May 30, 2007

Maureen Dowd: How We’re Animalistic — in Good Ways and Bad

Filed under: Uncategorized — Volt @ 7:00 pm

Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, May 30, 2007

The odd thing is that conservatives wear pinstriped suits, when they really should be walking around in togas. The main contribution of the Greeks to modern American politics may have been Michael Dukakis, who once climbed the Acropolis in wingtips.

But that doesn’t stop conservatives — especially the Straussians who pushed for going into Iraq — from being obsessed with ancient Greece, and from believing that they are the successors to Plato and Homer in terms of the lofty ideals and nobility and character in American politics — while Democrats merely muck about with policies for the needy.

Harvey Mansfield, a leading Straussian who teaches political science at Harvard and who wrote a book called “Manliness” (he’s for it), gave the Jefferson lecture recently at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington.

It was an ode, as his book is, to “thumos,” the Greek word that means spiritedness, with flavors of ambition, pride and brute willfulness. Thumos, as Philip Kennicott wrote in The Washington Post, “is a word reinvented by conservative academics who need to put a fancy name on a political philosophy that boils down to ‘boys will be boys.’ ”

Mr. Mansfield did not mention the war, which is a downer at conclaves of neocons and thumos worshippers. But he explained that thumos is “the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat.” In thumos, he added, “we see the animality of man, for men (and especially males) often behave like dogs barking, snakes hissing, birds flapping. But precisely here we also see the humanity of the human animal” because it is reacting for “a reason, even for a principle, a cause. Only human beings get angry.”

The professor used an example, naturally, from ancient Greece to explain why politics should be about revolution rather than equilibrium: “What did Achilles do when his ruler Agamemnon stole his slave-girl? He raised the stakes. He asserted that the trouble was not in this loss alone but in the fact that the wrong sort of man was ruling the Greeks. Heroes, or at least he-men like Achilles, should be in charge rather than lesser beings like Agamemnon who have mainly their lineage to recommend them and who therefore do not give he-men the honors they deserve. Achilles elevated a civil complaint concerning a private wrong to a demand for a change of regime, a revolution in politics.” Mr. Mansfield concluded: “To complain of an injustice is an implicit claim to rule.”

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