A new Greek word: Thumos
and why so many wildly smart people are fucking up the world
Please be warned…this is a bit of a philosophical meandering inspired by Adam Neumann. The meandering bit is the part I’m warning you about.
I was talking to Liana (who works with me part-time and is just the best*) about the Netflix series WeCrashed, which chronicles the ultimate demise of the co-working space business WeWork. She flagged she’d also seen the series Super Pumped about Uber. I haven’t seen it. But she says the gist is same-same. White man gets all grandiose and just knows he’s accessed some incredible insight. This spawns attendant product and white man convinces himself and the world they are indeed the Messiah for creating said product (you, too, can be part of their insightful worldview if you buy into their word…and product!). Cut to final wash-up: Things end in tears.
“What is it with these people?” said Liana. “How do they get to do this?”
I don’t like to let a question go unanswered and so I reflected on it as I drove my campervan up the freeway for four hours yesterday (I’m currently camping my way around Portugal. Check out my Instagram to follow along or become a paid subscriber).
It is truly one of the incredible things about the human experience that we are able to access a Bigness, a vaster reality beyond ourselves that can’t be (always) pointed to or touched or rationalised with the brain. We just know intuitively, at a spiritual level, we are part of a Oneness, an original source, a divine logic that is as big as eternity. We know there is more and we want to know it.. more. And to be more. Even if none of it can be touched, seen, heard, smelt, rationalised at first (although invariably our clunky rational brains catch up and prove relativity and black holes and such things).
We could call it spiritual intelligence.
The Ancient Greeks called it thumos.
Thumos is the capacity to feel the vitality and bigness of life beyond our little, “small i” selves, and the desire for recognition in this. Plato explained that thumos sees us experience passionate desires, a yearning for what is good; it’s a hero’s love of glory, the sage’s search for wisdom. Thumos is not about security and comfort (far from it). It’s a yearning for extension and hardship and self-sacrifice as a marker of what matters. Pain leads to gain.
I get it. Anyone with bipolar disorder, I think, feels thumos at triple voltage. Mania is a wild reaching out to the bigger goodness, to a perfection that is out of reach but we feel can at least be touched if we fly high enough. In my wildest manias I sense it is my role in life to touch this vast goodness and report back when I land back to earth. I don’t care about the pain. The pain is part of it. It’s completely and embarrassingly grandiose, but I do console myself that it is guided by, um, something resembling a tilting to goodness.
But we all get it, right? We reach, ache, yearn for more, and will go through all kinds of pain to attain it. We go through childbirth to reproduce our genes. We hike great mountains to experience vastness. We work for centuries to build churches to access awe. We love another (painful!) to extend ourselves. We choose inordinate pain to know the more that we spiritually intuit to be out there.
But thumos can turn things really ugly when not guided correctly.
Yep, this kind of grandiosity needs spiritual or moral guidance. In previous eras those who could access thumos (at double or triple voltage) were often taken in by the church or philosophical realms and taught to refine their fervour.
But today we don’t have spiritual or philosophical guides, do we.
And so the Adam Neumanns and Travis Kalanicks of the world are doing thumos like a massive coke high. All ego, no responsibility.
As I write in This One Wild and Precious Life, these “moral umpires in the footy game of life” have been kicked out off the field by neoliberalism. And so thumos can run amok. And the Modern Messiahs can justify vile behaviour and abuse of others to reach goals that are morally suspect. They put others through pain to access the more.
I’ve been reading about Francis Fukuyama’s take on it all. He argues that a vacuum of meaning exists in neoliberalism’s consumptive life of security and plenty and, thusly, thumos can present in violent and perverse ways. Think Trump, and those white, male messiahs spruiking co-share offices and online transport services and screwing everyone in the process.
A yearning to know the magnanimous nature of the universe, to be part of the love that connects the atoms, to express it all generously, to be more to all…turns into megalomania in a throwback of a tequila shot.
OK. I have gone off on a bit of an overheated philosophical tangent here. It’s currently 36C where I sit.
I’m delving into all this as part of my “next writing project” (which is still being researched and toyed with).
But a theme that is emerging is the desperate need for spiritual guidance in today’s world. There are big themes building around us, mostly of an existential nature: The potential of AI to eat us up; the destruction of our big, vast habitat (Earth); biotechnology (whereby a simple advance in the hands of a mad Modern Messiah could wipe us all out); etc.
All these themes are spiritual in nature in that they are vaster than the abilities of our clumpy, slow rational brains.
So, we need to start honouring the spiritual, to get comfortable with spiritual language again, so that we can access the spiritual intelligence (thumos) required to grapple with these issues.
Coke highs won’t cut it.
Also for context…
A picture of the church in Coimbra that has been converted into a bar and cafe in which I wrote this post.
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*Liana and I have worked together for over a year and have never met! She was in Melbourne, then moved to Queensland, and Covid restrictions followed her. Then she had a baby. Then I came here.