Thymos and Hubris: Respecting Others, Respecting Ourselves PDF Print E-mail
Graduation Dinner Address, June 2006

Recently in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks wrote his own interpretation of what lies at the root of much of today’s global unrest: “People want others to recognize their significance. They want to feel important and part of something important.  Some people believe we are motivated by greed for money or lust for power. But money and power are means to get recognition. They are markers of success, and success makes us feel important and causes others to pay attention when they walk in the room.

“Plato” Brooks reminds us,  “famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, Eros (desire) andthymos (the hunger for recognition). Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things we do. It drives us to seek glory and assert ourselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives us to rage if others don’t recognize our worth. Sometimes it even causes us to kill over a trifle if we feel disrespected.”

I very genuinely believe, and am very dedicated to the commitment, that the Saklan community is truly respecting of the thymotic— at Saklan, we provide each other the “recognition” for which Plato says we all hunger.  Each individual student has the experience of being acknowledged and appreciated for the particular and unique qualities of who they are, (or being “known” as I spoke about last month to the graduates at my home after Head’s dinner) and this is NOT where we lumping people into cliques and labels.   This graduating class is to be commended for both the ways in which they very truly represent themselves as distinct, even eccentric, individuals and the way in which they accept, include, even embrace each other despite their differences.

Clearly Respect plays a part in all this– and like at many schools, it is central to our mission to instill in our students a sense of Respect.  Indeed, this year we have paid particular attention to the meaning, the importance, and the practice of respect.

Paul Felton, who has just now completed an outstanding three year term in the board leadership of our school, was so moved by a speech our board heard in January that he was compelled to share it with our school community.  That speech, by the Harvard professor and author Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, included the following advice:  “Respect is the tender transfer of power.   Respect is commonly and traditionally defined by status and hierarchy, which tends to be static and impersonal. In contrast, respect properly is a two-way affair, where respect begets respect, and the respectful become respected.  Asked who their favorite teachers are, students across the nation select those teachers who “respect” them: they insist that they learn, get to know their students and take them seriously,” as is the case, I know, of our fine faculty.

None of this comes easily– it does not, for students or, let’s admit it, for adults.  Indeed, we adults at Saklan in the past year have embraced the importance of improving our practice of respect andthymos  (the practice of valuing each other).  We are doing so by working closely and seriously with a counselor whose philosophy and approach is that in order for our organization to take great strides forward we need first to take great strides inward- toward each other to better appreciate, value, and respect each other more fully.

We must remember too: Respecting others comes in large part from respecting ourselves (as the Saklan mission statement reads, students are to develop a sense of respect to self and others).

Respecting ourselves, though, needs to be understood not just in the more immediate understanding of that concept—one largely synonymous with liking and trusting ourselves, and in being confident—or synonymous with self esteem…. ,

NOW, all these things are good things, which we certainly seek to promote and which you our graduates certainly exemplify

But I’d like to suggest to you that respecting ourselves entails in ADDITION a quality of respecting our limits, of knowing ourselves to be human and error prone, of practicing a humility and humbleness as we make our way in the world.

This is especially important because students like you have the skills and talents that will qualify you for to achieve dizzying heights in the positions you will occupy in the world of tomorrow– and it is very likely you will end up managing others in some way shape or other, heading up a Fortune 500 company perhaps, leading a school maybe, or running a team of video game designers quite possibly.  As you progress up these ranks, it will be both increasingly difficult for you, and increasingly IMPORTANT for you, to maintain this form of respecting yourself and recognizing your limitations.

I am hearkening back now to a central concept of ancient Greece.  That great civilization accomplished so much in literature, philosophy, politics and art, not to mention war, that inevitably they struggled with the problem of not losing their humility.

The great motto emblazoned on Greece’s Delphi Oracle was “Know thyself”, but the best interpretation of it is often left out—it really means Know thyself to be NOT a god, know thyself to be human including all the frailty that goes with it, know thyself to be limited always in our perspective and wisdom.   The Greek obsessed about hubris—that our greatest mistakes occur at our moments of greatest triumphs, when we lose our self respect by this definition, and commit acts of arrogance that eventually bring us to our knees — precisely because we have lost that self knowledge and, hence lost our true self respect.  Greek literature and history teach this again;  indeed what lies at the heart of what we call “Greek Tragedy” is the loss of self knowledge and the crisis that follows.

Our own great American civilization can be justly proud of our great success and great contributions to the world.  As was the case with the Greeks, it is both a result AND an example of our greatness that we too have grappled with how to avoid the tragedy of hubrism, of forgetting we are not gods.  In that brilliant era when our Constitution and Federalist papers were written, James Madison wrote that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary”– and if angels were to govern men, no separation of powers would be required.  We need to provide checks and balance in our governmental system because the ability to hold ourselves in check, to respect that we are not angels, is so difficult.

At the high point of the great American 20th century– the post war mid-century—another American thinker contemplated this problem:   Reinhold Niebuhr, our greatest theologian who also entirely deserves recognition as being among our greatest philosophers, distilled from the Christian tradition some wisdom about the significance of the Christian doctrine of “original sin”.  It is in the nature of the human condition to be forever forgetting ourselves in our reach for the off limits apple, or in other words for the power that properly belongs only to God– and that we inevitably err when we have power and influence.  By always remembering that we all carry that taint of original sin– and I am speaking metaphorically here– we actually will not respect ourselves less, but respect ourselves better, more profoundly.

In that same period, the great diplomat George Kennan similarly worried that in our newfound role as the world’s greatest power, we were losing sight of our own hubristic potential: writing that we must never forget, nor fail to respect, that “the fact of that matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

Let me shift gears and see if I can provide you a literary example of what I mean. Elizabeth Bennett  has to be one of literature’s greatest characters–  some of you may know her better as Kiera Knightley, who portrayed Elizabeth in the recent film version of that greatest of all novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  If you have not read the book: do so!  I guarantee you will be amazed by it, and you should know, this 200 year old novel is still entirely laugh-out-loud hilarious.  When she first meets Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth does not respect him– she pre-judges him as proud, haughty, arrogant, and unconcerned for others.  She commits hubris, in her own way, in that she does not respect that her own judgment may be limited.  We the readers enjoy the rare privilege to observe the growth of her mind, of her own gradually increasing self-awareness and self-knowledge.  Yes, she does learn new facts over the course of the book that leads her to re-assess Mr. Darcy, but the real change is in her own self-recognition that she had been too quick to judge, that she had not, and she now does, recognize and respect her own limits, and in that recognition and new self-respect, she grows to a new dimension of self-consciousness, she is now better able to respect others, and, not incidentally, gets her man!

So graduates, I ask of you: Become yourselves Elizabeth Bennetts: Respect others by recognizing them as individuals, honoring their thymos, and valuing them, AND strengthen your practice of respect of others by first respecting yourself– appreciating who you are, remembering your limits and your humility, being ever cognizant of your own humanity and all that that entails!

Congratulations and Godspeed, Saklan Valley School Graduates of 2006.

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