Thumos and the corrupting power of images

Living in a world of global communication, we are constantly subjected to round the world reports, keeping us informed about the state of ever changing violent events. A growing number of commentators explain the growth of supporters of the Islamic state by the free access of jihadist websites enticing a young, gullible audience to act upon their message of hatred and death. The evil ‘on offer’ on such websites raises profound moral issues already explored by Plato in the story of Leontion in ‘The Republic’.

Socrates recalls the story of Leontion who, on his way back from Peiraeus, notices outside the walls of the city, some corpses lying on the ground, ‘with the executioner standing by them.’ Caught between the irresistible desire to have a closer look and an equally disapproving feeling of shame, Leontion ‘struggled with himself’ before giving vent to anger at his own behaviour, ‘opening his eyes wide and saying to them, “There you are, curse you – a lovely sight! Have a real good look!’ [440a]

This short episode illustrates the existence of more subtle shades of sentiments than the instinctive ones, generally attributed to the body, alone. What Leontion is becoming aware of, here, is his self-worth as he realises that his contrary emotions highlight a moral value superior to his possible enjoyment of the macabre spectacle with total impunity. Plato sees the ‘thumos’ or spirit at work in Leontion’s moral awakening as he is not just feeling guilty of an implicit moral transgression but he is, above all, becoming aware that the situation is a telling test of his own moral worth. Leontion’s anger is not an impulsive reaction but the result of a rational judgement as it is addressed to himself and his bitter disappointment at his lack of self-control, the very quality so much valued by Plato in his Guardians.

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Technology now means we are always connected.

The ’spirit’ evoked by Leontion is a combination of emotions alleviated by reason, which explains its intermediary position in the three parts of the self. Furthermore, Socrates is now in a position to suggest that this third element ‘unless corrupted by bad upbringing, is reason’s natural auxiliary.’ [441a]. Notice that the spirit is not to be left untamed but to be nurtured and turned into the best ally of reason. Children are naturally boisterous and full of ’spirit’ before they calm down and acquire ‘some degree of reason’. Untamed, natural spirit is sheer energy and can be, indeed a potential source of violence or psychological disorder. However, when properly nurtured and channelled, spirit is a vital element of the moral self as it is the bridge between impassive reason and raw desires, between the world of ideas and the world of action. For this reason, it is instrumental in the construction of individual conscience as it shapes the attitudes to be taken towards others as well as towards oneself.

The story of Leontion has its modern echo in Sartre’s description of the voyeur in ‘Being and Nothingness’. His character is looking through a keyhole and seems to take pleasure at what he is seeing when a stranger, coming up the stairs, catches him in the act. For Sartre, the private act of voyeurism suddenly takes an immoral connotation as the man feels himself judged through the unexpected presence of the stranger. The latter does not have to say anything to awaken in the voyeur a reproving feeling of shame.

The most disturbing example of a seemingly absence of thumos is the case of private Sabina Harman, a 26 year-old woman who, while serving in the U.S Military Police Corps, posted on the Net mordid pictures of herself, showing her radiant smile and thumbs-up, next to the bodies of tortured and executed prisoners of the infamous Iraki prison of Abu Ghraib. The story epitomises the ‘desensatisation’ of young men and women in war situations and their temporary loss of the most basic feelings of compassion and respect for the dead. Commenting on Harman‘s personality, her military comrades said of her: ’Sabrina literally would not hurt a fly‘ and ‘she was just too nice to be a soldier.‘ Unlike Leontion or Sartre’s voyeur, private Harman lost touch with her ‘spirit’ when she fell under the spell of her primary instincts. Plato was, indeed, right in insisting upon the necessity to nurture this ‘power to reflect about good and evil from unreasoning passion,’ [441b/c]

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