by Bastoche | 7/29/2008 02:33:00 PM
“The world has become normal again.” So Robert Kagan begins his latest effort, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says, the world had in the 90s a “tantalizing glimpse of a new international order” in which an expanding global system of commerce and communication would break down national barriers and dissolve ideological conflict. But that glimpse of a new international order has proven to be “a mirage.” The nation-state, Kagan says, “remains as strong as ever, and so, too, the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history” (3). The end of the Cold War seemed to put an end to that competition and thus to history. But that “end of history” was nothing more than a brief pause in which new poles and configurations of power were fortifying and organizing themselves in order to recommence the struggle. And the struggle has now recommenced. Competition among nations for power and prestige has returned and with it history. The world has indeed become normal again.

The Enlightenment dream of a world in which military confrontation between nations would be displaced by the peaceful competition of industry and trade is a seductive one. It is predicated, however, on the doubtful notion that the peoples of the world “would seek prosperity and comfort and abandon the atavistic passions, the struggles for honor and glory, and the tribal hatreds that had produced conflict throughout history” (8). The ancient Greeks, according to Kagan, knew better. They “believed that embedded in human nature was something called thumos, a spiritedness and ferocity in defense of clan, tribe, city, or state” (8). Although that aggressive spirit can be restrained, it cannot be eradicated. Indeed, according to Harvey Mansfield in his 2006 book Manliness and in his 2007 Jefferson Lecture, not only can we not eradicate it, since it is an inherent element of our animal nature, but we also do not want to eradicate it, since it is the motivating force that impels us to enter the arena of politics and fight for the cause that expresses our value and importance.

1. Reason, Temper, and the Struggle of Politics

Kagan has also used this ancient Greek concept of thumos or temper in his essay “Cowboy Nation” in order to explain the elemental energy that has impelled America in its grand march through history. From our earliest days as a new and dangerous nation, Kagan says, Americans have, with distinctive flair and exuberance, “exhibited the kind of spiritedness, and even fierceness, in defense of home, hearth, and belief that the ancient Greeks called thumos.” This irrepressible spirit has impelled Americans not only to defend hearth and home from attack but also to expand their nation’s territory and the reach of its commerce. But that is not all. Their fierce and idealistic temper has also impelled Americans to expand the scope of the universal principle that their nation, above all others, epitomizes and embodies: liberty. Prior to the twentieth century America did not possess the military might to defend and promote the principle of liberty on a global and universal scale. But during the twentieth century America came into its own as a military power, and though some Americans balked, preferring to remain isolated and ensconced behind their great oceanic barriers, most Americans, in characteristic displays of energy and assertiveness, were eager to use their nation’s unequalled strength to oppose and defeat the threats to global liberty posed by Nazism and Soviet Communism.

Americans thus have not hesitated and do not now hesitate to assume, when necessary, the stance of a warrior nation. But as I explained in Part V of this series, Mansfield recognizes that thumos, precisely because it is an elemental and irrational energy, can cause the person who is acting under its influence to exceed the bounds of moderation. The man who enters the arena of politics determined to achieve victory for himself and his cause—the manly man, as Mansfield calls him—can become carried away by the propulsive force of his energy and seek not only to defeat his opponents but also to tyrannize and oppress them. In order to prevent himself from lapsing into the despotic and tyrannical, the manly man must sublimate the elemental energy of thumos and raise it to the status of a virtue. He can perform this sublimatory act only by making thumos submit to reason, that is, by firmly grounding his cause on a foundation of coherent and rational argument.

Unfortunately the manly man inclines much more to aggressive action and warrior impulsiveness than to the painstaking effort of rational argument. Mansfield, though, proffers a solution. The manly man, the warrior whose natural habitat is the arena of political conflict and strife, must submit to the guidance of philosophers, those warriors of the intellect who have attained to the virtue of wisdom and who can moderate the manly man’s impulsive energy and prevent him from tipping into the excess of tyranny.

In many particulars Mansfield’s discussion of the manly man draws on Aristotle’s discussion of courage in Books II and III of the Ethics. But at certain points Mansfield diverges from his master, and nowhere more decisively than in the relation between thumos and courage. I’ll return to Kagan at the end of this post and to the three struggles that, he claims, define our modern world, including the struggle among nations for prestige, status, and honor. But first I want to take a closer look at Aristotle’s discussion of courage in the Ethics and the differences between Mansfield’s portrait of the manly man and Aristotle’s portrait of the man of courage.

Both Aristotle and Mansfield identify thumos as an irrational, elemental, animal energy and courage as a virtue grounded in reason and an undistorted grasp of reality. But they differ in the motivational importance they attach to thumos on the one hand, reason on the other. For Mansfield, the manly man is motivated primarily by thumos. Though the manly man is susceptible to rational argument, in Mansfield’s view he is pushed into politics first and foremost by the irrational energies of thumos and anger. Asserting the superiority and importance of himself and his cause, the manly man enters the political arena and struggles for victory and vindication. Indeed, so enraptured is he by the superiority of his cause that he will seek not only to defeat but also to oppress his adversaries. Only the wisdom of his advisers can restrain the exuberance of his temper and prevent him from lapsing into the irrational excess of tyranny.

For Aristotle, on the other hand, motivational primacy rests with reason. Though influenced by the elemental energy of thumos, the man of courage is intrinsically rational. When confronted by an extreme situation, he reacts not extremely but reasonably and moderately. He assesses the situation clearly and accurately and does not allow irrational impulse to distort his assessment. He sees the critical situation for what, in reality, it is and neither exaggerates nor minimizes it. In the thick of the crisis, Aristotle’s man of courage remains always and immovably rational.

2. The Man of Courage is a Man of Reason

Aristotle begins the Ethics by asking one of the fundamental philosophical questions: What is the chief human good? For Aristotle the answer is clear: the chief human good is happiness. What is not clear is the answer to the obvious follow-up question: In what does happiness consist? Some maintain that happiness derives from indulgence in physical pleasure. Others argue that happiness results from the acquisition of fame and honor. Aristotle rejects both answers and argues that happiness derives from an internal source: the configuration of a person’s character. The person who achieves happiness is the person who develops a character that is disposed to virtuous action. Every person is born with a potential for wisdom, moderation, justice, courage, and the other virtues or excellences. Not all individuals realize their potential for excellence in action. When an individual, by means of training and the consistent application of reason to human affairs, achieves a firm and settled disposition to display the virtues in practical action, that individual has attained to a condition of happiness.

Aristotle of course recognizes that many individuals achieve firm and settled dispositions to display not virtues in practical action but vices. Rather than divorcing virtue and vice by an unbridgeable abyss, however, he ingeniously posits that the rational, virtuous character and the irrational, non-virtuous character are related to one another. Specifically, each virtue is related to two vices. In order to make the relation clear between a specific virtue and its corresponding vices, Aristotle constructs a moral continuum in which the virtue occupies the moderate mean or rational middle ground between the two immoderate and irrational extremes, one an extreme of excess, the other an extreme of deficiency.

Each extreme is opposed to the moderate mean. Further, as excess and deficiency, each extreme is diametrically opposed to the other. However, though opposed to one another, the two extremes have one thing in common that unites them in opposition to their associated virtue: each has escaped the rule of reason. It is often the case that a person’s characteristic response to a situation is either too much (in excess) or too little (deficient) and, Aristotle says, “neither is good.” But, he adds, “to be affected when one should, at the things one should, in relation to the people one should, for the reasons one should, and in the way one should, is both intermediate and best, which is what belongs to excellence” (Book II. Chapter 6). For Aristotle reason is the indispensable power that enables a person to make these discriminations. And by making them, by responding appropriately to all these “shoulds,” the person finds the moderate mean of virtue between the immoderate extremes of vice and achieves the “excellence of character” that manifests itself in right and virtuous action.

These “shoulds” are effectively displayed in the first virtue that Aristotle treats, courage. Courage, according to Aristotle, is the virtue or excellence that a person exhibits in response to fear. Aristotle, though, is very specific about both the object that elicits the fear to which courage responds and the circumstances in which it is elicited. The object that elicits the fear is the “most fearsome” object of all: violent death. And the circumstances in which the fear of violent death is elicited are the “finest” circumstances of all, those that prevail in war. As Aristotle puts it, the courageous person is “the one who is fearless about a fine death…and those that occur in war are mostly of this sort” (III. 6). Of central importance to Aristotle is the attribute without which the death would not be “fine”: honor. The person who suffers violent death in battle acquires that which is eternally commendable, honor, and avoids that which is eternally reprehensible, shame. And it is courage that enables the person to enter the arena in which is found the death that is both the most fearsome and the most fine.

For Aristotle such courage is moderate and virtuous because at every step in the process of feeling fear and responding to it, the courageous person acts rationally. Initially, the courageous person fears what anyone “who has any intelligence” fears, the prospect of violent death in battle. But the courageous person responds to that most fearsome of objects as he should: rationally and, by extension, courageously. He neither minimizes the anguish of such a death nor exaggerates it. He sees it clearly for what it is, fully and without distortion. Having assessed it accurately, he responds to it appropriately, in the way that he should: He deliberately decides to meet his death head-on. He is fortified in this decision because he knows that by dying in battle he achieves that which is surpassingly fine: everlasting and incontestable honor. And so, temperately and without flinching, he goes to meet that most fearsome and most honorable of things, death in battle. Thus, for Aristotle, “the person who withstands and fears the things one should [violent death] and for the end one should [the acquisition of honor], and in the way and when one should [unflinchingly in battle]…is courageous: for the courageous person feels and acts as the occasion merits, and following the correct prescription, however it may direct him” (III. 7).

The two extremes that flank on either side the moderate mean of courage have in common their detachment from the rational and their submission to the irrational. The irrational excess that corresponds to courage is typified by the person who does not fear what any rational person would fear, who indeed fears nothing at all. Aristotle does not have a term to designate such a person, but he says that “he would be some sort of madman, or someone immune to pain, if he feared nothing, not even an earthquake or stormwaters” (III 7). The irrational deficiency that corresponds to courage is typified by the coward, who “fears the sorts of things one shouldn’t and in a way one shouldn’t” (III 7). The coward, that is, fears objects that no rational person would fear or runs away from the object that any rational person would fear but that the courageous person would unflinchingly face: violent death in battle.

In spite of his emphasis on the rationality of courage, Aristotle recognizes that this most manly of virtues rests on or derives from an element of the irrational. The courageous, he says, “are thought also to include people who act through temper [thumos], like wild animals that rush at the people who have wounded them…” (III. 8). Those who act under “the impulse of temper” cannot in the strict sense be called courageous, since they rush into action “without seeing in advance any of the frightening aspects of the situation.” That is, they lack the indispensable element of reason that enables them to correctly assess the situation as one that would in any rational person incite fear. Rather, they act only out of an immediate and animal impulse of distress or anger.

Nonetheless, Aristotle says, aggressive behavior that derives from thumos “does seem to be the most natural form" of courage. And this most elemental form of courage can attain to the status of true courage “once the factors of decision and the end for the sake of which have been added” (III. 8). The courageous person is not immune to the elemental impulse of thumos but neither does he intemperately succumb to it. He does not rush into battle, blinded by distress and anger, but rather confronts his prospective death temperately, with full knowledge of the pain and distress that await him. And having beforehand clearly and accurately assessed the object that incites his fear, his prospective and violent death, he makes the firm and deliberate decision to go out and meet it. Just as important, the end for the sake of which he puts his life in jeopardy, the acquisition of eternal honor, fortifies him in his decision. Thus is the elemental impulse of thumos raised to the status of the rational and rendered sublime.

Aristotle makes it completely clear that courage cannot be separated from reason. The prospect of an imminent and violent death provokes fear in any reasonable person. The man of courage responds to that object as he should, that is, rationally: he neither distorts it nor runs from it. He unblinkingly faces the object that provokes fear in him, assesses it realistically, and goes to meet it courageously. But as Aristotle admits, one can argue that at the very core of this virtue, ineradicable and inescapable, is an element of the irrational: thumos, an elemental and animal-like impulse of distress and anger. The irrational therefore cannot be relegated to the two extremes of the moral continuum whose moderate mean courage inhabits. The person deficient in courage who fears what he should not and the person of unlimited boldness who does not fear what he should are both equally irrational. But so too the courageous person who inhabits the moderate and rational mean is fueled by an element of the irrational. He modifies his animal temper by raising it to the level of the rational and making it sublime. But he never escapes his temper, his animal energy, nor transforms it completely. At its core his courage retains an impulsive and ineradicably irrational component.

3. The Manly Man is a Man of Temper

In his portrait of the manly man, Mansfield has both drawn on Aristotle’s discussion of courage and modified it to fit his own purpose. According to both Mansfield and his master, a person displays courage in an arena of struggle against an opponent. Aristotle restricts that arena to the field of battle and defines the courageous person as the one who faces without flinching the prospect of death in battle. Mansfield, however, expands the arena of struggle to include the whole of politics and defines the manly man as the one who is willing, in the arena of politics and if need be on the field of battle, to fight in order to assert and defend a cause.

Not only will the manly man fight for his cause, Mansfield argues, he will without hesitation sacrifice his life for it. His cause embodies for the manly man a value that both transcends his individual life and expresses his sense of himself as an important and prominent actor in the world. For such a cause no effort is too extreme, no sacrifice too great. When his cause achieves victory against its competitors in politics or in war, the manly man feels vindicated and honored: he and his cause have achieved preeminence. When his cause is defeated by its competitors in politics or in war the manly man feels invalidated and shamed: he and his cause have been rendered impotent and null.

Though Aristotle does not speak of courage in the context of a cause, transcendent or otherwise, he does emphasize that an important factor driving the behavior of the man of courage is his sense of importance—his sense of honor. Honor derives from the estimation of others and therefore can only be earned by means of public display, and no public display draws more praise than the one which the man of courage puts on in that most glorious of public arenas, war. That which fortifies a man’s courage on the field of battle and helps him defeat his greatest enemy—his fear of violent death—is thus the prospect of achieving a fine and glorious end to his life, a death that, though violent, will earn for him everlasting honor.

Mansfield also follows Aristotle by placing his manly man on a moral continuum, positioning him in the moderate mean between two extremes, one of excess, the other of deficiency. In this instance, though, Mansfield diverges significantly from the master. Aristotle identifies the extremes as excessive boldness on the one hand, cowardice on the other. Mansfield, however, populates the extremes of his continuum with those whom the neocons have identified as the modern enemies of individual freedom. At the extreme of excess stand the totalitarian advocates of Nietzschean nihilism: Soviet Communism, Nazism, and Radical Islam. At the extreme of deficiency stand the modern liberals who strive to eliminate conflict by imposing a regime of rules that reduces everyone, inferior and superior alike, to one vapid level of mediocrity and dullness.

Finally, Mansfield follows his mentor by connecting the virtue of courage to the elemental energy of thumos. And it is here that Mansfield departs most significantly from Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle makes thumos a subordinate aspect of the courageous man’s motivation, Mansfield makes thumos the primary motivating force of the manly man’s behavior. Aristotle certainly recognizes that the elemental force of thumos, an irrational force, is connected to the courageous man’s behavior. But Aristotle is clear in his description of courage as a rational response to the fear of violent death. The courageous man, facing the prospect of his death in battle, neither minimizes the anguish that such a death entails nor exaggerates it. He assesses the situation as in reality it is and responds accordingly: he fears the coming battle. But even though he fears it, as rationally he should, he does what needs to be done: he triumphs over his fear and enters the fight, supported by the knowledge that although his death will be painful and even agonizing, it will also be honorable.

Thus, according to Aristotle, the man of courage is characterized by his rationality, by his firm and settled disposition to look at his situation realistically and assess it accurately, without distortion. According to Mansfield, on the other hand, the manly man is characterized by his temper, his thumos, his aggressive drive to enter the political arena in order to uphold a cause that expresses his honor and sense of importance. True, the manly man can bring forward reasons that justify his devotion to his cause, but those reasons are circumstantial and arbitrary and are not grounded in a clear and accurate assessment of the situation. They derive rather from accidents of birth and association. The manly man asserts the cause of his nation or of his party for no other reason than that the cause represents his nation or his party.

His assessment of the situation thus goes no further than his settled conviction of his own importance and that of his cause. Without hesitation, prompted not by reason but by thumos and anger, he asserts the indisputable superiority of his cause and the equally indisputable inferiority of his opponent’s. He does not pause to engage in a rational assessment that exaggerates neither the worth of his cause nor the worthlessness of his opponent’s. Rather, he throws himself into the struggle, propelled by thumos and by anger—anger that his cause is being denigrated and attacked. Firm in the conviction that his cause is superior, because it is his, and all others inferior, because they are not his, he aggressively stakes out his partisan position and fights unremittingly so that his cause prevails and achieves final victory. And he will sacrifice all for that victory because he knows that without it he will be forever deprived of that which gives his life meaning and importance: vindication, validation, honor.

4. History Has Returned and With It the Struggle for Power and Honor

Three great struggles define the modern world, according to Robert Kagan in The Return of History (3-4). One is the “old competition between liberalism and autocracy.” Another is the even older struggle “between the radical Islamists and the modern secular cultures and powers that they believe have dominated, penetrated, and polluted their Islamic world.” The last is the oldest and remains perhaps the most important. The struggle “for status and influence” among the world’s established and newly arrived powers “has returned, with Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, the United States, and others vying for regional predominance.”

Regional predominance is based on economic and military power. With power come such tangible benefits as a high standard of living and security from external attack. But to the nation that possesses indisputable power come the equally important intangible benefits of status and honor. A nation does not live by self-interest alone. Its sense of importance, of its place among other and competing nations, also drives its behavior. As Kagan says in his essay, "End of Dreams, Return of History," from which The Return of History partly derives, the current Chinese leadership is “powerfully motivated to return their nation to what they regard as its traditional position as the preeminent power in East Asia,” a preeminence based on both economic and military power. “Perhaps more significant,” Kagan says, “is the Chinese perception, also shared by Americans, that status and honor, and not just wealth and security, are important for a nation.” Japan too, according to Kagan, is driven by a “national ambition to be a leader in East Asia or at least not to play second fiddle or ‘little brother’ to China.” And “Russia, like China and Japan, is moved by more traditional great-power considerations, including the pursuit of those valuable if intangible national interests: honor and respect.”

In the past, the pursuit of national power and national honor has created conflict between and among nations, which in turn has created history. Of course, the national pursuit of power and honor has often proven to be more an irrational pursuit than a rational one. Kagan seems to admit as much when he argues that America in its long rise to global preeminence has been impelled by that distinctively irrational energy the Greeks called thumos. Harvey Mansfield is more explicit and straightforward than Kagan in this regard. For Mansfield, the arena of politics, national and international, is motivationally defined by thumos and anger and hence by the irrational in the human psyche.

History supplies ample evidence that Mansfield’s claim is correct. History also supplies evidence that the rational has been, at least on occasion, a decisive factor in the political arena. Politics has not been and need not be exclusively defined by the irrational. The arena of political conflict has been and can be again rescued from the irrational and reclaimed for the rational. Indeed, Aristotle’s portrait of the man of courage shows us that conflict, at least to some extent, can be grounded in the rational. Before he enters the fight, the man of courage assesses the situation realistically and without distortion. But this capacity for realistic and undistorted assessment seems itself to be grounded in another aspect of human rationality, one that Aristotle does not treat in his Ethics. And it is that aspect of human rationality—empathy—that I will discuss next time.


All quotations from the Ethics are taken from the translation by Christopher Rowe (Oxford UP, 2002). This volume also provides an extensive and very helpful “Philosophical Introduction” by Sarah Broadie.

Crossposted at Daily Kos

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Blogger Bastoche on 7/29/2008 2:56 PM:

Meanwhile, in a recent WSJ opinion piece, “The New Reality in Iraq,” two other members of the indefatigable and recklessly entertaining Band of Kagans, Kim and Fred, enlarge on the necessity of continuing yet another struggle, namely, “the struggle to contain Iran.”

We have at the moment, Kim and Fred argue, the advantage in this struggle. Thanks to the success of the surge, in Iraq “the remnant Sunni insurgents and Shiite fighters are now focused on attacking their own members who have defected to our side,” our side being the legitimate side as opposed to the illegitimate side represented by the remnants. Though native Iraqis, these remnants are nonetheless illegitimate because they are, on one hand, proxies of al Qaeda and, on the other, pawns of the nefarious Persians in Tehran. Though battered and broken by the surge and the Sons of Iraq, they refuse to recognize the new reality in their native country and remain in foolhardy opposition to our beneficent and legitimate presence.

More on this remarkable, and remarkably misleading, narrative next time