The Politics of Thymos


How does one write about a former teacher? It's hard, because my respect and affection for Harvey C. Mansfield is immeasurable. One thing I'd say, though, is that his lectures are designed to be provocative and fun. I attended scores at Harvard and taught for him, so I'm aware that much is sometimes lost in translation. His thought is often designed to shock people into a deeper understanding of the world, as his mentor Machiavelli did. And as Mansfield has grown older, I sense more of old Nick's influence than one of his early interests, Burke. Harvey is also absolutely right, moreover, to disdain the rationalist and quantitative approach to political matters now so dominant in the school of political science. He's right, as well, to identify thymos as a vastly under-rated human impulse behind all politics. Perhaps in his attempt to remind people of this phenomenon, he has slighted the fact that liberal constitutionalism was designed to control and check exactly thymos - not by ignoring it, but by pitting the thymos of some against the thymos of others. At least that is what Harvey taught me about liberal constitutionalism in grad school.

One insight that this Washington Post piece highlights is worth underlining. Harvey understood the civil rights movement as motivated by thymos ...

By thymos, he means the urge to be respected, to be awarded dignity and standing as human beings - and particularly as men (that's his manliness point). The pursuit of justice is not, in other words, a completely altruistic thing. It is also about social standing and honor. When I examine my own passion for gay equality, for example, I realize that I have indeed made logical arguments but I'm also fighting for the right not to be dissed. It's pride that has motivated my politics - personal pride as well as communal pride. Part of the gay rights movement is about gay men demanding to be treated like men. That impulse is thymos. And without it, no campaign for justice would ever start, let alone succeed.