It seems domestic politics always end in hostile impasses and international politics are charged with menacing acts of terror and revenge. These sociopolitical phenomena are symptoms of a fundamental rage, and revenge is the project of rage. If we cannot understand and address our rage, our age is doomed. It is odd that we haven’t really analyzed the emotion of rage to the extent that we’ve paid heed to others like love, sympathy, anguish or guilt. I find this odd, because rage is the most obvious driving force in psychopolitical realm – be it at the personal or national or international level. Perhaps we ignore the vengeful aspect of the political life because it is by definition anti-rational and anti-egalitarian. Whenever we are angry about something, we will not care for equal treatment or reasoning towards mutual understanding. Therefore, rage undermines any attempt at a normative political theory.
But I am interested in the possibility of a viable theoretical model that includes the psychopolitical category of rage and its attendant concepts such as indignation, wrath, and anger. Plato pointed out that a political system that could successfully balance the receptive or accumulative erotic on one hand and the giving or explosive “thymotic” dimension of communal life on the other hand would lead to a just society.
In Peter Sloterdijk’s Zorn und Zeit, (Rage and Time) the history of civilization, as well as contemporary political development is reinterpreted as the attempt to balance between the vengeful and sympathetic dimensions of social interaction. While his book proposed rage as a central psychopolitical category, I am interested in analyzing whether this proposal can be extended as a political theory that works empirically and philosophically. In other words, a political system that cares for the weakest members without vengeance is empty, whereas rage without a utopian motive is blind.
Rehabilitating rage as a political concept seems counter-intuitive, especially after the toxic 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s pretty obvious that rage only destroys rather than create, much less cultivate an environment in which people can flourish. But nothing is too profane for philosophy, and especially not that powerful force the ancient Greek defined as “thymos.”
In order to take rage seriously, we must reconsider our modern conceptions of society, self, and justice in thymotic terms. And to do that, we must give up the three traditional ways of political and social theorizing. One, we need to avoid from proposing an idealized theory of the Good or the Just or the virtues, and the like. Instead of trying to divide the transcendental wheat from the pathological chaff, such spic and span distinctions are questionable when it comes to the complexity and ambivalence of emotions and expressions in political life. Two, much like the previous criticism, the attention paid to the concept of rage is necessary for the reinterpretation and improved understanding of recent historical developments from a global perspective. Global terrorism, the war on terror, the fear of refugees, the general distrust and paranoia marks the return of history, and more particularly, the return of rage as a political emotion. They require a different form of political theory, at least more adept than the tired and expired proposals of cosmopolitanism and rights or justice-centered accounts. Three, the development of a viable alternative to current idealizing political theories require a serious consideration of reorienting the theoretical foundations of the left. Rage and Time is the attempt to accept and propose the overcoming of the exhaustion of the left. Political theory is taken as a critical tool intended to take an active part in political reality rather than a passive role of reflection. The political theory centered on the notion of thymos reinterpreted recent political history according to the notions of violated honor and claims to translate these violations into rage dynamics. Instead of a realist interpretation of recent history, thymotics engage in a philosophical theory that uses insight into thymotic dynamic to propose a political economy of “balancing acts.” Instead of the current manifestation of the rage of losers, the goal is a rage independent of resentment, a rage that succeeds in balancing between Eros and thymos.
Modern psychoanalysis has successfully sounded the depth of the soul beneath consciousness, but in its myopia, it has reduced thymos to ores. Rather than a byproduct of erotic energy, thymos is fundamental. Rage has been there in our literature from the very beginning. The first word of Europe was the Rage of Achilles in the Iliad, which opened with the following words:
Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus.
Our heroes were “guardians of rage” in which the ancient heroes and gods raged. Therefore the secret of our literature, and culture as well, lie within the understanding of rage. But the world of the Homeric epic is so distant that it takes on an alien nature. The moral valorization of war and heroic struggle as the definite exemplar of the meaning of life is found only in the entertainment industry.
St. Augustine followed Aristotle in defining rage as inherently aiming at revenge. According to Christian dogma, rage, or technically, wrath, was a species of the seven deadly sins. Instead of heeding the call for immediate payback for injur’d merit as the judge and executioner, post-heroic citizens trusted the authority of the rule of law, the courts, the police, and the prison system. This relegation of authority of violent payback to the state has resulted in a pacified civil society where thymotic impulses are tolerated only in peaceful competition within a heavily eroticized market that became largely dependent on illusion. Freud suggested in Civilization and its Discontents that the excess of rage is sublimated by cultural means. We enlightened connoisseurs are conditioned to compensate our thymotic urges peacefully, through the consumption of the arts as well as sports. Dancing to a concert or watching the NBA playoffs, going to the museum or playing video games like Mass Effect is little more than symbolic enactment of a culturally forbidden act of taming one’s own thymos.
The ancients ascribed the spirited state of mind a transcendental state that exceeded the human. They thought that by participating in the affect of rage, they got as close as possible to the divine world of the gods. According to their moral cosmology, elevation takes place once a person identified themselves and followed the flow of extreme affects. The emotional metaphysics allowed for a participation in a reality where the self was transformed by exhibiting higher values than those of average mortals in everyday life. Before we moderns determined ourselves to be the master of our emotions, it was not the “human beings who have their passions, but rather it is the passions that have their human beings.” (The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life, p. 227)
In the fourth book of the Republic, Plato argued that the human soul consisted of three parts: reason (nous), appetite (epithymia), and thymos – often translated as “spiritedness,” – the part of the soul that contains pride, the need for recognition, and courage. When pride and recognition is neglected, the thymotic part of the soul reacts with spirited emotions that range from shame to rage. Hurt thymos triggers the struggle for recognition. Although this part of the soul is different from reason, it isn’t reducible to the corruptive appetite of physical desire. “In the soul, the spirited is a third part, by nature the helper of reason, if it has not been corrupted by bad upbringing.” (Republic, Book IV) The thymotic part of our soul responds to suffering from injustice, whether it is our own or those of others. Since one can be angry without being guided by reason in acting on that anger, it does not belong to reason. In some situations, thymos is neither a potential auxiliary of reason, nor a form of recklessness, because it settles conflicts between reason and desire. Thymos is a second-order desire that helps reason to suppress foolish desires when reason by itself is impotent.
Since the ancients considered thymos as inherently ambivalent, mainstream theorists treated it as a worthless inheritance in their focus on positive or ideal norms and more attractive erotic emotions. Interestingly, in the thymotic urge, both selfishness and selflessness are integrated. When a person thinks he or she isn’t being taken seriously, or when his or her honor has been violated, they respond vehemently. He or she isn’t about equality or respect of others. Instead, he/she feels misrecognized in their particular claims. Whenever a person is offended and made to feel like they’re worth less than their self-worth, they become angry.
Interestingly, being angry isn’t based on particular claims about the satisfaction of their egoistic desires. As an innate, affective sense of justice, thymos allows the person to see past his petty concerns for pleasure, often towards violence and tragic failure. This is why Plato in the end eliminated the ambivalence of thymos. If reason, appetite, and thymotic spiritedness were harmonized in which both thymos and appetite were beholden to reason, then we will live a life of justice, temperance, and happiness.
But it is no longer possible to transplant Plato’s ancient psychology to today. The tripartite division of the soul, where reason holds the highest division, is based on a psychogeographical map of an ideal city where reason is manifest as the philosopher king, appetite as the working class, and spiritedness as the warriors. Despite this obvious problematic, a reconsideration of the dynamics of the thymotic part of our selves may be useful to decipher the dynamics of current social life.
Sloterdijk emphasized the complexity that make up our political and social life by reviving the ancient Platonic theory of a thymotic force influencing our action – a force independent of reason or desire. The integrated nature of claims for honor and recognition on one hand, and acts of rage and revenge following the violation of these claims on the other hand, accounts for an ethical as well as historical dynamic that cannot be analyzed appropriately without taking seriously the ambivalence of thymos. We lack adequate conceptual apparatus designed for this complexity.
By contrast, contemporary society has demoted our spirit and its rage to political incorrectness, or cynically exploited it in unfortunate and destructive ways. The modern distrust of thymotic actions may be partially explained by an increasingly sophisticated abstraction and the institutionalization of legal systems. Thinkers like Confucius, Aristotle, Epicurus, Schiller, Schopenhauer, even contemporary self-help gurus or care ethicists all claim the same thing – our emotions are foundational for any true ethical theory. Contrary to formalist or over-intellecutalized accounts of morality, without the right emotion there is no action at all.
It is more likely that the political or philosophical theorists’ excessive focus on what appeared to be good or pacific and healthy emotions such as compassion, empathy and love led to the suspicion of thymotic affects. They overlooked such emotions or disparaged them as derivative or privations of the good emotions. Thymotic impulses have been dismissed and stigmatized as relics of pre-enlightened or archaic forms of development – primarily male – something we are always at risk of devolving back into if we don’t watch ourselves.
Despite the danger of undesirable consequences rage may bring about, we should avoid privileging the erotic over thymotic effects. Rage is indeed an appropriate response to injustice and social wrongdoing. It can be more than just a force of cathartic purification from holding a grudge and reestablish sovereignty, for it can be a chief tool for creating justice and gaining power of the oppressed. Neither the French Revolution nor the recent emancipatory movements such as the Civil Rights movement, or feminism, or environmentalism would have been possible without their distinct forms of rage. Rage becomes an emancipatory force that not only exposes violations, but also bring about an engagement to correct them as long it is supported by justified indignation. Whenever rage is not just a reactive response triggered by envy or resentment, it is productive. And in extreme situations, the courage of thymos commits the person to risk his or her life for higher causes greater than his or her own affairs or interests. Moreover, the logic of rage rests on an implicit egalitarian assumption in which when we become angry at someone, we already recognize that someone as an equal who violated a morally sanctioned law and has become an antagonist. On the other hand, with inferiors we only become disdainful or annoyed or irritated, but never angry, and with superiors we remain afraid until anger builds and triggers a confrontation.
Rage isn’t an accidental affect, but rather indicative of our existential condition. Moreover, society, not just the self, must be reconsidered in thymotic terms. Political states are “thymotic unities,” best analyzed in terms of tensions of spirit, often resulting in rage. Revolution, for instance, is a rage bank, in which rage is stored up as capital. Lenin and Mao were the “most successful entrepreneurs of rage,” for they propagated pure negativity designed to produce revolution, “a day of mass rage.” The 20th century became the “big business of rage,” thanks to Lenin.
Religion, too, has been an instrument of rage, a “metaphysical rage bank,” in which God was the “king of rage.” All major religions create narratives of their predicament that draw interest in their rage banks. Christians, Jews, Muslims all have been persecuted unfairly, and therefore they deserve to rage, inasmuch their God has raged, against their persecutors. In the post-heroic age, the virtues of restraint and deliberation has replaced the virtues of forceful action. If culture is a memory bank in which the person accumulates traumatic memories of suffering moral slights or insults or humiliations, then strategies are required to deal with this stored memory. One such strategy is the Christian of “forgiving but not forgetting,” where the benevolent God of the New Testament replaced the God of Wrath from the Old Testament. It’s not up to us to settle scores, because it’s God’s business come the Day of Judgment. The Christian commandment of turning the other cheek is a prohibition of revenge and a commitment to the apocalyptic vision of history where justice is inevitable, and rage is transferred until the End of Times.
Another strategy is to replace God with humanity as the judge – the political party, a tyrant, or a movement. Christian political theology is superimposed by a theological politics in which radical movements on either the left or the right proclaim a monopoly on managing rage and channeling revenge.
Thymotics is the technology of channeling stored thymos for political purposes. Social institutions, and self-therapeutic ideas of Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity cultivated and redirected stored energies through meditation, retreat, and forgiveness so they wouldn’t erupt violently. Since modern secularization has mitigated the world religions and socialism has disappeared as a viable political alternative, we are stuck in a position where thymotic energies are now available for use. If they aren’t exploited by the war on terror or absorbed by the erotic lures of consumerism and the return to religions, then we must channel them in more meaningful political ways.
For Sloterdijk, the history of civilization according to rage breaks away from the fundamental assumption of liberal politics in that his model of rage starts from the perspective of groups rather than of individuals. Plato and Marx both also recognized that people want more than just their honor and dignity recognized, they also want the recognition of their group affiliations. If a group thought it was not getting enough recognition, it found a way to make itself heard. Instead of individuals with desires or wishes, Sloterdijk pays attention to groups and organization within parties where emotions are acquired, stored, traded, and on occasion, released. He uses allegories like “world bank of rage,” “thymos monopolies” and “thymotic dividends” to explain the accumulation and dispersal of rage quanta. In a capitalist system, greed-dynamics characterize the erotically charged forms of life in which everyone is promised overcompensation without being possible. This vaporous promise replaces the traditional promise of being rewarded for one’s effort. Whosoever was excluded from the benefits of overcompensation promise nurtured an increasingly dangerous army of the discontented.
Honor and dignity make up a politically explosive situation. But this situation is also a potential progressive means of transformation. Right now, progressive parties are not agencies that properly invest rage to harvest true emancipatory results. Neither parties on either side is capable of transforming the stored thymotic energies into the courage of becoming politically active. When violent explosions occur, there is no political technique, no rage agency available to channel them into lucrative political projects. Occupy Wall Street in 2011 comes to mind.
Who is willing to be the Cassandra to prophesy a future of thymotic catastrophe? Will the New Leftist movements find ways of engaging in potentially rage agendas and utilize them to productive ends? Unfortunately, Sloterdijk offers little by way of solutions: instead of a new progressive movement with untold potential, he proposes localized practices and trust in established civilized process that cannot be brought about by short-term activism. It remains to be seen how their thymotic and erotic appeal can stay balanced. This reformist position is more likely to suffocate productive rage than harness it for the best causes.
Instead of blind unconditional trust in civilization, the reasons for rage today is plentiful:
* The growing gap between the rich and the poor.
* New forms of social exclusion and oppression emerge every day.
* Increasing feelings of social and political impotence subvert participation in a democratic society.
* Permanent damage to the global ecosystem.
Nobody really believes in large scale rage projects after the grand narrative and their grand scapegoats – be it capitalists, communists, Jews, Muslims – have all vanished. The abject failure of capitalism isn’t the fault of any particular individual. A global financial crisis hides its specific causes and responsibility does not belong to specific actors. Regardless, the increasing anxiety between the erotic promise of overcompensation and the thymotic indignation stem from the failure of realizing this promise for the majority of the population is the source of new rage agencies. Instead of traditional parties, they will be international grassroots movements with a common feeling of indignation and a shared vision.
To be free of resentment, these movements must contain a utopian vision where a world will no longer have systematic causes for suffering from injustice. The thymotic process is Janus-faced – it looks backwards and forwards at the same time. Prophets of emancipation must draw on both indignation as well as hope, provide a link between an unjust world and a world that is slightly less unjust.