Members of the spiritual community are often very fond of throwing the word ‘ego’ around without fully understanding it. Often the word ‘ego’ is used in the derogatory sense. It’s seen as bad, wrong, something to overcome. People are accused of falling into ‘ego traps’ and teachers try to force compliance from their students by telling them that their ego is the reason they refuse to submit, and nonsense terms like ‘ego construct’ are used to talk disparagingly of ideas they don’t agree with. This foolishness comes from incomplete knowledge of the soul that is extremely important part of being human: our will to regard ourselves and others as valuable.
In The Republic, Plato describes three parts to the soul, reason, spirit, and the appetites. It’s the second part ‘spirit’ that is important to consider in this article. The word Plato uses for ‘spirit’ is thymos (also spelled thumos), and thymos is the seat where we ascribe value to ourselves and others. He associated this part of the soul with the proud warrior that is willing to defend himself, his society, and his city. Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, gives an interesting interpretation of thymos that is extremely important to understand. Thymos is a type of innate sense of justice, it’s that part of the soul where we recognize our own dignity and the dignity of others. When we receive recognition for acting in accordance with our abilities we feel pride; when we act wrongly or don’t live up to our potential we feel shame, and when we or others are treated unfairly we feel anger or outrage. These three things I just mentioned all stem from the thymotic part of the soul and is the seat of human dignity.
Thymos is extremely important for recognizing our value and the value of other people. Through thymos, we see others not as tools to be used, but as people who are entitled to dignity. The first form of thymos is isothymia, the will to see ourselves and others as fundamentally equal. It allows us to identify and feel outraged when others are mistreated or marginalized. It inspires us to seek justice for ourselves and others and to see all of humanity as equal. Isothymia fuels our sense of ethics and directs us towards helping others. Buddhism teaches us to have compassion for all living things, but it’s because of isothymia that we regard living things as valuable and worthy of compassion.
Thymos does have a dark side and it’s called megalothymia. Megalothymia is the desire to see oneself or one’s group as inherently more valuable than others. It fuels overweening pride and seeks to devalue other people. It can infect a person, a group or an entire nation and it’s almost entirely pernicious. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of discrimination ultimately stem from megalothymia, and it’s extremely seductive. This is the part of the soul that people associate with egotism, and the attempt to overcome it is indeed admirable. Yet it is inescapable because megalothymia and isothymia share the same space in the soul. They are both parts of the thymotic part of the self that seeks to ascribe value to things, ourselves and others.
Some spiritual teachers and members of the spiritual community are very fond of congratulating themselves on how wise, spiritual, or enlightened they are. They are completely oblivious to the seductive nature of megalothymia. Humility and equality are the qualities that should be cultivated. Unfortunately, megalothymia cannot be completely removed because its wrapped up with isothymia, and without isothymia we cannot value ourselves and other people. Thymos, the seat of human dignity, is admirable and should not be erased from the soul, but we must always be vigilant of its dark side and try to keep it under control.