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Imran Khan and ‘Thymos’

The former premier’s battle for self-respect and freedom is undermined by Pakistan’s economic situation

by Khaled Ahmed

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan constantly refers to “khud-dari” (self-respect) and “freedom” of action as the qualities that Pakistan must aspire to if it wants to survive as a state. He is referring to a fundamental and deeply buried primitive instinct that all human beings secretly aspire to and judge the world by. Regardless of its low economic standing—the only standard secretly recognized today—a state must not accept “insult” from other states enjoying a higher economic status. He invites the world to respect the principles embedded in the charters of international organizations but ignored in reality.

Francis Fukuyama, in his classic study Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018), brings up Socrates’ coinage—Thymos—“the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity; and isothymia (equal thymos) is the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people; while “megalothymia” is the desire to be recognized as superior.”

Living in an economically defined world

But living in the “reality” of an “economically defined” world Imran Khan has hurt Pakistan while heroically pursuing “thymos.” He offended Pakistan’s Arab friends by trying, unrealistically, to hold an Islamic Summit in Malaysia with the help of Turkey. He offended Iran by participating in a military exercise in Azerbaijan—along with his Turkish soulmate Erdogan—and has fallen from power after asserting “thymos” in the face of Europe and the United States, which he has accused of taking “revenge” by instigating a “conspiracy” to overthrow his government.

Aristotle referred to thymos when talking of the city state of his time—much like the state of Madina heralded by Imran Khan—but modern liberal democracies too promise and largely deliver a minimal degree of equal respect, embodied in individual rights, the rule of law, and right to franchise. (Under Imran Khan, only poverty and economic malfunction undermine it.) What this does not guarantee is that people in a democracy will be equally respected in practice, particularly members of groups with a history of marginalization. Entire countries can feel disrespected, which has powered aggressive nationalism, as can religious believers who feel their faith is denigrated. “Isothymia” (equal respect) has therefore continued to drive demands for equal recognition unlikely to ever be completely fulfilled in a competitive world.

Thymos or mega-thymos?

But Khan is prone to over-indulgence. The other big problem is “megalothymia” (big ego). In the West, liberal democracies have been pretty good at providing peace and prosperity. These wealthy, secure societies are the domain of Nietzsche’s Last Man, “men without chests” who spend their lives in the endless pursuit of consumer satisfaction, but who have nothing at their core, no higher goals or ideals for which they are willing to strive and sacrifice. Such a life will not satisfy everyone. (Idealist Imran Khan may indeed be thinking like this in private.) Megalothymia thrives on exceptionality: taking big risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects, because all of these lead to “recognition of oneself as superior to others.” In some cases, it can lead to a heroic leader like a Lincoln or a Churchill or a Nelson Mandela—or Imran Khan? In some cases it can lead to tyrants like Caesar or Hitler who led their societies into dictatorship and disaster—a possibility Khan would be best served to avoid if he is re-elected as prime minister in future.

Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. It is not confined to the identity politics practiced on university campuses, or to the white nationalism it has provoked, but extends to broader phenomena such as the upsurge of old-fashioned nationalism and “politicized Islam.” Much of what passes for economic motivation is actually rooted in the demand for recognition and therefore cannot simply be satisfied by economic means.

National dignity and indignation

Fukuyama writes: “The inner sense of dignity seeks recognition. It is not enough that I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it or, worse yet, if they denigrate me or don’t acknowledge my existence. Self-esteem arises out of esteem by others. Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth. Identity politics thus encompasses a large part of the political struggles of the contemporary world, from democratic evolutions to new social movements, from nationalism and Islamism to the politics on contemporary American university campuses. Indeed, the philosopher Hegel argued that the struggle for recognition was the ultimate driver of human history, a force that was key to understanding the emergence of the modern world.”

Imran Khan may be aiming to achieve the above for Pakistan but is undermined by a lack of (economic) realism. No one contests that human beings are capable of rational behavior, or that they are self-interested individuals who seek greater wealth and resources. But human psychology is much more complex than the rather simpleminded economic model suggests. Before we can understand contemporary identity politics, we need to develop a deeper understanding of human motivation and behavior. As Fukuyama wrote “we need, in other words, a better theory of the human soul.”

Dignity through hostility or wealth?

More than two millennia before its advent, Socrates understood something unrecognized by modern economics. Desire and reason are component parts of the human psyche (soul), but a third part, “thymos”, acts completely independently of the first two. Thymos is the seat of judgments of worth. Human beings do not just want things that are external to themselves, such as food, drink, they also crave positive judgments about their worth and dignity. Those judgments can come from within; but they also are most often made by other people in the society around them who recognize their worth. If they receive that positive judgment, they feel pride, and if they do not receive it, they feel either anger (when they think they are being undervalued) or shame (when they realize that they have not lived up to other people’s standards).

Socrates suggests that the thymotic guardians are like dogs who are vicious toward strangers and loyal to their masters. As warriors they must be courageous; they must be willing to risk their lives and undergo hardship in a way that neither the merchant class nor the deliberative class would. In today’s world however it is not “masculine” Imran Khan but the “exporting” millionaires comparable to half a dozen of this ilk in India. Anger and pride rather than reason or desire motivates the thymotic leaders like Imran Khan to take the risks they do. Self-isolation is an ingredient of the makeup of tragic hero in classical literature.

Alien to economic thymos

Socrates reflects the quality of the classical world, indeed, the reality of most civilizations around the world that possessed an aristocratic class whose claim to high social status lay in the fact that they, or their ancestors, were warriors. The Greek word for “gentleman” was “kaloskagathos” or “beautiful and good,” while the very word “aristocracy” derives from the Greek term “rule by the best.” These warriors were seen as morally different from shopkeepers because of their virtue: they were willing to risk their lives for the public good. Honor accrued only to people who deliberately rejected rational utility maximization—our modern economic model—in favor of those who were willing to risk the most important utility of all, their lives.

While Socrates associates thymos primarily with the class of guardians, he also seems to think that all human beings possess all three parts of the soul. Thymos is the part of the soul that seeks recognition. In the Republic, only a narrow class of people sought recognition of their dignity, on the basis of their willingness to risk their lives as warriors. Yet the desire for recognition also seems to lie within every human soul. The shopkeepers or artisans or beggars on the street can also feel the pang of disrespect. Alas the only thing that works is self-improvement and “competitive” flexibility of approach toward those who have done better materially. A useless thymos will only bring more collective grief.

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