Updated: Nov 6, 2020
by Paul A. Lee
On the Wings of Thymós
The plumage that was Plato’s is indicated by the name given to the group of those who followed Socrates-the fellowship of the swan. Philosophy, according to Socrates, is swan song, with one foot in the grave, meditating on finitude, mortality and having to die. This definition of philosophy based on the shock of non-being is juxtaposed against the imagery of Homer and the post-mortal fate of the eidolon or ‘shadows’ – ‘the after-images of used-up men’-where the dead are nothing because they are pure past. Socrates and Plato have another view of death’s illumination of life: the journey by chariot in the procession of the gods past the vision of being where ultimate concern for the perfect mysteries sustains one through the life to come by virtue of what is glimpsed.
We all want to remember it; deep in our souls this longing precedes our birth. Socrates knew this vision and told stories to illustrate it. Evoking a new dimension of our being through the myth is the purpose of the Socratic theology. It is the high artifice of Plato to sneak this vision into a playful dialogue about ‘disinterested’ love, something only Greeks with a philosophical bent would give panegyrics on, under the sway of empty and vain but wonderfully formalistic oratory. In this sense, the spoken word resounds through Plato even though he signifies the transition from oral to literate-the dialogues were written down! This wrench makes even the gods wince. Hence, as a result of the new literacy, a new theology, contemporaneous with the emergency of philosophical rationality. Old stories, retold by Socrates, with a very clear and long-lived historical intent; like the oracle at Delphi, Socrates reaches out with his voice for thousands of years.
‘On the wings of thymós’ is a good phrase for the emergence of literate consciousness. The transition from the oral transmission of culture to the textual or literate transmission makes Plato the key moment in this breakdown and new point of departure: Socratic consciousness at its finest hour. It is the movement from Homeric thymós to Socratic thymós and the development from thymós as ‘the adrenalin-produced emergency reaction of the sympathetic nervous system to novel situations …’[i]– to thymós as the unreflective striving toward what is noble transmuted into the courage to be-this is the heart of the Socratic theology.
The Phaedrus is as playful and as full of irony as any dialogue in Plato’s authorship. The dialogue begins badly, with the playful Socrates teasing Phaedrus into telling one of the worst scrambles found anywhere. To match the speech of Phaedrus, which is really his bad rendition of the speech of Lysias, Socrates has to cover his head in shame, the proposition to be debated is so fraught with error: It is better not to be in love with the beloved in order to serve the pleasures of the beloved with a so-called ‘disinterested’ intent. Socrates plays along and then realizes he had better offer a recantation and atonement. Love, of all human experiences, is not objective; hence, the theme of the ‘blessings of madness,’ from this failed beginning, as though
the truth could only follow in self-evident clarity after so much incoherent babble, Socrates goes right to the heart of the matter. In dithyrambic excess he tells Phaedrus that this thymós, this desire for the beloved, must strive for what is noble; as thymós is wedded to eros, so vitality to intentionality, or vital drives to moral norms-this is what it is to grow wings.
And so, if the victory be won by the higher elements of mind guiding them into the ordered rule of the philosophical life, their days on earth will be blessed with happiness and concord, for the power of evil in the soul has been subjected, and the power of goodness liberated; they have won self mastery and inward peace. And when life is over, with burdens shed and wings recovered they stand victorious in the first of the three rounds in that truly Olympic struggle; nor can any nobler prize be secured whether by the wisdom that is of man or by the madness that is of god.
This is the taming of thymós (spiritual vitality) and epithymia (lustful desire) for a moral life, rather than a life of self-destruction through the arbitrary willfulness of uninstructed desires. A metaphysical decision in the soul to seek the Good, eventually to stand on its measure, joins thymós to the Golden Mean.
But inside thymós, in the heart of our centered self, a struggle is going on between Eros and Atê. Eros is the part of Thymós eager to ascend to the heights of human aspiration, striving for what is noble. Atê is self-delusion, leading to self-destruction. It is blindness, rage, interiorized aggression. Thymós, in this negative mode, means smoke, anger, wrath, mental pathology. This negative side of thymós is best expressed in the French word resentment. The French tradition of the reflection on sentiment and resentment follows in the path of the Platonic doctrine of thymós. This conflict between Eros and Ate as the inner struggle of thymós, in relation to reason and desire, is the inner dialogue of the soul with itself.
Plato’s dialogues are the greatest expression of this dialogue. It is soul that encompasses our life; we are hedged about from birth to death by soul. Thymós means the heart of soul. Thymós is the vital root of consciousness. A horse representing thymós in the Phaedrus myth becomes the center of consciousness in the Republic. We are grounded in the middle, which is why Plato calls man the in-between being. The Myth of Er at the end of the Republic is a further elaboration of the myth in the Phaedrus. It is another story in the Socratic Theology. The myth of the winged steeds and their charioteer in the Phaedrus is amplified by the Myth of Er in the Republic through an expansion of the reincarnation cycle in the tale of Er. Three intervals between lifetimes are necessary to escape punishment for our crimes, as though three generations are a minimum structure for any historical grasp of life. In this three-fold sequence of consecutive lives, we undergo the most extreme choice. For Plato the supreme choice is philosophical. Plato issues the loudest call to the ranks of philosophy anyone has uttered. He wants us all to become Socratic, like his teacher, and practice the Confession of Ignorance/Delusion and be delivered from the snares of Atê. Plato provides us with it all-the Cave, the Divided Line, the Ring of Gyges, the Helmet of Hermes, and the Shield of Achilles. He supersedes everyone in his effort to get us to strain every nerve in order to glimpse the mysteries in our three-time round of earthly and ephemeral existence. So fraught with existential dramatics is the Greek view of life that without this glimpse, we would not be the supreme spectators that we are; we would forget, we would make the wrong choice, we would fail in the very foundation and substance of our being. In the Phaedrus, we meet the winged steeds of the soul who can distract the Charioteer from glimpsing the vision of Being and the mysteries of the Forms, thereby condemning the soul to commit grave mistakes about the choice of self in the next go-around. It is all based on the Platonic doctrine of thymós, or the vitality of the biologically based root of consciousness. Only here, in this dialogue, it is construed as a steed partial to its unruly neighbor, human desire, the horse of a different color. How do you get your unruly steed to run well with your noble steed in order for your reason to glimpse the Forms when you make your cosmic round? By practicing dying and preparing yourself for the ultimate test. Plato urges us on to participate in this flight from life to life, where, in the interval between lives, we can get a glimpse of the Forms, enter philosophical beatitude and be blessed by the mysteries we behold in the very marrow of ourselves.
[i] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977. p. 262. 27