Friday, January 09, 2009


I mentioned Fukuyama's coinage last post: isothymia, which is a joining of iso (equal) and thumos.

What does thumos mean?

In his Phaedrus, Plato figures the human psyche in three parts: a charioteer, and his two winged horses. The Driver is logistikon, derived from logos, the Reason -- and the two horses, one black and one white, are epithumetikon, representing bodily desire, and thumos, or "spiritedness." Reason keeps the two in check, and steers them through the sky toward "divine sights." While the black horse -- desire, concupiscence -- is unruly, and needs the Driver's whip, the white horse, beautiful and long-necked, will heed the driver's word. Both horses represent passionate parts of the psyche, but Thumos -- the location of pride, shame, indignation, and social recognition -- is the brighter side of passion, the more agreeable, manly, not quite as difficult to control part.

Jeffrey Walker, in his treatise on classical rhetoric called Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, decides that thumos, or thymos, for the pre-aristotelian Greeks meant: "'heart' or 'mind' or 'spirit' as the seat of emotion, thought, wish, desire, intentionality, or will. In one's thymos," says Walker, "one considers things, draws inferences, becomes impassioned, forms desires, has intentions, and makes plans." He refers to uses of the word in both a Homeric hymn, and a poem of Pindar's, and says in these instances and others, "thymos as 'heart' is understood as both a principle or place of interpretation and a source of emotional response, urge, and intentionality."

Of Aristotle's conception of the thymos, Walker asserts:
"Aristotle typically associates both thymos and epithymia, "desire," with the "nonrational" (alogon), emotive part of the psyche, which he nevertheless considers to "partake of logos" in the sense that it has a "hearkening and obeying" capacity for interpretive understanding and response. [...] That is, depending on what perceptions are present to the psyche, and depending on the predominant cognitive frames within which those perceptions are interpreted, the "nonrational" part of the pschye, or the thymos, recognizes the significance or salience of those interpreted precepts and mobilizes emotions, desires, intentionalities, and behavioral scenarios (as well as bodily arousal for physical action) in response."

"Moreover, the specific emotions, desires, intentionalities, and bodily states mobilized by the thymos largely determine the predominant cognitive frames and behavioral scenarios within which the psyche's subsequent perceptions will be interpreted and responded to."

If Walker is interpreting these ancient sources correctly, the thumos begins to sound like a pretty darn important part of the psyche. If your body is a chariot, and Reason is the driver, then you've got two winged horses buried in your gut, one black, one white. The black one is pulling you earthward, and needs a good whipping -- but the white one? Well, the white one waits for you to say when.

Walker has a particular reason for talking about thymos -- a word he is very much concerned with, and a word that I have become very much concerned with, is derived from it. The word? Enthymeme. I'll talk more about that later -- for now I'm off to the premier of Arvo Part's 4th Symphony, titled "Los Angeles."

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