The Politics of Spiritedness
On Plato’s answer to the Trump question.
To the many paradoxes surrounding the improbable political career of Donald Trump, we may add the following: we can only understand Trump, the most recent major development in American politics, by turning to the oldest tools of political analysis that our civilization offers. To get the full picture of what is happening today, we have to go back to the roots of political science, to the ancient Greeks and their view of politics and human nature.
Most people don’t think of Plato when they think of Donald Trump, but they should. Our usual forms of political analysis—both the more rigorous, like academic political science, and the more popular, like the conventional wisdom of political journalists and commentators—utterly failed to come to grips with the Trump phenomenon. They did not predict his success as a presidential candidate. To the contrary, they confidently, repeatedly, and erroneously predicted his failure.
The purveyors of contemporary political insight have done no better with Trump as president. They assured the country—and themselves—that a Trump presidency would be a disaster. Yet Trump has succeeded in doing much of what he set out to do, has held the base of supporters who got him elected in the first place, and therefore can plausibly contend for re-election in 2020. Trump is an important and persistent political phenomenon that our political experts have failed to understand. We are accordingly forced to wonder: if the most up-to-date political commentary cannot help us here, why not turn to the oldest and most venerable?
According to the ancient Greeks, if we want to understand human nature and the nature of politics, we have to understand what they called thumos, or spiritedness. The idea of spiritedness is essential to understanding not only Trump himself, both as a man and as a political leader, but also the reactions he provokes among his fellow Americans—both his appeal to some and the revulsion he inspires in others. Moreover, a reconsideration of thumos is necessary not only to understand the present moment, but also to provide for the future of our country, because a proper appeal to spiritedness is necessary for any conservatism that can hope to be a constructive force in American politics.
Although thumos was a concern of all the great Greek political thinkers, the classic exposition of it is found in Plato’s Republic. In that work, Plato depicts Socrates leading several young companions in a philosophic quest for knowledge of justice. The success of this quest, it turns out, requires knowledge of the human soul. According to the Republic’s famous psychology, the soul is composed of three distinct elements: desire, reason, and spiritedness.
As Plato refines his account of the soul, it turns out that each part, in fact, has its own characteristic desire. It was a mere intellectual shorthand—useful at first, but in the end somewhat misleading—to define thumos and reason in opposition to desire, since thumos and reason also have their own proper longings. According to this sharpened account of the soul, then, the so-called desiring part is revealed to be specifically concerned with the desires of the body. It yearns for the pleasures of food, drink, sleep, and sex. Reason longs for wisdom, for knowledge of the way things are, sought for the pure delight found in understanding. Finally, thumos longs for honor or distinction.
According to the Republic, these parts of the soul are all present, and these desires of the soul all active, in every human being—but not equally so. Different parts tend to dominate in different people. The Republic suggests a hierarchy of dignity and of rarity. Most people are dominated by their bodily desires. These are the lovers of pleasure in the crudest sense, and also the lovers of gain. They love money, and exert themselves in the pursuit of it, because money is the instrument for the satisfaction of bodily desire. A few—those in whom thumos or spiritedness predominates—are lovers of honor. They compete for dominance and fame, especially in politics. And the very few—the tiny but precious minority of truly healthy and just souls—are ruled by reason and so organize their lives around the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake. Thus Plato’s account of the soul gives us an elementary account of the kinds of souls we commonly encounter in life. His political psychology is the basis of a simple, but very useful, political sociology.
Plato’s presentation of the soul illuminates important things that are often overlooked by modern accounts of politics. Put simply, modern political thought is preoccupied with the idea of equality. It insists that all human beings must be accorded the same rights, and it is therefore inclined to think of all human beings as pretty much the same. Of course, there is much truth in this view. There can be no sound theory of politics without some understanding of human nature, which presupposes that human beings are all the same in some important respects. And there could be no decent or just practice of politics that eschews the idea that all human beings possess certain inalienable rights that must be respected.
Nevertheless, we should not let our proper commitment to a certain kind of equality blind us to the important differences of soul about which Plato teaches. We often tell ourselves that all human beings basically want the same things. But Plato reminds us that this claim is reductionist and untrue. People are not all the same. They are differentiated by their loves. Most, with bodily desire uppermost in their minds, seek economic security before all else. But there are some—the spirited, the “thumotic”—for whom a life of bodily pleasures alone would be empty, who instead crave honor and victory as the essential goods in life. And politics, even in democracies, is influenced as much by the spirited few as by the desiring many, for the former have a vehemence of soul and energy of action that outweigh their lack of numbers.
This brings us back to Donald Trump, a preeminently thumotic being, far more spirited than the average person and even than the typical politician. This should be evident even from Trump’s pre-political career. Trump loves his buildings primarily not as valuable assets, but as expressions of his consequence. That is why his name is so prominently displayed on them. His thumotic character reveals itself no less vividly in his approach to politics. He is famously, even uniquely, combative. This is part of what distinguishes him from more conventional (and more boring) conservatives like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Typical American politicians tend to be rather passive-aggressive towards their competitors, taking veiled shots and making oblique criticisms. With Trump, in stark contrast, there is no passivity and far more aggression.
Moreover, the dominant themes of Trump’s political rhetoric make a straightforward appeal to spiritedness’s concern with honor and victory. What’s it all about? Winning! And when Trump turns from the positive to the negative and finds it necessary to condemn, he does not merely find conditions to be unsatisfactory or his opponents’ actions ill-considered. They are, rather, “a disgrace.”
Spiritedness is the key to understanding not only Trump himself but also his relationship to his supporters and thus his political effectiveness. To see this, we must further clarify the character of spiritedness and its role in the lives even of ordinary people. In the first place, it is a mistake to think that spiritedness is an entirely selfish passion. It is instead bound up with our natural sociability and with what the ancient Greeks recognized as the very powerful “love of one’s own”—our often fierce dedication to those to whom we are somehow particularly attached. Thus spiritedness comes to the defense of not only one’s own honor but also the honor of those with whom we share some identity.
In the second place, thumos, as one of the parts of the human soul, is active in everybody, even in those for whom it is not the ruling element. Even the desiring many feel the movements of spiritedness, just not to the same degree as the thumotic few. Ordinary people may not crave great individual honors, but they demand a certain respect and resent being insulted—whether the respect or insult is directed at them personally or at the groups to which they belong.
A foundation, then, of Trump’s political success—of his movement’s remarkable durability and resiliency—is the interplay between his extraordinary thumos and the more commonplace spiritedness of his supporters. In some respects, the effect is rather obvious. Trump’s supporters feel that they were on the losing end of the political battle for too long, and they believe that this was due in part to the weakness and complacency of their leaders. They therefore appreciate Trump’s combativeness. As many of them have commented: “He fights.” Indeed, Trump’s spirited nature shows itself in fighting relentlessly and faithfully. His sense of honor is such that he would regard it as weak and disgraceful to back down from positions to which he has repeatedly and vehemently committed himself as a politician. Accordingly, his supporters know that they can count on him, which fosters not only a calculated sense of loyalty but also spirited feelings of admiration and gratitude to him.
Trump’s supporters not only feel that they have needlessly lost many political battles, but that the dominant culture is coming to treat them as losers. In today’s political environment not only their interests but their own self-respect is on the line, and nothing could be better calculated to arouse their latent thumotic passions. Consider the effects of political correctness, which inevitably antagonizes the spiritedness of many Americans. It continually informs them that their opinions are not reputable, that they themselves are even “deplorable and irredeemable.” Trump, however, is America’s and perhaps the world’s most famous and vigorous violator of the norms of political correctness. Hence his supporters’ vicarious sense of relief, and even of exhilaration, at seeing Trump transgress those norms with impunity.
It is not, however, only Trump’s style that is spirited. The substance of Trumpism, too, both flows from Trump’s thumotic soul and calls to the thumos of his voters. Again, thumos shows itself in the love of one’s own. There is, accordingly, nothing more thumotic than patriotism. And Trump’s core appeal is all about patriotism.
This is evident first of all in Trump’s famous slogan: “Make America Great Again!” It is almost a work of genius in its ability to appeal both positively and negatively to spiritedness. On the positive side, it sets a goal of immediate thumotic interest: American greatness, American honor. At the same time, on the negative side, it tells us that this greatness has been lost and thus elicits a certain indignation towards those leaders who have squandered it.
Indeed, all of Trump’s core issues in the 2016 campaign—trade, immigration, and foreign policy—are designed to appeal to the spirited love of country felt by Americans. To be sure, Trump is careful to frame these issues in terms of economic interest as well. According to him, jobs have been lost to foolish trade policies, monetary costs have been incurred as a result of illegal immigration, and trillions of dollars have been wasted on unnecessary wars.
As we can also learn from Plato, however, people are generally not cynical about their interests. Such cynicism is precluded by spiritedness’s concern with honor. As a result, most people are selfishly attached to their own interests, but at the same time very much want to believe that the vindication of their interests is righteous. They are accordingly pleased to be reminded that the protection of their interests is also the protection of the national interest and even of the nation’s honor or self-respect. Trump is certainly not inclined to neglect this side of things, emphasizing that we will “proudly defend America at every single turn,” and that, under his leadership, “America will get the respect it deserves.” In this spirit, besides counting the economic costs of our wars, our past trade policy, and our failures of immigration enforcement, he emphasizes the damage these things have done to our national honor. They have, he claims, made America a laughingstock to the world.
Of course, the Trump phenomenon in American politics involves more than just Trump himself and his bond with his political supporters. There is also the remarkable fear and loathing that Trump inspires in his political rivals and their supporters. Here, too, attention to thumos is instructive. The spirited quality of Trump and Trumpism is a large part of the reason his enemies hate him so much.
The Left has a concern—a sincere and well-founded concern—with the role of thumos itself in politics. Generally speaking, the Left is more perfectly at home in the modern world than the Right is. This is not to say that conservatives are pre-modern or backward. But the Right is more inclined to look back on the past—and on the political and moral impulses of our pre-modern ancestors—with more affection, respect, and even reverence. That is just the turn of “the conservative mind.” Modernity, however, is in some respects a rebellion against thumos, or at least an effort to keep thumos as much as possible out of politics and channel it into other pursuits. This was a key concern of early modern political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the Baron de Montesquieu, whose thought laid the groundwork for the liberal, rights-based political orders that have come to dominate the modern West.
For present purposes, the issue can be stated simply. Political modernity is an effort to establish and safeguard peace and equality. These are the great aspirations of modern political thought and the venerated goals of modern political regimes. Yet thumos can be a threat to both. As Plato observed—and as Hobbes also well understood—when spiritedness is aroused, men will fight even if it means harming their own material interests, even if it means risking their own lives. And thumos yearns for honor, for distinction, for elevation. Thus it can be hard to find a satisfactory place for it in a regime that emphasizes the fundamental equality of all of its members.
These two factors—modernity’s general distrust of thumos, combined with conservatism’s greater openness to the past and hence to the pre-modern—explains why, although both the conventional Left and Right have found Trumpism to be a baffling and alarming phenomenon, the Left especially tends to view it as an unacceptable throwback to times and impulses that they very much wanted to believe were dead and buried. Conservatives, with their minds partly rooted in the past, can find something redeeming about it. To them, it is a crude and extreme form of a trait that our pre-modern ancestors valued as necessary and admired as virtuous: manliness in defense of one’s own honor and the honor of one’s own people. The Left, however, can only view it as the worst, most retrograde form of “toxic masculinity.”
There is a similar disconnect between conservatives and liberals when confronted with the political substance of Trumpism. For the Right, Trump’s calls to uphold the interests and the honor of the nation sound like old-fashioned (and therefore perfectly respectable) patriotism. To the Left, however, this kind of thumo-politics is a dangerous atavism. Hence the liberal claims that Trump represents an extreme nationalism that threatens the modern, cosmopolitan, liberal order that the West has spent generations trying to build.
Here the Left has a point. Thumos is politically dangerous. The early modern political philosophers had good reason to view it with suspicion. After all, what caused the wars of religion if not the spirited attachment of both rulers and subjects to the belief that their own sect possessed the true interpretation of the faith? What besides thumos would lead men to sacrifice money, comfort, and even life in order to defend the religious ideas to which their communities were attached? Moreover, we need only look to the grim history of the twentieth century to reveal fully the terrible, destructive potential of the thumotic impulse. What, after all, were Fascism and Nazism but expressions of political spiritedness taken to the most dangerous possible extreme, willing to disregard universal standards of justice for the sake of national glory, and even willing to entertain the insane idea that one’s own people could legitimately consider itself a “master race”?
Although the Left has a point about the dangerousness of thumos, the Right should nevertheless reject the Left’s calls to repudiate thumo-politics entirely. This does not mean that conservatives must be uncritically supportive of Trump. But it does mean that conservatives should recognize that the spirited passions to which Trump appeals are necessary to any successful and constructive political movement of the Right.
In the first place, political thumos is a key part of the American political tradition, the preservation of which is American conservatism’s primary task. The American Founders understood that it had an important role to play in the life of our nation. A lively spiritedness, they saw, was an essential component in the souls of those who could successfully lead a great nation—even a modern nation committed to equality of rights.
Among the Founders, practically everybody understood that George Washington’s almost superhuman rectitude was necessary to the country’s survival, and that his sense of integrity was inextricably bound up with his spirited sense of honor and of his own personal dignity. And the Founders further understood that thumotic leaders would be necessary not only to secure the nation’s independence at the beginning, but also to care for its interests once it was securely founded. As Alexander Hamilton teaches in Federalist 72, the presidency is designed to induce statesmen to do good for the community by appealing to their spirited desires—specifically, to the “love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds,” which can “prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit.”
Moreover, the Founders saw that thumos was essential to the country’s proper self-understanding, and that therefore spiritedness should be at work not only in lofty statesmen but also in the souls of ordinary Americans. When Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist in defense of the new Constitution, they addressed themselves to the general run of citizens. They emphasized that the new, more effective national government was necessary not only to the country’s safety but also to its self-respect. Hamilton complained that the ineffective Articles of Confederation had brought America to “the last stage of national humiliation.” Thus, he continued, by ratifying the new Constitution Americans would be taking “a firm stand” not only for their “safety” and “tranquility,” but also for their “dignity” and “reputation” as a nation.
The Founders warned repeatedly of the “usurping” character of government power. This is as much as to say that government, which is instituted to protect the rights of individuals, cannot help but be an ongoing threat to those rights as well. Keeping government at bay requires that citizens display a certain spiritedness in defense of their rights, that they be willing to push back aggressively at any effort to curtail their liberties. As James Madison observed in Federalist 57, in America liberty is protected not only by institutional checks and balances but also by “the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.”
American republicanism stands not only for the protection of individual rights, but also for the right of the people as a whole to govern. Majoritarian self-government must be kept within constitutional limits, but within those limits the majority has a right to decide the great issues that come before the nation, and it takes a certain spiritedness for the people to insist on their right to decide. Thumos, then, properly trained and directed, is as American as independence, individual rights, and self-government. Conservatism could not abandon thumo-politics without abandoning the American political tradition.
Political conservatism, like any responsible political movement, must aspire to administer the government according to just principles that meet the needs of the country. That aim, however, requires that the movement first win elections. And winning elections requires an appeal to the voters’ entire souls—not only to their rational calculations about what is most just or expedient, and not only to their desires and the economic self-interest, but also to their thumotic sense of what is dignified and honorable for themselves and the country. This is why Trump the “thumocon” is a more effective politician than the “reformicon” intellectuals who preceded him in rethinking conservative priorities. It’s not that the reformicon policy prescriptions were necessarily wrong. It’s that they were entirely technocratic and therefore could not appeal to the spiritedness of ordinary voters.
Indeed, if conservatives were to eschew appeals to the spiritedness of Americans, they would be guilty not only of a kind of moral disarmament, but also of an exceptionally foolish unilateral disarmament. Although liberals may be sincere in their concerns about the political dangers associated with thumos, appeals to it are, in fact, a routine tool by which the Left motivates its own voters.
This is most obvious in the case of identity politics, which involves a straightforward appeal to voters’ spirited concern with the status—and with the allegedly injured honor or dignity—of the various groups with which they identify. Here we clearly encounter thumos as “love of one’s own”—but where “one’s own” is now defined in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, or sexual preference. And since hardly anybody in America can seriously claim to be materially deprived, identity politics focuses not on the bodily desires but on spirited complaints about the lack of recognition or relative lack of power that such groups must endure.
The role of thumos is less obvious, but no less important, in the older but still active strand of left-wing utopianism. The spirited character of the Left’s utopianism is revealed most clearly in its most extreme case: twentieth-century Communism. The egalitarianism and universalism of the Communists only obscured the role of thumos in their movement, without eliminating it. After all, the Communists viewed themselves as a vanguard doing the heroic work of ushering in a utopia that was not yet understood by ordinary people. Thus did their ideology appeal to their spirited desire for superiority over others and to be comrades in a righteous cause. Moreover, although the Communists sought a universal egalitarianism, they framed the pursuit of this goal in terms of a struggle against a class enemy, the capitalists or the bourgeoisie, who would have to be destroyed.
The same thing, in a less extreme but still potent form, is at work in the American Left today. It understands politics as a quest for perfect justice, one in which they are on “the right side of history” and their “deplorable” and “irredeemable” opponents are not. Their spiritedness thrills at the thought that history will deliver them definitive and final victory over the retrograde forces that they disdain. Indeed, could anything be more transparently thumotic than left-wing activists’ desire to understand themselves as “social justice warriors”?
The obvious problem with the Left’s thumo-politics is that it is destructive of the country, which conservatives are rightly determined to try to preserve. Identity politics is a principle of division and disintegration, actively encouraging some groups of Americans to nurse an irremediable sense of grievance and resentment against other groups of Americans and America more generally. There is no way that can end well. The thumotic utopianism of the Left would transform America into something radically different than it has ever been, and it would fail, as utopian projects always do. Thumos, as Plato teaches us, is a natural human propensity. It is not inherently evil, although it can, like any other human impulse, be turned to evil. The task of responsible conservative statesmanship is not to repudiate thumos because of the dangers that naturally attend it, but to avoid those dangers by finding something constructive for it to do. The most obvious constructive political task of thumos is a defense of our country and its traditional way of life. This task is dignified enough to appeal to the thumotic sense of honor and love of one’s own, but also limited enough to keep thumos within reasonable bounds. Here thumos can be invoked in support of intelligible standards and a time-tested way of life. This is in reality a far safer and more responsible use of thumos than we find in the disintegrative and transformative schemes of the Left.
Leaving aside his pugilistic personality, this is what Donald Trump is up to. This is the lesson that conservatives should learn from him, and the task that they should carry forward after his presidency is over.
Published by New Criterion.