Clearly one and the same thing cannot act or be affected in opposite ways at the same time in the same part of it and in relation to the same object; so if we find these contradictions, we shall know we are dealing with more than one faculty.- Plato’s Republic
When I was at Oxford I was very lucky to be able to take a paper on Plato’s Republic. I didn’t know at the time what a profound impact those two months, punctuated by weekly tutorials with classical philosophy expert Paulo Crivelli would have on me. Oxford tuition is incredibly intense because it asks you to produce two papers a week about a topic that is completely new to you, and defend it with experts on the subject. When I wasn’t in the dusty, and slightly crusty environment of the Oxford Philosophy library, I was in my bedroom, surrounded by dog-eared books. I spent copious amounts of time making notes, notes that I still have today.
I got into Philosophy out of a desire to answer the big questions I had in my life. I was nineteen years ago, I’d come out the year previously, and to be honest, I didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t have a real guiding principle. If I was completely honest, I didn’t know how I had ended up at Oxford and if I really wanted to be there. Yet here I was immersed in studying the translation of a translation of a translation of a philosopher who was alive around 2,500 years. And I was finding it incredibly relevant to my own life.
Through the Republic, Plato was really trying to answer what makes a good and just person. And in that he gets involved in a discussion about the soul. Now, Plato firmly believed that the body and soul were two distinct things, and that the soul existed before the body. This is where a lot of people lose attention and decide that Plato was a bit nuts, usually drawing on a bit of Karl Popper along the way. But Plato didn’t really intend us to get caught up in those kind of distinctions. You can substitute ‘soul’ for ‘person’ and it all works just as well.
Plato argued that there were three parts of the person, each with its own characteristics and with each having its own function. There is a rational part, which is responsible for calculating and ruling the rest of the body. The rational part wants the person to achieve a higher good, and to know what truth is. It’s really the right person to be in charge. It’s your body’s Scrum Leader.
Then there’s an appetitive part – the bit that wants food, drink and sex, and doesn’t do any kind of calculation of its own. Sure, we all need to eat and have sex, but if that part of us was in charge, I think we can all agree that there would be problems.
It’s the third part however that has bewitched philosophers and thinkers over the years, and that’s this idea of Thumos. Thumos is a word without a literal translation, but it’s a feeling we all recognise. Some people have called it “spiritedness” or “anger” but that doesn’t seem to capture it. It’s part of the music of our lives – a feeling within us that defies rational explanation.
It’s a fearless, courageous part of us, defined by its courage and sheer indomitability. And by God, we notice when it has gone. When its gone, we lack purpose and passion. We lack self-esteem direction, vision, concreteness. It’s the continued frustration of this that causes us to be dissatisfied in our personal relationships and our work. It’s the primary cause of both burnout and revolutions.
Like many of you, I’ve worked in jobs where I’ve been aware of my own Thumos – for better of worse. We’ve all experienced the feeling of being really fired up to go to work and solve hard problems, and we’ve all worked in environments where we’ve felt like we’re battling against our own indifference. Often we say that it’s time to get out at that point, but it’s not always that easy.
The modern workplace, with its emphasis on ‘agile’, ‘sprints’ , ‘burndowns’ and ‘deliverables’ (I don’t mean to pick on agile here, really) neglects the importance of Thumos. You may have completed your set amount of ‘Story Points’ for the week, but where is the sense of achievement if you don’t really feel like you’ve accomplished anything?
There’s a real problem with workplace productivity today, yet we have never had so many ways (from tea breaks to music to progressive working policies and working from home) or so much literature written about boosting it. Could it be that in our drive to make people more productive, we’ve actually ended up squashing their passion for doing the job?
Of course, it’s vitally important that we don’t allow our sense of Thumos to wander out of control. We need the rational part of our brain, just as we need to keep ourselves fed and watered. But there are days when I’ve come home and found that my life is lacking a sense of passion and purpose. Maybe you’ve felt the same?