Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Death Of Kiwi “Spiritedness”.

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.

18 comments:

Puddleglum said...

I think the notion of collective 'spirit' has been co-opted, privatised and subjectivised via the rhetoric of its etymologically close relative: 'aspiration'.

In that way, 'thymos' has become constrained to the sphere of the individual. Once that's achieved it's then a short step to subsume it under the consumerist and materialist values of 'eros (fame and fortune)' and so establish them at the centre of a society.

Kat said...

New Zealanders not punching above their weight......selfies and mincing on the catwalk......John Key specialties. With the PM showing the way what more can you expect.

greywarbler said...

I am thinking of how we used to look to the USA and the progressive spirit we believed it had. We felt with our spirit we could grow into a great little country. We had the move forward along the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. Labour was keen to set the base of our rise with hearings about Maori claims arising from past malefactions from pakeha. Thank God that was done, but the Ayn Randian reactions arose and there are virtual mafia in the National government, and many in Labour feel the spirit of the country in a far different way than experienced in the earlier spirited government.

And the citizens have great difficulty with their spirit of enterprise that provides national earnings that remain here to circulate and provide the base for other small businesses, employment, living wages and hours, and a life worth living. When people or nations are starved and diseased they tend to limit themselves, they resort to junk food, bonds, goods,for immediate relief. Short term props, not for long term solutions. I'm very bad in my ways of plant raising, I get distracted with something else requiring attention, the plant droops and sometimes all my reparations and care do not restore it. That's what is happening to us in NZ, much irreplaceably lost, and it is very dispiriting to those who care to notice.

Wayne Mapp said...

I was rather inclined to dismiss this article as Chris being curmudgeonly. Another protest against neo-liberalim al all its evil works.

New Zealand seems perfectly capable at producing the modest, somewhat self effacing leaders as it has even been. Just think of Richie McCaw relative to the All Blacks of earlier times. Or Sir Jerry Mataparae. Similarly in the artistic world or the realm of science New Zealanders continue to excel, perhaps even with greater success than ever before.

But the Herald yesterday gave me pause for thought. A full front page devoted to Hillary Barry!

Now I would not put that down to the National Party, as Chris would have us believe. Rather it seems a world wide trend.

But coming back to my initial point. Does this (and the attendant interest in social media) really mean a basic change in the New Zealand character?

I think not, there are so many examples of people from all ages and all situations in society that point the opposite direction.



Anonymous said...

It seems to me that you are describing the complete front bench of the Labour party, plus James Shaw.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it come down to the so-called values division ie 'resume values' versus 'eulogy values'

To be frank, I'd be irritated in extremis if someone got up at my funeral and proceeded to read out my CV.

Too many NZers these days are bound by resume values.

Last month a friend of mine who took a Philosophy degree from Otago asked a 20-something colleague 'what he was reading?'.

The youngster replied: 'Oh I don't read, I don't have time.'

Perhaps he should have finished the sentence: 'I don't have time to build and expand my character and knowledge.'

But isn't that what the Neo-Liberal Masters of the Universe want? Dumb and characterless kids?

Barry said...


"When the All Blacks perform the 'haka' they become the embodiment of ... " primitive Stone-Age ugliness!

Nick J said...

Yes Wayne the Hillary Barry business really made me wonder too!

Let's face it pretty much all of us can read from an auto cue, there's lots of men and women who scrub up well and could look good on a screen. Yet the reader of news stories morphs effortlessly in the public eye as the story. The power of the media or the mindless vacuity of the populace who can't distinguish one from the other? Who knows you tell me. No wonder a man famous for firing people on a "reality" show looks like the next US president.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"When the All Blacks perform the 'haka' they become the embodiment of ... " primitive Stone-Age ugliness!

Would you say that about the bagpiper that plays on Anzac morning? Or the Dunedin city pipe band that plays before Highlanders games? It's much the same thing. If there is any primitive stone age ugliness around here it's in your comment. The face of New Zealand's mean-spirited bullshit reigns supreme there obviously.

Anonymous said...

Lets' face it when it comes to Hilary Barry, she is light years away in intellect, credibility, and doing the stuff real journalists should be doing from, say, Jeremy Paxman, Christopher Hitchens, or John Pilger etc

We've fallen so far away from credible journalism in NZ, I only read quality foreign newspapers online eg Guardian, New York Times etc

The reality is most NZers don't know what good journalism is or what a good journalist looks like.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


"Yes Wayne the Hillary Barry business really made me wonder too!"

She is maximising her earning potential here. She can sell the story to the woman's weekly or some such. Plus as the "aunt/stepmother" whatever of the nation - whoever publishes the story of her retirement probably gets a few extra clicks as well. That's all perfectly in line with Wayne's neoliberal philosophy. Don't know what all the fuss is about.

jh said...

Thymos, symbolised the human quest for recognition and renown
...
How does that sit with "celebrate diversity"?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Lets' face it when it comes to Hilary Barry, she is light years away in intellect, credibility, and doing the stuff real journalists should be doing from, say, Jeremy Paxman, Christopher Hitchens, or John Pilger etc"

That's because she's a newsreader, not a journalist?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Thymos, symbolised the human quest for recognition and renown
...
How does that sit with "celebrate diversity"?

If you don't know that it's got nothing to do with celebrating diversity then maybe you should stop fucking posting. Because all you're doing is writing random shit about immigration – yet again. Jesus wept, I'm not actually for a great deal of immigration – probably for different reasons from you, but even I'm sick of it.

Anonymous said...

Objection to John Pilger as an ideal power-challenging journalist. He was so incredibly enthusing when he talked to Kim Hill on National Radio in the 90s. In that dark period of oppressive national political life. I don't really know the details of his fall-out with Kim Hill on TV in 2003 - her or his ego? But I read a book of his essays where he mangled the Rogernome coup in NZ, and no longer had the same faith in him.

Victor said...

I suspect it was HIS ego.

I've met Kim on a number of occasions. Her ego is certainly jumbo-sized but so is her sense of professionalism and fairness.

Pilger seemed to be in a predetermined huff on the occasion in question. There was neither rhyme nor reason to his behaviour...just self-importance and faux outrage.

Unknown said...

Diversity Dividend
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html?_r=0

ngawaka19 said...

""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.""

Spot on

Great read thanks