(Megalothymia is Still Operating)
“It is only a thymotic man, the man of anger who is jealous of his own dignity and the dignity of his fellow citizens.”
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man
By Dagnachew Ayenew Yeshiwas
June 5, 2020
In the last few days, the USA – the leading post historical state – has been overwhelmed by unprecedented forms of protest at least in the recent past, following the death of a black American named George Floyd while pleading that he couldn’t breathe in the hand of a white police officer on May 25, 2020. Observers and analysts have not hesitated to proliferate explanations on the underlying causes of the ongoing crisis – racism of whites, economic inequality and failure of liberal democracy, among many others. Each of these catch aspects of the ongoing reality. Yet, they all miss a crucial, indeed a central aspect of the incident and the undergoing protest in the USA.
It is my argument that the fundamental cause of the existing crisis is not fully understood through the above structural explanations. Such explanation reduces the motives and behavior of human societies. Attributing human society to the system than the units that make up it is its inherent mistake. Citing economic inequality as the underlying cause misrepresented black politics in the USA as a mere economic demand. It is an extension of a failure to understand the thymotic component of man’s soul and ended with misinterpretation of American politics. In this piece of commentary, I argue, the great divisions of Americans and the dominating sources of the existing crisis is the clash between the thymotic aspirations of the black people one the one hand and whites on the other. Hence, I believe that the logic of desire of recognition offers better insights on the case than economic interpretations.
According to Plato, man’s soul has three components; desire, reason and thymos. Desire induces men to seek things outside themselves, while reason shows them the best way to get them. Thymos, on the other hand, is a spirit that forces human beings to seek recognition of their own worth, or of the people, or of things that they invested. Thymos is an innate human sense of justice that supports the process of valuing and evaluating one self. It is just man’s desire for recognition which involves feelings of self-esteem. It is obvious that man can demand recognition not only for one’s moral worth, but also one’s wealth, power or physical beauty. People are also capable of assigning worth to other people, and feeling anger on behalf of others. This occurs most often when an individual is a member of a group of people that perceives itself as being treated unjustly, for example, a nationalist on behalf of his ethnic group. Indignation on one’s own behalf then extends to the group as a whole and engenders feelings of solidarity.
There are two types of thymotic manifestations of the desire for recognition; megalothymia and isothymia. Megalothymia is the desire to be recognized as superior to other people (e.g. the aspiration of the master in the aristocratic society) while isothymia refers to the desire to be recognized as equal of the other people (the 1960’s Black American movement for HRs and universal suffrage). Therefore, according to Hegel, progress in history is not primarily the result of economic contradictions but the interplay of these two thymotic passions of man.
Hegel claims that the first conflict in history was a battle for pure prestige that led to lordship and bondage of the aristocratic society. The desire to be recognized was the motivating factor behind the unpleasant slave trade and imperialism. But, it was also the thymotic aspirations of the underprivileged man behind popular revolutions in Western Europe and USA which were finally concluded by the consolidation of liberal democracy. Struggles for independence from colonialism were also the extensions of isothymic aspirations of man.
In connection to this, I argue, thymotic passions of citizens offer an explanation to the endless contradictions of black and white citizens in American politics. When the first black American movement against slavery roused up, it quested the end of lordship and demands recognition for the dignity of the black people which was officially denied by the slavery system. Therefore, emancipation proclamation, issued by Abrham Lincoln on January, 1, 1863 was the first step undergone in the USA to legitimize black Americans’ demand for recognition.
Later on, in the 1960’s, another black American movement led by Martin Luther King with a motto “I have a dream” shook the foundation of American politics. The dream of the King was to see a USA that recognizes equality of black and white citizens – isothymic passion of black Americans. When the legal and electoral system of the USA was revised in the early 1960’s after the principle of “One man, One Vote” by the Supreme Court, many observers took it as the final and progressive move of the state to accommodate political demand of blacks. To them, the presidency of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009 was the zenith of American liberal democracy to entertain diverse political interests of the people regardless of any fault lines.
In fact, making someone president of the USA, who was born and grew up in poorest East African country, Kenya, was the greatest achievement of liberal democracy in recognizing the isothymic aspiration of black Americans descended from Africa. However, even after all of these progresses (emancipation proclamations, legal recognition of equality of blacks and the presidency of Obama) happened in the USA, the large number of black Americans’ dignity is still under question. Still blacks are engaged in unpleasant and underprivileged works, they reside in slum villages, their children cannot fully attend modern education and so on.
As a result, a large number of black citizens questioned the legitimacy of American liberal democracy and got out to the streets for protest several times. Many analysts and observers associate these demands of black Americans with economic inequality emanated from structures of the American society and institutions. For me, such economic interpretation of blacks’ demand is misrepresenting the American politics. I argue, it is not the system or the structure that denies dignity and equality of blacks but the system and structure dominated by whites. The structure has already provided legal recognition and policy inclusion to the black but the white megalothymic men who control the system and enforce the policy are still excluding them.
Hence, the clash between blacks’ isothymic aspiration for equality and whites’ megalothymic aspiration for superiority has yet to be reconciled. It is the white man who arbitrarily shoot and puts the black to death, not the structure. It is the white man’s presumption which attach black citizens with crime and illegal activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering and murder not the structure. It was this presumption that led to the death of innocent 14 years old black boy George Stinney through electric chair, for he was suspected by the murder of two white girls, even though he was later proven to be innocent. It is a white man named Darek Chavin that put Floyd to death, not the system of economic inequality. Similarly, Michael Brown in August, 2014 and Freddie Gray in 2015 lost their life in the hand of white police officers, among many others.
In the last few days American streets are overwhelmed by protestors shouting, ‘Black Lives Matter’, literally meaning the life of black matters as the white’s or the life of black is worthwhile as white’s or blacks deserve dignity as whites do. It is a message for whites to whom the life of blacks doesn’t matter, who doesn’t recognize the worth and dignity of the black. Quests to work and lead a decent life is not merely an economic desire but the extension of the desire for recognition of one’s dignity.
Socrates argued that thymos can destroy or cement political community; a just political order requires cultivation and taming of thymos. For Plato, that regime was the best that best satisfies all the three parts of the soul simultaneously. According to advocates of liberalism like Fukuyama and Kojeve, compared to historical alternatives, liberal democracy gives the fullest scope to all the three parts of the soul because it satisfies rational desire and rational recognition in a balanced way. To Fukuyama and Kojeve, liberal democracy would be the final form of government in which megalothymia is neutralized through limited government, and check and balance. It also marks the end of bloody battle and contradiction due to excessive economization of life that induced man to pursue material gain than glory.
However, liberal democracy would stand or fall based on the strength of the current recognition to adequately satisfy the human desire for recognition. Looking around contemporary America, excess megalothmia of whites continued to be the threat of liberal democracy. The undergoing events clearly show that democracy’s effort to vanish it or convert it to isothymia has been incomplete. Particularly, following the coming of Donald Trump, the revival of passions of the first man are becoming more apparent; whites seeking superiority and blacks ready to die while fighting for equality are found in America.
To sum up, Fukuyama states, “It is only a thymotic man, the man of anger who is jealous of his own dignity and the dignity of his fellow citizens.” The white man who denies the equality of blacks is a thymotic man with megalothymic aspiration to be superior to others, while the black man protesting for the recognition of his dignity is indeed a thymotic man having isothymic passion to be recognized as equal to others. The ongoing crisis in the USA is the clash between thymotic men. Hence, for the long term stability of American liberal democracy, the clash between blacks’ isothymic aspiration for equality and whites’ megalothymic aspiration for superiority has yet to be reconciled.
Dagnachew Ayenew Yeshiwas, Lecturer of Peace and Development Studies at Wollo University and PhD Student of Peace and Development Studies at Haramaya University.
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