Political misunderstanding.

Author:Brague, Remi
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the editor

Reading Prof. Mansfield's remarkable essay ("How to Understand Politics," August/September) prompted me to add or underline some points.

  1. He focuses his discussion of politics on the notion of thumos. Plato called the intermediary layer of the soul "what resembles thumos." Why? Some light comes from the playful physiology that parallels Plato's psychology: The intellect is located in the skull, the desires in the lower belly, the thumos in between, in the chest. My hunch is that Plato took his bearings from a simple fact: What the lungs do--breathe--is the only bodily function that is together instinctive and voluntary. We keep breathing while sleeping, but we can, when awake, hold our breath, take a deep breath, etc. Furthermore, the thumos is not just any way of breathing, but what happens when we are out of breath and keep running all the same, because we would be ashamed to stop. Breathing furnishes thereby a good image of the way in which reason can control desires--a problem that bothered many philosophers, ancient and modern (Hume, Kant).

  2. I am no great friend of the adjective important. More often that not, it enables cowards or rascals to evade the issue of "good vs. evil." An example from academic life: "To be sure, this book is poorly researched, miserably written, and the thesis it defends is obviously dead wrong. But it sold well and triggered a lively discussion. Hence this book, albeit bad, is important. Therefore, I will quote it approvingly, or have it translated in my series, etc." If the thumos is the sense of importance, importance is important, but it is not what is most important. If my self is the most important thing for me, I still have to learn from elsewhere what to do with it: Both self-indulgence and self-sacrifice presuppose that we have a self and that we know that we have it. In order to shift to the higher gear, we must have access to the good through our soul Hence, great care is apposite in handling the idea of "importance." Philosophy teaches us not to consider man as that important in the whole of things. Religion reveals to us that we are important for God because of what God did for us--giving us his law, or redeeming us on the cross--not because of our own achievements.

  3. The fecundity of the idea of thumos was seen by C.S. Lewis. In the first chapter of his The Abolition of Man (1943), Lewis, consciously borrowing from Plato, described the human type fostered by some trends in modern education as "men without chests." He meant men without thumos, beings in which reason and desires face each other but can't interact. In such beings, reason reduces itself to science and technology; desires are left to themselves and can't undergo a process of refinement. The most sophisticated kind of reason becomes the slave of the rudest kind of desires. Understanding the thumos involves doing justice to man as such, for animals have desire, and computers some sort of reason. Understanding the political dimension of man enables us to understand the whole of man, man as a whole, unified by thumos.

Remi Brague

Paris, France

Harvey C. Mansfield rightly seeks to remind his fellow political scientists that politics is not strictly reducible, in the language of social science, to preferences. A preference suggests a momentary or fleeting interest, a convenient desire that can change as circumstance, time, or place may demand. Mansfield rightly reminds us that politics is about deeper and more fundamental human motivations that liberal democracy has difficulty accounting for, ones that cause us to strive for honor, glory, and victory. These goals cannot be reduced to a set of mere "preferences," and this contemporary liberal assumption in particular makes it difficult for our social scientists to begin to understand cultures-for example, the culture of Islam, not to mention significant aspects of our own--for which "honor" and "faith" are not mere "preferences."

Yet, in offering a corrective to the paucity of social-scientific analysis, I believe Mansfield goes too far: In effect, he reduces politics to affairs of thumos, or spiritedness. Politics, he writes, "is about who deserves to be more important"; it is "about what makes you angry"; it is "a series of victories and defeats"; it is about greatness and assertion...

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