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Thymos: How an ancient force drives our modern actions.
Understanding our selfish and selfless motivations.
Hello everyone! The recent string of school shootings has me considering the unconscious forces that drive our decisions and actions. Today I’m sharing an updated essay from a few years ago about thymos, an ancient Greek concept of our internal motivation. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action. ”
— William James
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
IHD makes me better. My writing here requires that I constantly seek new ideas and test them against my current beliefs. Writing to an audience also puts me into a role of responsibility and trust that requires that my words are some combination of interesting and valuable, lest I disappoint you or waste your time. That never comes easily. 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!).
In the big picture sense, IHD is a pure and noble pursuit of two brothers-in-arms hoping to affect positive change. But we also have a strong intrinsic drive to continue that comes from entirely selfish motivation.
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 internal forces that drive impassioned action. It is our drive for personal significance and it can express as both a positive and destructive force. It is what drives heroic and selfless acts but also, no doubt plays a role in the swirl of deranged emotions that motivate school shooters. 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 have ever lived. Yet, this freedom and ability bring a responsibility that no human has ever had to face. Our tribal and early agrarian ancestors had far fewer options for their lives, but their cultures provided a life-defining purpose. Healthy expression of thymos was almost guaranteed as they took on some role that was both difficult and specialized but also highly valued by their community. 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 who require a variety of biological necessities. 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 (sugar and sex to name a few), 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.” Our legal and cultural ideals that uphold human dignity cannot alone make us feel significant. We have a deep need to prove our worth.
I think about thymos in two ways. First, it is our desire to improve and grow. Progress feels good. This can come from increasing your physical strength in the gym, feeling yourself hone a new skill, or seeing a return on all the hours that you poured into a new business. To paraphrase Nietzsche, 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 framework of the six human needs. Significance is tricky because we can work towards unfulfilling ends that masquerade as true significance—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.
As an example, 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 create fulfilling lives in the modern world. This remains our mission. 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 couldn’t serve all of you (or ourselves) well.
Self-serving needs (partially) drive everything that we do. We are also driven by selflessness, charity, and the common good, 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 need for thymos can help push you in the best possible direction. It’s certainly been working with me as I write this, keeping my butt in the chair and fingers on the keys.
Life is too short to be entirely selfish or entirely selfless,