Free Spirits? There was a time when that Kiwi urge to match and, if possible, to exceed the achievements of other, larger societies, extended well beyond the confines of sport. What other word but “spirited” could describe the exploits of the Anzacs at Gallipoli; the struggle of the wharfies and their trade union allies in 1951; or the 56 days of protest that greeted the 1981 Springbok Tour? What was New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance if not thymos in action?
PLATO, the Ancient Greek philosopher, likened the human psyche to a chariot in full flight. Propelling the chariot forward were two powerful horses. The first, Eros, symbolised the human pursuit of physical well-being and pleasure. The second, Thymos, symbolised the human quest for recognition and renown. Controlling these unruly steeds, in Plato’s scheme, was the charioteer, Logos, symbolising the power of reason to reconcile and balance the driving passions of humankind.
The Ancient Greeks assumed that what was true for the individual must also be true for human societies as a whole. If the masses, like individuals, are driven by a combination of the desire for comfort and pleasure and the need to be thought well of and admired, then it behoves their rulers, like any good charioteer, to strike the best balance between the masses’ psychic drivers. The trick lay in ensuring that neither Eros nor Thymos became too strong. In no other context was the Ancient Greek maxim: “moderation in all things” more highly prized than politics.
It is important to note here that thymos has a meaning over and above the quest for recognition and renown. It also describes the quality of “spiritedness” – as in a spirited stallion, or a spirited debate. It’s a quality most of us have little difficulty in recognising, but frequently struggle to define.
A person, or a society, in which the quality of thymos was lacking would have no desire to seek recognition or renown. They would be preoccupied with securing creature comforts and pursuing strictly personal and private gratifications. Making money and amassing possessions would count for much more than making a name for themselves or amassing the good opinions of their fellow citizens. Such people might best be described as the inhabitants of an “erotic” society.
Has New Zealand society become “eroticised” in this way? Has Logos, our charioteer, given Eros his head, while reining Thymos in? Are we being driven in circles?
Not on the sporting field we’re not. In fact, it is difficult to imagine an environment more expressive of thymos than the world of New Zealand sport. When the All Blacks perform the haka they become the living embodiment of thymotic power.
And yet, there is something about the professionalization and commercialisation of sport that smacks more than a little of the erotic. The days of amateur Rugby players: of the men who competed for nothing more than recognition and renown among their countrymen; are long gone. Today, we are invited to consume the performances of our sporting heroes in ways that are barely distinguishable from the ways we are encouraged to consume the products of their sponsors.
The fate of New Zealand sport echoes the fate of New Zealand society generally. There was a time when that Kiwi urge to match and, if possible, to exceed the achievements of other, larger societies, extended well beyond the confines of sport. What other word but “spirited” could describe the exploits of the Anzacs at Gallipoli; the struggle of the wharfies and their trade union allies in 1951; or the 56 days of protest that greeted the 1981 Springbok Tour? What was New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance if not thymos in action?
That so many New Zealanders no longer feel driven to “punch above their weight” should prompt us to question just how rationally and reasonably our charioteers have acted over the past 30 years.
Clearly “spiritedness” was not a quality they felt comfortable encouraging. But, equally clearly, they were more than happy to encourage Kiwis to consume as much as they could afford – and more. Somehow, the reasonable charioteers, who had understood the need to keep the erotic and thymotic urges evenly balanced in New Zealand society, had been usurped.
Those currently in charge of New Zealand no longer argue for a political settlement that recognises the needs of body and spirit. The propensity of thymos to challenge the lassitude and moral cowardice of erotic societies renders it subversive in the eyes of our new charioteers. Reason, rationality, wisdom: the key attributes of Plato’s logos; have become synonymous with the unconstrained transactions of the marketplace. Spirited citizens have been replaced by docile consumers.
Nothing captures New Zealand’s psychic subversion like the selfie. There was a time when thymotic Kiwis made the world photograph them. Now erotic Kiwis photograph themselves.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 April 2016.