-congratulations, let me explain.
IHD makes me better. This project requires that I constantly seek new influences and attempt to rectify them with my current beliefs. IHD has also grown a relatively small but significant readership (thank you for being here) that puts me into a role of prominence and responsibility. Your being here requires that my words are both thoughtfully-considered and well-crafted, lest I disappoint you or waste your time. On the other side of this exchange, I get to feel that I am contributing to the world in a positive way and I get to build relationships with all of you who engage with our work (please reach out, we absolutely love to hear from you!). We have also made a cherished connection with everyone involved with the first live course.
In the big picture sense, IHD is mostly a pure and noble pursuit of two brothers-in-arms hoping to affect positive change. But, alas, I am but a man with simple desires and this is not an entirely selfless pursuit. I receive something completely selfish from the role that I play here. So does Shane.
IHD is one of the many ways that we each fulfill the needs of our thymos. Often translated as “spiritedness,” thymos is an ancient Greek concept and harkens back to the heroic ideal of Homer’s classics. We could just as easily translate it as soul, heart, or any other abstract but obvious internal force that drives impassioned human action. I first came across the concept in the work of Francis Fukuyama, quoted above, where he describes thymos as “the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher than a fearful, needy, instinctual, physically determined animal.”
The great boon of our time is that we can be anything, do as we please, and create and connect in ways unimaginable to the first 99% of all humans who ever lived. Yet, this freedom and technological advancement bring a responsibility that no human has ever had to face. Our tribal ancestors and even our early agrarian ancestors had far fewer options for their lives, but their cultures and societies provided a life-defining purpose. We are now the sole masters of our existential well-being. We humans of the last few hundred years are the first in history to have the ability to define our own sources of meaning. Self-determination, it turns out, is a beautiful opportunity yet a burden that we are not well-equipped to handle.
Life fulfillment is a two-layered approach. First, we need to recognize that we are animals that require a variety of biological necessities for optimal physical, cognitive, and emotional functioning. We must honor these basic needs. However, meeting our fundamental “survival” needs does not guarantee fulfillment. In fact, when we attempt to fulfill our higher-order, uniquely-human needs for meaning and purpose through those same biological methods, we are destined to fail. We need to understand and honor our need for thymos.
Thymos is the human desire to separate ourselves from the animal world and from the rest of human society. It is the belief that we all hold, to varying degrees, that we can rise to become something greater. As Fukuyama writes, “not all men feel this pull, but for those who do, thymos cannot be satisfied by the knowledge that they are merely equal in worth to all other human beings.” We have a deep need to prove our worth.
I personally think about thymos in two ways. First, it is our desire to improve and grow. Progress feels good—when we feel that we are improving, we feel fulfilled. This could be seeing your physical strength improve in the gym, feeling your proficiency expand in a new skill, or receiving a return on all the hours that you poured into a new business. Happiness is feeling your powers expand. The second aspect of thymos is much trickier to fulfill in a wholesome way. I define this aspect as significance, borrowed from Tony Robbins’s six human needs. Significance is tricky because we can work towards unfulfilling ends that masquerade as true significance, like fame, recognition, or attention. It gets trickier still because when we elevate our need for significance above other areas we can soil an otherwise wholesome pursuit with co-opted intentions.
To clarify, I’ll return to my personal relationship with IHD. We began IHD with pure intentions to put forth ideas that we thought would help people define fulfilling lives in the modern world (ironically, to help people satisfy their thymos). This remains our goal and mission statement. However, we also feel personally significant along the way—a little biological and emotional reward for doing something good. But like any reward, too much can distract from the original goal. Like any metric for success, pandering directly toward things that make us feel significant will turn out to be corrosive to our personal well-being (and in turn, to the success of IHD). If we simply acted on our need to feel important, we wouldn’t be serving ourselves or all of you.
As humans, self-serving needs drive everything that we do, at least in part. We are also driven by selfless, charitable, and common-good forces, but no one is above the personal feel-good chemicals that come from recognition and significance. A healthy balance comes from the unapologetic admission that you feel these pulls. Pushed to a dark corner, away from conscious awareness and control, our basic emotional drivers can steer us off course. Brought into the light and honored for the turbo-boost it can provide, your thymos can help push you in the best possible direction. It’s certainly been working with me as I consider how and why I write this.
The word “thymos” is new to me, but it perfectly captures a view of humanity and of myself that has become increasingly clear to me over the last few years. It’s a framework from which to understand ourselves and how we address the monumental task of defining our personal meaning. It is also rich territory to understand many cultural trends. I plan to explore thymos and its many implications over the coming weeks, but I thought it would be fun to introduce it, ironically, as one of the driving forces to get my butt in this chair and my fingers on this keyboard.
Life is too short to be normal,