The End of History and the Last Mensch


In my last epistle, I discussed some of the reasons why I began to put these ideas down on “paper”, in the first place. For most of my life, I have been exploring these pathways of thought for my own edification and amusement . . . and little else. I found enough satisfaction in the insights and inner balance they provided, so I never even considered putting them down in writing. I suppose I did have the deep certainty that if I could actually get a grasp on that numinous Something that can answer all the questions about life, the universe and everything ... well, it might turn out to be useful to other people, as well. 

Certainly, one of the impulses that drove my search was the belief that somewhere down in the Wellspring of human history, philosophy and religion there were some genuine “Answers” . . . . lessons that might ease the burden of this life, and maybe even make me a more useful contributor to “Society and all that”. But it has only been in the past few years that I felt even the remotest urge to share my journey with others, or to share insights.

But as noted in the previous article (New Roads), we have reached a point in human history that demands some sort of reaction from even the most reclusive or apathetic of us. The truth is, we have made a bloody mess of this planet. Despite the comfort Ive always derived from the knowledge that "Ill be dead before things get TOO bad", it is hard to avoid a sense of guilt for my own failure to resist the slide towards chaos.

Edmund Burke may as well have been prophesying, when he said that the only thing required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. Today, that quotation is not so much a warning or call to action, as it is an epitaph on Western Civilization. What difference does it make for good men to do nothing, when our world suffers from such a dearth of truly "good men" ?

The fault lines that divide humankind have moved so far apart that we now find it hard to even communicate across the divide without shouting. Apathy is the response that so many of us fall back upon (and this itself seems to be a symptom of helplessness and frustration, rather than an honest claim that “I don’t care”). Even when I find myself in circles of people who genuinely care, and wish they could bring some genuine healing to this planet, the conversation inevitably devolves into handwringing and caustic criticism, rather than any real discussion of “answers.” As Elvis Costello put it:

Some of my friends
Sit around every evening
And we worry about the times ahead
But everybody else
Is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
 

The divisions in our world are encouraged, if not manipulated and consciously expanded, by powerful forces at the centre of our current economic and political power structure. There is no shortage of people who are willing to create conflict if they believe it will somehow benefit them, increase their power, or enhance their “personal equity”. But as revolutionaries and reformists so often discover, you cannot solve problems that are founded on the basic weaknesses of our human species, unless you come up with a better model -- a new path – to replace the one that already exists.

I have come to the conclusion that rational appeals are never going to convince people in this ungracious age to set their self-defining memes to one side and try to work together. The chasms that divide us can only be crossed by a leap of faith. It is time to take that leap, and hope that at least a few of the people who read this will try to follow me across. The bridges will have to be built eventually, but for now, what is essential is that we start communicating. . . . not only with each other, but also with “the other side.”

The title of this essay, as many readers will already know, paraphrases the title of a book written by Francis Fukuyama at a time when neoconservatism was at its peak. Even at the time it was published, a considerable number of readers viewed it as an exercise in self-congratulatory navel gazing by a conservative intellectual who was incapable of recognizing that the theme of his book was even more oxymoronic than the term "conservative intellectual". The book devoted a great deal of ink and wood pulp to the argument that we were witnessing - in the final decade of the 20th century - the "triumph of liberal democracy". Yet even when it was published, in 1992, it was obvious that the so-called "triumph" was illusory. And more importantly, that this concept of so-called "liberal democracy" was neither liberal nor democratic. With its stuffy (if not pretentious) academic allusions to Kant and Hegel - which pervade almost the entire book - "The End of History..." eventually acquired a reputation among liberals (and even some conservatives) as a bit of a joke. It seemed that Fukuyama had simply combined good timing and opportunistic political views with enough philosophical palaver and academic footnotes to finagle his way onto the best seller list.

The book’s negative reputation (which has increased over time) is understandable, and perhaps deserved. But after reading parts of it in the early ‘Naughties, I found it to be quite thought-provoking. There are parts of this book that are so smug, self-serving and clueless about what goes on in the "real world" that one struggles to avoid laughing out loud. Nevertheless, some of the ideas raised are compelling, particularly the thought-provoking Part V which tries to address the question of whether history really has "ended" (by which, Fukuyama simply means that societal evolution has reached its end, with the creation of a universal, just, sustainable, and therefore "ideal" state).

The conclusions, and the logical underpinnings of his argument are such crudely mechanistic generalizations that you may find yourself scratching your head and thinking: "is he really serious". For example, using the premise (from Hegel) that after food, shelter, clothing and sex, one of the strongest motivating forces of all humans is "the desire for recognition", Fukuyama uses the concept to assert that this a primary reason why nations go to war. They desire "recognition".

OK - there is at least some truth to the idea that war is an exercise in showing everyone how big your . . . um . . . missile is. But when Fukuyama suggests that this need to show off, and prove your self-worth, is the one thing that might prevent liberal democracy from realizing his "End of History", it is hard to keep a straight face.

Be that as it may, I was intrigued by one particular feature of his argument, which relates to the theme I want to explore in this essay. Fukuyama derives his understanding of Hegelian history (and since Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel, Marxist history as well) on the idea that a "perfect state" needs to satisfy the needs of its citizens to an acceptable degree, by addressing all levels of man's “hierarchy of needs” This postulate is very compelling - it resonates with an aura of truth. Wouldnt we all love to live in a society that ensured our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) and provided a satisfying degree of self-expression and self-worth?

However, in the course of interpreting Hegel, and the Platonic philosophical foundation used by Hegel, Fukuyama seizes upon the Greek concept of "Thymos" (sometimes spelt “Thumos”), which is discussed in depth in Plato's "Republic." Over the course of his discussion, Fukuyama becomes very attached to the term. He repeatedly calls upon it when analyzing the forces which lead to democratic social and political systems. But unfortunately -- perhaps because he is a neoconservative, but more likely, because he is a mechanist -- Fukuyama fails to really understand what "Thymos" means.

In Fukuyama's hands, the word becomes almost a synonym for "selfishness" (though selfishness in a non-pejorative sense). People want to be proud of themselves, to feel a sense of having achieved something, and of being valued. They do things to try to demonstrate that worth, and when it is either ignored or demeaned, they get angry. If they have no say in decisions, it offends their “Thymos.” Therefore they tend to prefer democratic social systems (etc. etc.)

There is some truth to Fukuyama's line of reasoning, but unfortunately, he missed the true sense of what "Thymos" means - or rather, what it meant to the ancient Greeks. Thymos, it turns out, is a very intriguing concept. It has a bit of a "mystical" quality in Plato’s hands, which Fukuyama was utterly incapable of absorbing. Turning to the works of Plato, Democritus, and others dating back as far as Homer, it is interesting to see what a central role it plays in the Greek concept of the Soul. Nowadays many people are prepared to argue that "there is no such thing as a soul", seemingly oblivious to the most basic rules of logic : Before you can prove either the existence or nonexistence of something, you need to define, clearly and without ambiguity, what that "something" is. And when we begin looking at words such as “Psyche (Soul)” and “Thymos”, it is astonishing to see how much importance the concepts are accorded by the people who laid the very foundations of our modern "reason" and "logic".

To the Greeks, the "soul" consisted of all those features of life which were not physical. Thought, language, emotion, and even Consciousness itself - all of these things clearly exist. But they are not a part of the physical body. Therefore, by definition, they must be part of the soul. Before the word “soul” received all the baggage and accoutrements that Christianity (and other religions) applied to it, it simply referred to those elements of a living creature which cannot be classified as part of the “body.” The Greeks, who laid the foundations of our entire Western edifice of logic and philosophy, defined the soul in just this way. A living creature has two parts - a physical part and a nonphysical part. The physical part is called "the body". The non-physical part is called "the soul".

As the Greeks looked within, and applied the logical, scientific method to what they saw, they began to realise that the Soul includes many distinct (and sometimes even contradictory) features. Proceeding with their logical analysis of the Soul, they divided it into parts. One of the most famous descriptions of these parts, and how they operated, was given by Plato in the dialogue "Phaedrus". In that dialogue Plato’s teacher, Socrates, offers a metaphor to explain how the human mind works: that of a chariot.

The "Logos" - conscious, rational thought - serves as the charioteer, using its logical (Logos) skills, knowledge and experience to guide the course of the chariot. The motive power which drives the chariot is provided by two horses - "Eros" and "Thymos". Eros, of course, includes the meaning that we use today, but it encompasses more than just love and lust. It also incorporates other physical passions such as hunger and thirst, as well as the "acquisitive" urge (whether for land, cattle, wives, gold, or any of the things that werent around in Ancient Greece).

The second horse - called the "Thymos" - was also an urge or a driving force, but it compels one to seek something that is not physical. Thymos includes the desire for recognition, the need for self-realization and a sense of accomplishment, as well as things like friendship, intellectual stimulation, recreation, competition and so on. The word is sometimes translated into English as "spiritedness." Interestingly enough, the Greeks associated Thymos with breathing. In both meaning and philology it corresponds to the Hindu idea of "Atman" (the self) . . . which also happens to be derived from the word for breath.

It isnt my intention to discuss the mystical characteristics of this "Thymos" -- at least not today. What interests me is what Socrates thought about the Thymos. To him, it was the more admirable of the two motivating forces. Naturally, the "Eros" horse is a necessary thing. A man who didnt have the Eros motivation would forget to eat, drink and reproduce. But for Socrates, the Thymos urges were what made man a noble creature. It was the Thymos that made a man try to achieve greatness, honour and dignity. It was the source of generosity, pride, compassion, ambition and friendship. A person who cultivated his Thymos, and who succeeded in realizing the things that Thymos inspires - that was the Greek definition of a "hero".

Fukuyama apparently missed the more "spiritual" characteristics of Thymos, because modern academic thinkers tend to dismiss that sort of motivation as "fuzzy-headed nonsense". Leave the discussion of morality, dignity and integrity to the priests and the parsons. We only discuss rational things. If you say that humans are driven by their desire to prove their worth, to be admired, to have status, to be important - now that makes sense. We even have words to describe people who get those things: a bigwig, a star, a tycoon, an idol, an entrepreneur, a mogul, a celebrity.

It is a shame that Fukuyama failed to understand the other aspects of what Thymos means. But then, I suppose that makes him a rather typical modern man. In today’s society, we celebrate the self-serving and self-aggrandizing aspects of success ... which are really as much Eros as Thymos ... but have almost completely lost touch with the other aspects of "heroism". Maybe that is why so many people sense that their lives are empty… that they have no meaning. So many seem to have have forgotten what it means to fulfill the "spiritual" aspects of their Thymos. No matter how big their car is, or how many zeroes on their paycheck, they still lack a true sense of self-worth and self-realization. Does anyone even aspire to be "heroic" anymore?

Actually, that is a silly question. Nowadays the word "hero" has been so cheapened that we can no longer even use it to try to describe the sort of person who is motivated by Thymos. So it is no wonder that Fukuyama missed it.

Too bad he didnt have a Jewish grandmother. . . .

Because she would have taught him another word - one that still resonates with the same meaning which the ancient Greeks intended when they described the ideal qualities of the individual, and of human society.  Fukuyama’s hero, Hegel, was pointing to this word when he described the essential -- that's right, ESSENTIAL -- characteristics of the "ideal state". She would have taught him that if you really want the world to be a better place, you need to be a Mensch.

Though I did not have a Jewish grandmother of my own, I did live in a neighborhood with a large Jewish population, and I can still hear the echoes of their bobeshi lectures, taking my friends to task after some teenage folly: "Feh! You little schmendrik, stop imitating all these goyish schlemiels and be a mensch. You dont need to worry about what other people do! Be a Mensch!

A mensch is a person who can be relied on to act with honour and integrity. But the Yiddish term means more than that: it also suggests someone who is kind and considerate, in touch with the feelings and needs of others. The word carries a spiritual nuance, as well. A mensch is a man whose attitude towards every human is one of personal responsibility fused with deep compassion. He lives his life with a profound sense that his own personal needs and desires are limited by the needs and desires of other people. A mensch acts with self-restraint and humility, always sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others. A mensch is driven by an innate decency, motivated from within and not out of regard for social recognition. A mensch will act on principle at times when it may be a very hard thing to do. Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim  provides a more well-rounded exposition of these concepts, but regardless of your religion, anyone who understands the nature of the Soul can intuit the meaning of the word. The Greek concept of the Hero and the Chinese concept of the Sage both embody the same meaning.

I am convinced that the biggest problem we face in the world today is not war, or political and economic turmoil, or global warming, or oppression, or poverty, or hunger, or disease, or any of these things. Those are just the symptoms. The PROBLEM is that this world doesnt have enough Mensches. Maybe if we can just figure out a way to cultivate more of them, our other problems would start to get solved as well . . . .

Im starting with the man in the mirror
Im asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make the change


 

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