DebateThe megalothymians

The megalothymians

Reading time: 2:30 | I don’t feel like sheep, and I don’t feel like a wolf either. Humanity is so much more.

Like many others, I’ve read Francis Fukuyama’s book Identity which is outstanding on many levels. So, there’s no but.


Gardeners working on flower plants. Photography: Zoran Pucarevic

He describes convincingly, with an impressive wealth of knowledge, how we humans are. We learn that there are people who live in the spirit of isothymos like you and me. That is when you acknowledge your neighbours of being equal to you. And we also learn that there are, unfortunately, people who have the desire to feel superior to others. While this sounds to me as a personality disorder, Francis Fukuyama explains this temper with megalothymos, a natural state of the feel of the traditional aristocracy in human history who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the community when fighting enemies. This acknowledgement of being more worthy than the regular guy was the undisputed pay for their duty.

Fighter hitting the punch bag. Photography: Sheftsovy, Getty Images

According to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, in today’s open western democracies, which grants everyone the same rights, we somewhat managed to contain megalothymos. But we didn’t do the best job possible. Many of the megalothymians evade tax-laws (billionaires), twist rules and conducts (populists), do all the things that people do when they are unhinged and are allowed to be above everyone else.

I absolutely agree. Why am I mentioning this then?

My problem with the two terms megalothymos and isothymos, based on thymos, the Ancient Greek umbrella term of anything we feel like anger, love etc., is the implication of inescapability that every dualism creates (in the sense of you’re either a friend or an enemy). If people desire to be acknowledged as someone more valuable, superior, I still think of it as a personality disorder. I don’t shrug it off as a natural condition in human society that has its roots far beyond the Ancient Greek and hence is inevitable.

Wolf on his vantage point. Photography: Byrdyak, Getty Images

While it’s inevitable that not everyone is a nice guy, megalothymos is not a human condition per se we should acknowledge as the unavoidable consequence of brilliance, leadership or entrepreneurship just because many CEOs, artists or politician feel superior to the rest of us. We know that success can lead to entitlement or even hubris. We know that a staggering number of star performers have various personality disorders, including psychopathy. But when they make other humans suffer, we should call it what it is: bad character.

Sheep in a sunset. Photography:Tutye, Getty Images

The term magalothymos and its deduction from humanity’s history sound like a reasonable explanation for the current state of things in politics and economics. Still, we shouldn’t accept megalothymos and its counterpart isothymos as a given. In less educated parts of society, people would replace megalothymos with wolf and isothymos with sheep. Who would take that as the sole truth about humanity? While this isn’t, of course, a fair comparison, my point is this: when the term megalothymos is in everyone’s mouth, aristocracy is back too — but without risking their lives for us, on the contrary.