Muses, Daimons and the Importance of Thymos

What drives an individuals agency, at least when it comes to non-philosophers? A philosopher, or lover of wisdom makes choices based on prudence, he makes a rational choice that maximizes what he judges to be his personal good on the contingency that is also conducive to the good of the city. However not everyone is or can be a philosopher, or even wants to be one. We will sidestep the questions of why this would be the case for now, questions such as: can everyone be convinced to be a philosopher if they knew it would maximize well-being, happiness and justice? The concern here for the paper is what mechanisms drive choice and action which I argue is a more subtle, innate and even a primordial cause and I believe the root of this cause lies in the concept of thymos. This isn’t the only thing that drives individual agency of course, we will see however that it plays a vital role that cannot be neglected in its relation to agency and choice. We will also need to consider to what ends these choices are directed towards, as we cannot make such assumptions a priori.

When Socrates mentions thymos, what does he mean? It is a Greek work indicating spiritedness, but this in turn is another abstraction or obfuscation to what it indicates, there is an air of mysticism about it. Early on in Book II Socrates says: “will horse or dog – or any other animal whatsoever – be willing to be courageous if it’s not spirited? Haven’t you noticed how irresistible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes every soul fearless and invincible in the face of everything?”1 These superlatives almost seem like hyperbolic gloss, but I think this is because it is not explained well enough to fully grasp what it is and have to look outside the original text to receive a vital clue. As the translator Allan Bloom notes, on the previously mentioned passage, he says:

thymos … expresses one of the most important notions in the book. Thymos is the principle or seat of anger or rage. It might well be translated by that pregnant word heart, which mirrors the complexity of the Greek. It will always be translated as spirit or spiritedness. Its use should be carefully watched.2

The key component here is the idea that it can be thought in terms of heart which indicates to me its importance as it suggests a core or central part of what I will assume is the body or perhaps more importantly the soul.

Socrates alludes to what thymos is most evocatively late in the book, in book IX he talks of a soul-in-speech which is comprised of a multiheaded (or chimera-like) creature, yet appears to be a man on the surface. “Now, then, mold another single idea for a lion, and a single one for a human being. Let the first be by far the greatest, and the second, second in size.”3 Socrates implies that for the just man it is his task to make this part of himself, that is the lion part, tame and an ally of his human side: “like a farmer, nourishing and cultivating the tame heads, while hindering the growth of the savage ones – making the lion’s nature an ally and, caring for all in common, making them friends with each other and himself.”4 Since Socrates likes to speak using analogy and metaphor we can deduce the use of the image of a lion was not done arbitrarily. The image given has connotations that speak perhaps to the character or essence of thymos. This can be inferred by a comparison Socrates makes: “And aren’t flattery and illiberality blamed when a man subjects this same part, the spirited, to the mob-like beast; and, letting it be insulted for the sake of money and the beast’s insatiability, habituates it from youth on to be an ape instead of a lion?”5 The image of the spirited part of someone as being an ape doesn’t conjure any positive connotations, while the opposite holds for the image of a lion. To think of a lion is to think of related meanings or connotations, such as nobleness, pride and strength. The closeness in the text of these two images suggests that this was the distinction that was being implied.

The same passage mentions a mob-like beast that the spirit can be subjected to. This beast I conjecture is the various desires or motivations that pulls on someone at any one time. This is an enlightening passage as the spirited part is demarcated from the mob-like beast (or several desires or whims) as there was some danger that they may be conflated. “Isn’t there something in … [the] soul bidding them to drink and something forbidding them to do so, something different that masters that which bids?”6 This bidding (or desire) as Socrates contends is held in check by a different part of the soul which is found to be the rational or calculating part, and he continues: “let these two forms in the soul be distinguished. Now, is the part that contains spirit and with which we are spirited a third, or would it have the same nature as one of these others?”7 Thymos is found to be the third constituent element of a persons soul, neither rational but not fully associated with the mob-like beast that are the desires.

When desires force someone contrary to calculation, he reproaches himself and his spirit is roused against that in him which is doing the forcing and, just as though there were two parties at faction.8

It wouldn’t be possible for there to be such a faction if spiritedness was indeed the same as nondescript desire. Also informative here is that it is, or can be, used to overcome desires whereas before there might have been thought that only “rational will” was necessary to do so. This shows us that the thymos is a component of the soul and can be given a function, but the function is not inherent and should be directed. “Isn’t it proper for the calculating part to rule, since it is wise and has forethought about all of the soul, and for the spirited part to be obedient to it and its ally?”9 This gives rise to the thought that the thymos is important because without it ones calculating part would be impotent.

Thymos is volatile and can direct a person in various ways; it is not a given that thymos is good for a person. Later in the dialogue this is hinted at with, “as for sex, and spiritedness, too, and for all the desires, pains, and pleasures in the soul that we say follow all our actions, poetic imitation produces similar results in us. For it fosters and waters them when they ought to be dried up, and sets them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled so that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more wretched.”10 This alludes to the earlier passage that one must tame their lion part –the spirited– and make it an ally, there is a shared tangential theme of what seems to be the need for the shaping of character or soul.

The soul is spoken of analogously as a metal, and there is an implicit understanding that this is done precisely so Socrates can talk about the shaping of this metal. This is implied early on in Book III:

Then, when a man gives himself to music … at first, whatever spiritedness he had, he softened like iron and made useful from having been useless and hard. But when he keeps at it and without letting up and charms his spirit, he, as the next step, already begins to melt and liquefy his spirit, until he dissolves it completely and cuts out, as it were, the sinews from his soul and makes it a ‘feeble warrior.’11

A few questions are engendered by this dialogue, such as the idea that the thymos will be useless and hard without something like music, or in other words non-malleable. That is one extreme in regards to thymos, but then it seems there is another extreme where the soul becomes dissolved or feeble. This seems like a warning and a guide on what one should do with his spiritedness, it needs to be first made malleable through music and by extension poetry but without going too far. What I believe Socrates is saying here by with the implication of going too far, is that one can be at risk of having the music dominate and lead the soul, it becomes an end instead of a means. This engenders the question of why can’t we just leave the spiritedness as is, why do we need to train ourselves with music or in other words why is this a problem?

Music is about not just pleasant sound, but more technically, rhythm and thus placement of notes and so on that creates a sort of grace. This is what is meant when it is said that such a man who doesn’t train using music, “becomes a misologist and unmusical … he goes about everything with force and savageness, like a wild beast, and he lives ignorantly and awkwardly without rhythm or grace.”12 This evokes the image of the ape that was later spoken of in Book IX, but also of its opposite the lion which possesses said grace. This also suggests that this is not just idle chatter but a warning and an exhortation. An exhortation away from the hardness and the feebleness is clear, but the alternate ends towards which by making the soul malleable is unclear. In shaping the soul in some way, it must be towards some good of the soul and thus the individual. This is perhaps grace which may be found or at least looked for in what by popular opinion is the wise, someone who has tamed their lion such as Socrates himself. However thymos is seen to be a wild beast indeed, volatile and hard to control completely. “I forgot … that we were playing and spoke rather intensely. For, as I was talking I looked at Philosophy and, seeing her underservingly splattered with mud, I seem to have been vexed and said what I had to say too seriously as though my spiritedness were aroused against those who are responsible.”13 This is embedded in a context of who is worthy of learning and exercising philosophy and in which Socrates calls the unworthy, “bastards” and “lame.” Thus we can see that even Socrates can fall prey to his thymos and let it run free which lends a sort of ungraceful air to his arguments with his ad hominem attacks.

However these attacks and this spiritedness towards the subject is warranted because the implications towards the soul also affects society as the whole. Socrates likes to make analogies and tries to link the microsocial (the individual) to the macrosocial (the city, or society) and even up to the cosmic. The most famous example of this parallelism being the city-soul analogy and here we can find the why or how thymos can actually be a dangerous thing.

But in being afraid to bring the wise to the ruling offices – because the men of that kind it possesses are no longer simple and earnest, but mixed – and in leaning towards spirited and simpler men, men naturally more directed to war than to peace … and in spending all its time making war; won’t most such aspects be peculiar to this regime?14

This is a warning against letting men rule who have not tamed – or made an ally of – their thymos for their actions derive from the soul and if that soul is at faction or not in a proper order it will consequently lead to harms such as constant war. This is persuasive enough that rulers need to have an ordered soul. The individual needs to train their thymos properly for it holds implications for the person themselves as well and not just the city: “the savage stems from the spirited part of their nature, which, if rightly trained, would be courageous; but, if raised to a higher pitch than it ought to have, would be likely to become cruel and harsh.”15 This person could possibly cause indirect harm to themselves and harm even to friends and family by their inherent cruelty. While in contrast a man with an ordered soul would make the best ruler, it isn’t told what kind of man this is or if his calculations are directed towards what is best.

To make clear, the three parts of the soul should be in a certain hierarchy in Socrates account: the bodily desires are at the low rung, the thymos subjugates the desires, and the calculating part rules and directs the thymos. The thymos and desires are demarcated from each other in Book IV: “anger sometimes makes war against the desires as one thing against something else.”16 This is what the shape of the soul should be, or how one should temper ones metal at least according to Socrates. While we are shown the consequences of not tempering ones soul in a certain mode, it by no means is saying that all men will be aiming for the same things. This is acknowledged by the account given throughout the text of the types of cities or regimes and by analogy the types of souls. “Do you know … that it is necessary that there also be as many forms of human characters as there are forms of regimes? Or do you suppose that the regimes arise from ‘oakes or rocks’ and not from the dispositions of the men in the cities, which, tipping the scale as it were, draw the rest along with them?”17 Given that there is no single type of soul, this makes problematic the definition of what exactly thymos is. We have seen that it can lead to social harms and that it is an important constituent element of a person, while a necessary component it isn’t a sufficient cause driving ones actions. The most that can be said thus far is that it is worthwhile and even noble to order and tame or channel the thymos using reason, and to use the thymos to hold back irrational desires. What is missing in this account is what the channeling is directed towards, it isn’t enough to say it is avoid personal ills, for a person may not be conscious that is what they are doing or aiming for. It also isn’t enough to say that it is for the good of the city, for a person may not actually care about the welfare of the city or would prefer to leave the matter in the hands of others. The missing component is what in contemporary times would be called values, but this terminology cannot be found in Plato. The closest analogues are the love of certain things such as: honor, money, justice, learning and wisdom. Socrates speaks about agency when he states:

justice was, at it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within … And if there are some other parts in between, he binds them together and becomes entirely one from many, moderate and harmonized. Then, and only then, he acts, if he does act in some way – either concerning the acquisition of money, or the care of the body, or something political, or concerning private contracts.18

These multiple driving sources could be called the inspirations for action, this inspiration as we see in the previous quoted passage are very secular and do not concern things such as high minded ideas like justice or the welfare of the city. They are more personal and closer to home, this inspiration is a sort of possession which Socrates says in his “case – the demonic sign – isn’t worth mentioning, for it has perhaps occurred in some one other man, or no other, before.”19 In the note attached to this passage in the text is the explanation of demon: “Daimonion – ‘of or belonging to a demon.”20 While contemporary understanding imagines demons as being evil and undesirable it did not hold the same meaning in Greek culture: “Demons are gods of lower rank, as it were, links between gods and men.”21 While Socrates shows doubt that this is in all men, or even in any other man – what I would call individual agency or free will or driving force – it does point to the possibility that this is what is pulling people to act. While in Socrates case he seems to consider this daimon to be a sort of literal possession for our purposes we will consider it as metaphorical. Allan Blooms notes are informative for our purposes here because it suggests that demons, being links between gods and men serve a divine purpose. If we are to see the relation of men and gods in a hierarchy and the demons are causing the actions of men and these demons are intermediaries, then these actions by association must be above the secular and have a tinge of the divine in them. However the doubts that Socrates has and by extension Plato has of this being applicable to others suggests that we have to look elsewhere for explanations of human agency.

Just like how there is a personification of Socrates inner drive in a demon, the Greeks also had a different personification of motivation or inspiration in the Muses. Alongside the earlier warning in the paper, of rulers who are at faction or have disordered souls is this:

and they will harvest pleasures stealthily, running away from law like boys from a father. This is because they weren’t educated by persuasion but by force – the result of neglect of the true Muse accompanied by arguments and philosophy while giving more distinguished honor to gymnastic than music.22

It is here we see that a Muse may lead one astray, this education by force brings to mind the image of the ape, and the corollary image of the lion which is educated by persuasion. There is also the implication here that what drives people is not purely an internal phenomenon but is accompanied by external sources such as demons and Muses. This is more obvious when Socrates says: “do you want us, as does Homer, to pray to the Muses to tell us how ‘faction first attacked,’ and shall we say that they speak to us with high tragic talk, as though they were speaking seriously, playing and jesting with us like children?”23 This praying to Muses informs us that they are both personified and more divine than human beings, they must be implored upon to gain answers. We can see this communication or divining by Socrates when Glaucon asks him in their discussion: “What … do the Muses say next?”24

There is a relationship between a persons thymos and the Muses. A persons muse differentiates from a muse that may be compelling someone else, just like how we saw Socrates thymos being riled up against those who “splattered mud” upon philosophy. We see that it is indeed philosophy that is Socrates personal muse when he tries to persuade his audience that only when this muse rules over a city will we have perfect justice: “[if] there has been some necessity for those who are on the peaks of philosophy to take charge of a city … in this case we are ready to do battle for the argument that the regime spoken of has been, is, and will be when this Muse has become master of a city.”25 While we see that thymos is within a person it is wild and savage and needs to be tamed, whereas other sources of motivation such as demons and Muses are external and divine. It seems to be suggested that we need these working together, to pull on and direct that internal spiritedness by communing with a Muse.

But what about when he does nothing else and never communes with a Muse? Even if there was some love of learning in his soul, because it never tastes of any kind of learning or investigation nor partakes in speech or the rest of music, doesn’t it become weak, deaf, and blind because it isn’t awakened or trained and its perceptions aren’t purified?26

We see here a suggestion of the importance of the role a Muse plays in a persons life, and it bears some relationship to the thymos.

To conclude it must be said that what drives a persons actions is constituted by a metaphorical fire-in-the-furnace that we call the thymos which can act in congruence with external factors or beings which we have discussed are demons and Muses. The latter group are external sources of inspiration that draw a person beyond themselves, beyond the thymos and other constituent parts of the soul such as bodily desires. If these sources of inspiration were purely internal it would make less sense because it would be difficult to reconcile in Plato’s account of the soul. There is some contradictory talk about being “stronger than oneself” or the “weaker being the stronger,” and these are mentioned in a totality which are the self, and the city. It is by making external sources of inspiration is it possible for their to be something greater or something to aspire to to or to admire, these being what Plato calls a muse or the Muse. If there is no communing with a muse a person lacks sufficient direction and may become like a beast, ungraceful and even unworthy. To be the most fully complete human being, it is exhorted to order oneself and the parts of his soul, then he must commune with a Muse and direct his efforts and attentions to it. If a thymos is not tamed it may run rampant and cause harms, both individual and social in nature and that is why it must be softened and tamed. The taming by itself is not sufficient though or it would sit idle, it must be channeled towards something. It has been spoken that the thymos can subjugate desires so it needs a container larger than itself to contain it, and this is the role of the muse. Working in concert the thymos and reason will direct someones actions conducive to the muse and thus keeping it in check and giving an individual a purpose for his actions.

  1. Plato. The Republic, 375b 

  2. Ibid., pg. 449 

  3. Ibid., 588b-588e 

  4. Ibid., 589a 

  5. Ibid., 590b 

  6. Ibid., 439c 

  7. Ibid., 439e 

  8. Ibid., 441e 

  9. Ibid., 441e 

  10. Ibid., 606d 

  11. Ibid., 411a-b 

  12. Ibid., 411e 

  13. Ibid., 536c 

  14. Ibid., 548a 

  15. Ibid., 410d 

  16. Ibid., 440a 

  17. Ibid., 544e 

  18. Ibid., 443d 

  19. Ibid., 496c 

  20. Ibid., note 18, pg 463 

  21. Ibid., note 55, pg 450 

  22. Ibid., 548b 

  23. Ibid., 545e 

  24. Ibid., 547b 

  25. Ibid., 499d 

  26. Ibid., 411d