Warrior Way and The Greek ‘Thymos’

PRELUDE

A friend has drawn my attention to two books on ‘the warrior’s struggles’ by Jonathan Shay= ‘Achilles In Viet Nam’, and ‘Odysseus.’ My friend says, the first is about thymos, and the damage arising from the violation of thymos. The second is about metis or cunning and the threats to returning home psychologically and spiritually from war. He adds that, Shay sees thymos as ‘character’, and asks, does this fit with what the older warrior way calls ‘heart’?

The short answer is, yes and no..

1,

Thymos in Greek is an energy. It goes back to, or was formulated by, Plato in the ‘Republic’, where he divides the soul into the 3= reason, desire, spirit. Thymos is ‘spirit.’ When Greeks have translated its root for me, they stress a three-fold kind of energy= [1] ‘life force’, or vitality, [2] ‘fighting passion’, [3] ‘spirited.’ [So if a person said ‘my spirits are low today’, it would say that their thymos is ‘down.’] What my Judo teacher used to call ‘fighting spirit’ is obviously implicated= the Greek thymos must be close, even if not identical to, the Japanese ‘hara’ located in the solar plexus.

Thus= passion of life, passion of fighting, and a passion which is opened up to spirit working through its passionateness [‘enthusiasmos’= to be possessed by a god]. Thymos is all that. In the North American Indian way, thymos would be linked to ‘strength.’ The litany in the Cante Tenze is ‘be strong.’ Without thymos, no strength. Even this phrase in Lakota can mean both ‘Brave’ and ‘Strong’ of Heart. These days the preference is to translate it “Strong Hearts”, rather than “Brave Hearts.” But the two descriptions are part of one and the same thing= the thymos.

In fact, thymos= balls, guts, spirit — for hard action.

A ‘spirited’ person has the energy ‘to take it on.’ Being down about it, or backing off from it, and refusing to endure and bear what must be carried to see it through, is a failure of thymos. Not surprisingly, thymos is worthy of ‘respect’, because it signifies that energy/spirit in us not afraid, not weak, not lazy, in taking on hard action. Though we have to learn to respect people for just being human, and for all the pain they invariably go through, nevertheless we instinctively find it difficult to respect people who are giving in to fear, weakness, laziness= taking the easy way out. Thymos, then, is vitally connected to ‘respect’, perhaps most importantly ‘self-respect.’ We know when we are funking it, and thus our thymos reproaches us. ‘You can do more’, it says.

Modern Greeks use thymos for ‘anger.’ But the older roots of the term seem to carry that expanded Daemonic meaning of anger crucial to understanding passion of heart= ‘anger for truth’, and thus ‘to do what is right, without regard to consequences.’

Thymos= courage; and toughness and resilience; and openness to divine inspiration in battle frenzy. [An altered state of consciousness= just as desire can be swept away in ecstasy by Eros, so the Daemonic can seize thymos and inform its battling. The Viking warriors known as ‘berserkers’ went into trance, and were possessed by the spirit of the Bear, giving them the ability to go forward without anything being able to stop them. Wounds are not felt until much later.]

Thymos is an aspect of the Heart — as desire is clearly an aspect of Soul, and reason of Mind. But the heart is ‘pathos and thymos’, and they have a mysterious link. A true warrior cannot have thymos without the wound of pathos. Both soldier and thug are in denial towards pathos, so use thymos in a more shallow way. Pathos=black; thymos=red. The red comes from the black.

Greek warriors had a false notion of glory seeking, wanting to be immortal. Thymos made them strong, and lifted them up, out of the ordinary run of ball-less, gut-less, un-spirited men= without courage, weak. Greek warriors saw ‘honour’ as this courage/strength that raises you to immortality= your name lives forever, after you die. Ordinary mortals die and are forgotten. Thus glory is a sort of superiority, an excellence, that raises the mortal to the level of the immortal, almost a god..

This is not the true warrior. Plains Indian ‘honour’ is different. Crazy Horse said, “I love the ways of war, but the ways of war are hard to live up to..” Honour in this culture serves something fundamentally different to the individual’s glorification/elevation out of the run of the mill mediocrity, his ‘excellence’, which makes him very individual, and special. Honour signifies keeping a vow, a promise, that the person declares publicly and visibly, to friend and enemy alike. Living up to honour can still be called excellence. In old China, ‘excellence’ is the best translation for ‘character.’ So, true excellence is an existential, and ascetic, struggle to live up to something hard, and this is a struggle for ‘uprightness.’ Rising to the task, standing for something, is what a warrior does. He stands on heart in himself and stands up for heart in the world.

We grow in ‘integrity’, we can keep our promises, keep our vows, without betraying them– which would betray not only the truest the world can ever be but also the truest we can ever be. This growth in integrity means becoming more constant and reliable in the hard way, hence it creates strength both existential and moral, and it can therefore be seen as acquiring ‘virtue.’ The backbone we grow is that virtue, and it is an ‘excellence’, and it does correspond to what the older cultures [and Victorian England] called ‘character.’ Not= “what a character!”, rather, “that guy has character, he will see it through.” My 101 year old grandmother calls such character ‘sand’, as in ‘he/she has sand.’ So, ‘weight’, ‘gravitas’, ‘won’t be pushed off and blown away’, is also implied. This is not just blind obdurateness, nor does it preclude cutting your sail to changes in the wind; but once you are ‘staked to the ground’, like the Cante Tenze sash wearer, you cannot ever yourself take the stake out of the ground. A brother has to, life has to, God has to– because once you are staked, you are there, and not leaving, unless dead.

In this way thymos does indeed become linked to “integrity, virtue, backbone, excellence, character.”

However, there is another dynamic that adds to the difficulty.

“He who knows himself is greater than he who raises the dead” [St Isaac of Syria].

It is necessary to master ‘fighting ourselves’ before we can master ‘fighting the world.’ Consequently, backbone has an inner, not just an outer, aspect. The old Chinese said, he who masters himself is greater than he who masters the world. But of course, the former is necessary to the latter. You overcome yourself to be able to overcome in the world.

This point shades into another= in dramatic hero stories, the hero’s enemy is often a mirror of his own shadow, his own unacknowledged ‘dark’ side. So, there is a sense in which every warrior’s greatest enemy is himself; and often the enemy he faces in the outer world is just like the enemy in the inner world who is a different aspect of himself. This wisdom guards against the primitive idea, recently pushed by Bush and Blair, that the ‘bad’ is all outside me, over there, while the ‘good’ is all inside me, in here. This dualism is childish; “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” [1 John, 1, 8]. Only when we face up to the distortion and corruption hidden in our shadow does God “forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [1 John, 1, 9]. The evil in us that is not acknowledged by us continues, underground, unchallenged..

Those who least fight the enemy inside are the most keen to go to war to fully annihilate the same enemy outside.

Thus does moral ‘crusading’ arise.

A warrior, unlike a soldier or a thug, knows that he must fight the enemy within, because he has a different relationship to the enemy without. He realizes at a certain point in his wrestlings with his own dark side that he is condemned to remain blind to the real enemy who is ‘other’ until he can differentiate that outside reality from his own shadow self which is constantly being projected outward. Yet, conversely, this does not imply we don’t have an enemy in the world whom we may well have to fight, and fight ferociously. In Hinduism, the famous story in the Bhagavad-Gita tells of the deity Krishna who forces the prince Arjuna to fight his own family in a war to the death– violating a huge social taboo against breaking up the family. Yet the hero has to go to war, and with ‘his own’, and this is divinely required.

But, if thymos is given over to the wrong notion of honour [not unlike the wrong Eros seducing soul desire], then all this subtly changes. The same terms acquire a different meaning.

Therefore, anyone who roots their understanding of thymos in Achilles runs the risk of distorting honour, and producing the wrong ‘excellence’ or ‘character.’ This might show up as an arrogance in our strength such as gripped Nietzsche, looking down on weaker people, rather than using strength to serve them, in their weakness, to try to raise them. Warrior strength is to encourage the people’s strength: this hero says to the people, “I am what you can be, and really are.” It is a different dynamic. The Medieval knight is in feeling closer to the North American Indian– because of the sense of the greater serving the lesser. This is chivalrous, compassionate, ‘patronage’ in the best sense. Even Japanese samurai were much too obsessed with serving their feudal lord; hence Japanese militarism eventually went into fascism. A film that did reveal a truer honour in ‘giri’ was ‘The Yakuza’, with a Japanese actor who is in reality an expert swordsman and Robert Mitchum, set in Tokyo. Almost the most moving film on the warrior ever..

It is significant that in many ancient Indigenous and Shamanic cultures round the world, it is in reality the war gods who are the most protective, helpful, and beneficial, toward early humanity. These war gods are also more involved in a personal way with humanity’s fate. The Daemonic is tough, and can be harsh at times, yet it is never mean spirited, judgmental, perfectionist. Rather, it is radically chivalrous. This is why strength goes with tenderness, the savage with gentleness.

There is, then, a vast gulf between the honour that is tied to a hyper individualistic power lusting and the honour that is rooted in the truth of heart. A warrior’s heart will make sacrifice for other hearts, and this expresses a very different ground for the honour that must be struggled with if it is to be lived up to. This is the real ‘uprightness.’ This is Jewish ‘righteousness.’

A warrior is driven by honour, and the honour always at stake in his battles is the honour of God, and the honour of the people. What heart do we follow? This is the question of whether we have any honour worthy of respect in ourself and in others.

2,

The importance of the link between pathos and thymos, which is the black–red of passion, is mostly over-looked in accounts of the warrior.

There is a moment where Achilles touches pathos, not just thymos.

Do you recall the story of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad? Achilles first sulked in his tent and wouldn’t fight for the Greeks, having been slighted by their king Agamemnon, then his cousin is killed in his place, and finally he goes out in a battle frenzy and slaughters hundreds of Trojans and at last kills Hector, the Trojan champion. After this ‘victory’, he drags the body from the back of his chariot, in front of the Trojan walls, to show total disrespect for the Trojans and their war leader. Achilles is insane with grief and rage. Later, however, king Priam of the Trojans risks his life to sneak at night into the Greek camp, and appears in Achilles’ tent. The old man simply begs Achilles for the body of his dead son Hector. And because Achilles is still hurting over his loss of the cousin, he actually empathizes with the old man’s pain. They meet human to human, despite being sworn enemies fighting to the death.

Aristotle says much about this incident, it almost forms his central thesis about ‘drama.’ Certainly it is a moving moment, full of pathos, not just thymos; Achilles grows in this moment of encounter, and his warriorship shifts, out of compassion for his enemy. Because he feels for Priam, he also feels for the fallen Hector. He hurts in a different way. He undergoes that mysterious’ descent into the deeper ground of heart that gets you beyond personal grief and opens you to the universal grief in all humanity. It is only at this point that Achilles — the supreme fighting hero, literally an unbeatable warrior — becomes something more, the real warrior of heart, not just the fighter from the stomach ‘hara.’ We do need balls, guts, spirit, in order to fight; but these must also be ‘filtered’ through the heart. It is just here, at this late moment in Homer’s Iliad, in this mutual weeping of enemies, that Achilles acquires his heart.

The ‘uprightness of character’ is certainly laudable, and worthy of respect, but it is not the same as what many older warrior traditions call the ‘heart.’ David, ancestor of the Messiah, has a powerful thymos initially – as a youth he defeats in battle the giant Goliath – yet his betrayal of his friend by sending him to certain death in battle in order to steal away the man’s wife indicates a weakness of character, a lack of uprightness, and so a severe deficiency in passion; yet, through his suffering over this and his deep delving into the heart through the troubles, and torments, of his life as it continues, David becomes a true king, a royal heart. Perhaps he finally regains a certain ‘standing’, but if his thymos returns to him, it is only after dark times of wrestling with his own failure of heart. Pathos ‘schools’ his thymos, and makes it not just sweat, but ready to weep and to bleed.

This anticipates the Messianic, by uniting strength of character with the suffering that alone can deepen the heart. In Yahweh, ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’ are conjoined.

So, the question to put to any account of warriorhood is, [1] does it link pathos [suffering] to thymos [fighting]? and [2] does it differentiate the honour that is the fighter’s heart, not just his balls, guts, spirit?

If the answer is ‘no’ to either or both questions, then such an account is not talking of the truer warrior way that is lived still here and there in ‘remnants’ round the globe, and anticipates the Messianic, since Righteousness anticipates Redemption.

3,

The Greater protects, and in the end even sacrifices itself for the sake of, the Lesser. This is its ‘honour.’ The Greater declares its strength in service of the lesser, and once this pledge is solemnly given, it is never betrayed. Honour is to keep the pledge you freely make. Thus honour, in this two-fold sense, reveals a royal heart, a heart genuinely noble, a heart great in standing and a heart deep in what it will suffer, carry, pay.

Hoka hey!