Biographies & Memoirs


The Man of Spirit

Why the trio? On the face of it we might make do with reason and desire. Most modern attempts to represent behaviour do so, supposing that desire or preference determine what we aim at, while reason determines our awareness of what is around us and therefore our capacity to fulfil our desires. In this picture ‘reason’ is far from sovereign. As David Hume famously put it:

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.1

On this scheme what we incorrectly call a battle between reason and passion is in fact a battle between two rather different passions, such as a calm desire for good reputation against a hot desire for revenge or a spasm of lust. Nor can desires themselves properly be criticized as ‘unreasonable’, except in the sense either that they depend upon mistaken beliefs, or coincide with mistaken beliefs about what is needed for their fulfilment. In either case it is, properly speaking, the beliefs that are unreasonable.

This scheme leaves plenty of room, however, for desires or passions to attract criticism on other grounds. They may be imprudent, or excessive, or misdirected, immature, hurtful, unimaginative, and best suppressed on all sorts of grounds. They may be actively malevolent, or bitter or twisted. According to Stoics and Buddhists, it would be better to have as few as possible. What desires and passions cannot be is true or false, and it is the province of reason to distinguish truth and falsity.

Hume’s scheme is not compulsory – indeed, it marks one of the most contested areas of contemporary moral theory. It certainly seems to mark a distinct rupture with Plato (and Aristotle), and Hume may have intended it to do so. But Plato’s own scheme is itself far from clear. For example, it is not very clear to what extent reason in Plato is itself partly a creature of passion – a kind of erotic passion belonging to those who have fallen in love with wisdom or to those who obtain adequate ideas of things. Down the centuries, the picture has often been complicated by the association between passions and ‘the body’, contrasted with more rarefied intellectual emotions lying in the mind, notably the intellectual love of God. That in turn is a phenomenon that simply must not admit of any partition into the intellectual bit and the love bit, since that would open the horrifying possibility of, on the one hand, understanding God and regarding him with amusement or contempt, or, on the other hand, properly loving God without grasping his nature at all. All in all, it is unwise to attempt any description of how Western thought has tried to relate reason and passion.

In any case Plato has quite other fish to fry when he advanced his tripartite scheme. His distinction between ‘spirit’ and appetite or desire, for instance, works largely to signal different pathologies of the soul, or different ways in which people can fail to be well ordered.2

‘Spirit’, or thumos as Plato calls it, corresponds to those trusty assistants of the shepherd, the sheepdogs. They are the armed wing of government, there to give effect to the determinations of the elite. At least some of the time, Plato seems to have in mind a special kind of desire or passion, associated with pride or shame or amour-propre or honour – the kind of ‘spirit’ that just will not allow you to let yourself go, make a pig of yourself, succumb to this or that prick of desire. This is how it is described at Phaedrus, 253e, where the equation between the spirited horse and shame is explicit. It is also the way conflict arises within the poor creature Leontius, who had a quasi-sexual curiosity to gaze at recently executed corpses, and who was angry or disgusted with himself as a result of either possessing or indulging this shameful desire (IV, 439e). For Hume the question arises whether Leontius’s shame is not properly just another desire, the desire to conform to Locke’s law of fashion for example, or in other words to stand well in the eyes of others. Or, if it is not simply that, it may be a concern that has developed from that, such as Adam Smith’s ‘man within the breast’ who represents the voices of other people without. Or, it may be fear engendered by parental pressures in infancy. In that case a better architecture might be initially a simple dualism of reason and desire, and secondarily a division of desire into those that are connected with honour, including our sense of shame, and the others: appetites which may be good or bad, but whose strength and direction is in principle capable of being shameless, wayward and wanton.

In fact thumos is not simply a sense of shame. Its emblem is the lion to which it is explicitly compared in Book IX (588d), as much as the sheepdog. It has more to do with the psychology of the warrior-aristocrat, the jealousy of honour, and the desire for glory. The paradigm of the spirited man, in classical times, was the Achilles of Homer’s Iliad, the ultimate action-man, the embodiment of touchy honour and military heroism. At the opening of the book, Achilles’s honour is slighted by Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces. Achilles feels shamed in front of the army, so he withdraws and sulks, becoming useless to the Greek army. It is only when his bosom companion, Patroclus, gets himself killed by Hector that Achilles rouses himself. Achilles knows that if he slays Hector he will himself die shortly afterwards, and he regards death as dreadful – he is in love with life. But he chooses death and glory, running amok on the battlefield, killing Hector and desecrating his body, and en route committing the atrocity of sacrificing twelve Trojan prisoners on Patroclus’s funeral pyre. Achilles eventually gives up Hector’s body only when touched by the tears of Hector’s father, King Priam.

Achilles is a problem, as are lions. He is petulant, and his raw ferocity is about as likely to be directed against Agamemnon as against the enemy, and very nearly is so, while in the grip of his anger he commits unpardonable atrocities. He is intemperate and immoderate, doing everything to excess. Nevertheless he has glamour, that of the man of mettle or the hero. He is a permanent magnet to weaker spirits: Alexander the Great self-consciously adopted him as a role model, and Aryan ‘manliness’ was a preoccupation of Nazi ideology. No democratic politician dares to slight this glamour. Today one need only think of George W. Bush posturing on an aircraft carrier, or the people of California electing a cardboard action-man as their governor, or the universal tendency among British politicians to feign an interest in football. As an aside I should say that it is, however, a small mark of progress that while as late as 1964 the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark could talk of his Victorian predecessor John Ruskin as having an intellectual’s ‘girlish passion for soldiers’, the reference to girls now grates on us, and the allure is surely more likely today to enchant immature members of the male sex.3

In any case, Clark, and perhaps Ruskin, completely misunderstood Plato on the matter, imagining that he himself was captivated by the military regime of Sparta and using it as a model for his ideal republic. On the contrary, for Plato, someone like Achilles would be far from ideal, and his thumos is a problem. Plato wants his ferocity and his desire for glory to be curbed by calmer forces. It does not much matter whether we call these other forces ‘reason’ or long-term or civilized ‘desires’. They must include such things as loyalty, or concern for civil order, or proportion. Even Achilles’s estimate of death is wrong, for, as we later learn, the wise man will be unmoved by its terrors.

In The Art of Rhetoric Aristotle later captured the psychological profile of men of thumos that Plato is bothered about:

passionate, keen-tempered, carried away by anger and unable to control their thumos. For owing to their love of honour they cannot bear to be slighted, but become indignant if they think they are being wronged. However, though they love honour they love victory even more: for youth longs for superiority and victory is a kind of superiority... And they are more courageous, for they are full of thumos and hope, and the former quality prevents them from feeling fear while the latter gives them confidence... and they would rather perform noble actions than useful ones: for they live according to their habitual character rather than calculation, and calculation aims at the useful, while virtue aims at the noble... they do everything to excess; they love to excess, and they hate to excess, and everything else in the same way... They do wrong as a result of arrogance and overreaching rather than wickedness.4

Plato knows the allure of this character. Indeed, it will be part of his worry about the deleterious effect of drama and poetry that it is exactly this kind of character that makes for pleasurable drama. There are more stories about action-men than about philosophers, and they seduce more young people than sages ever do.

So Plato is far from celebrating the ideal of ‘manliness’. In fact, it is one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s gripes about him that his philosophy has a pale and sickly aspect, actively opposing the ‘will to power’, the struggle for ascendancy, the will of life itself.5 But Nietzsche simplified, since Plato does not oppose the presence of thumos in the soul. He wants it, but he wants it properly tamed. In particular he wants us to reconfigure our conception of courage, separating it from the raw will to power, the martial spirit and the desire for military glory. Courage is not an arrogant disposition to run amok, but something more like the steadfastness or fortitude that Socrates exhibits, a trait demanding above all the clear-sighted understanding of a situation and what it demands. Perhaps the most prominent signal of this is the celebrated gender equality of Republic. Women as well as men are capable of joining the ruling elite. Translated back into the well-ordered soul, this means that female virtue is identical with male virtue, and this itself drives a cleft between virtue and ‘manliness’.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!