- Thymotic Politics:Sloterdijk, Strauss, and Neoconservatism
Peter Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time (2006) argues for the political significance of rage. To do this Sloterdijk turns to the Greek concept thymos which “signifies the impulsive centre of the proud self” (2006, 11). He places rage, or thymos, at the center of a historical narrative spanning Homeric myth, Christian theology and revolutionary politics. Sloterdijk emphasises the Homeric form of thymos through the figure of Achilles, as “rage celebrates a force that frees human beings from vegetable numbness” (2006, 5). Sloterdijk’s contention is that “we have not only stopped to judge and feel like the peoples of old, we secretly despise them for remaining ‘children of their time’” (2006, 5). The loss of an understanding of rage, the dynamic force of the political, leaves modern Western culture cut-off from the political itself. We may infer that the contemporary subject is, without access to rage, trapped in this state of “vegetable numbness.” Furthermore, rage is described as that which elevates the human subject; “wherever rage flames up… the identification of the human being with his driving forces realises itself” (2006, 10). The thymotic soul is identified with the human, but “for everyday people the evidence of the moment remains out of reach” (2006, 10). Those who have been domesticated through the city are cut off from thymos and therefore from self-realization.
The “proud self” desires prestige which is reliant upon intersubjective relationships, in other words, what is being re-developed is a politics of recognition. Sloterdijk attempts to build what he calls a “theory of thymotic unities” (2006, 20) which defines political groups through thymotic tension, or lack thereof. Within this schema, rhetoric is the field upon which thymos is controlled. “Thymotic unities,” the politics of group pride and recognition, act as carriers of thymos within the context of city, with the city being the arena in which thymos is domesticated. Within the group “rhetoric… is applied thymotics” (2006, 20). Rhetoric has the power to form a group by focusing individual rage, based on a supposed lack of recognition, towards collective action. Within the group, collective pride acts to satisfy one through the success of another. Organized politics acts as an “economy of rage” (2006, [End Page 269] 26) in which political organization contains, stores and releases rage to enact political change in the anticipation of future satisfaction. Importantly, the act itself achieves a form of self-respect and gives pride to the enraged, satisfying the thymotic soul. It is through this that Sloterdijk reads the history of revolutionary politics.
Sloterdijk acknowledges that he owes a debt in his understanding of thymos to Leo Strauss. Sloterdijk believes it is through Strauss that we have come to know Plato as “the psychologist of self-respect” (2006, 23) through his theory of thymos. At this point Sloterdijk also cites, in a footnote, Francis Fukuyama whom we owe “one of the best summaries of the ancient and more recent discourses about thymos” in the “rich passages” of The End of History and the Last Man (2006, 233), Fukuyama’s best-selling book. Sloterdijk incorrectly notes that Fukuyama was a student of Strauss. Fukuyama was in fact taught by Allan Bloom, who was taught by Strauss, and later by Harvey Mansfield. Significantly, Bloom’s commentary on Plato’s Republic focuses much more heavily on thymos than does Strauss’.
Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Sloterdijk tells us, is one “of the few works of contemporary political philosophy that touch upon the essence of our time” (2006, 36). Sloterdijk’s argument should be understood as a response to the theory of thymos that is found in Strauss and Fukuyama, and also, though not acknowledged by Sloterdijk, Allan Bloom. For these Straussians liberal modernity has produced a situation where the Last Men, whose intellectual and material needs have been met, are in fact empty-chested (Fukuyama 1992, 300-312). Sloterdijk follows Fukuyama who himself followed Strauss in reaction against Alexandre Kojève’s conception of the post-historical situation. In his correspondence with Kojève, Strauss argued that the universal recognition that Kojève described would in fact be impossible...