Human beings can be viewed as a combination of matter and spirit. One of the most profound things about us is our willingness to risk our comfort, and even our lives if need be, for the sake of non-material ends. Our desires cannot be entirely reduced to natural desires and biological drives, as important as these are, and this transcendence beyond the material is something which distinguishes us from non-human animals.
This aspect of our being is ambivalent, and is the source of both our potential greatness but also – depending on its scope and expression – of our depravity and inhumanity. In our world today this spiritual side of our being is denied altogether, or at least significantly neglected as we focus our attention and energies on the satisfaction of material desires.
This hasn’t always been the case, however, nor need it be so for future generations.
This ostensibly distinct human trait has been investigated by ancient and modern philosophers alike. Plato referred to this “spirited” component of our being as thumos, Rousseau labelled it amour propre, and Hegel identified it as our desire for recognition.
For Plato, thumos serves a largely positive function within both the individual and society. There is however one important qualification to this claim: it must be subordinated to reason. Reason is identified with genuine philosophy, which is tasked with keeping natural desires under check. When wisdom (philosophy) guides thumos the result is freedom and harmony, whereas a failure to establish the proper hierarchy leads to tyranny and oppression.
Rousseau on the other hand takes a negative view of this phenomenon, and links the development of a corrupt and corrupting civilization with its growth as self-love or vanity – terms used interchangeably with amour propre. As the “noble savage” leaves a simple and harmonious state of nature for the trappings of a complex civilization, he begins comparing himself to others, and this is the ultimate source of the alienation, violence, and misery so prevalent in society.
Hegel makes this “desire for recognition” a focal point of his philosophy. Like Plato, he takes a more favorable position on it than does Rousseau, and within his system of speculative idealism it serves as the driving force of human history. The culmination of the historical process is the rational state, in which the distinction between master and slave is abolished within the ethical community of universal reciprocal recognition.
Incidentally, Hegel’s work has been appropriated by Francis Fukuyama in recent years and used as justification for his well-known “end of history” thesis, whereby liberal democratic capitalism – as opposed to its fascist, communist, and theocratic ideological opponents – is posited as the final destination of the historical process precisely because it’s the only system which recognizes the freedom and rights of all individuals.
Until this historical condition arises – Hegel felt the Prussian state of his day met the qualifications – things like imperialistic wars and slavery would continue. This is due to the fact that some individuals (or religions, races, etc.) will assert a desire to be considered the superiors of their adversarie
Within the modern Anglo-American bourgeois nations – Great Britain and the United States – this ambiguous expression of human “spirituality” is redirected downwards. The focus shifts away from contest for power and prestige between political or religious factions and towards the individual pursuit of material goods. Society becomes an aggregate of atomized individuals pursuing their rational self-interest, and doing so within a limited state bound by a social contract.
Even here, within within this more peaceful and tolerant political context, human spiritedness cannot be entirely suppressed. It simply finds a different outlet. Why keep going on accumulating more wealth and possessions long after our material needs have been met? Because this is the way we achieve those essential non-material ends, like respect and recognition, within our consumerist world.
However unelevated or even contemptible our aims these days may be – as contrasted with previous standards based on things like honor, wisdom, and courage – they still involve something more ethereal than the satisfaction of simple material desires. It’s obviously not about the accumulation of wealth, power, and possessions for their own sake, but the intangible things that accrue to those who have these things.
Nietzsche, despite being an avowed atheist, is perhaps the modern thinker who appeals most strongly to our spiritual nature. More accurately, he rejected the distinction between body and spirit, and his ambitious project amounts to a form of spiritual warfare against the growing complacency and slavishness of the modern world devoted exclusively to low desires.
It’s on that deep spiritual/emotional level that Nietzsche’s philosophy resonates so powerfully with those who find modern life to be profoundly unfulfilling. He has an uncanny ability to inspire the individual to reject the many false idols of our world, which is the world of the so-called Last Man, whose shallow values and ideals must be replaced by more exalted and life-affirming ones. It’s as if he’s goading us: Aren’t you better than this?
It’s important that we learn to recognize and cultivate this essential aspect of our existence. But we must also make sure that it finds expression in socially positive and creative ways. Right now this human spiritedness is either suppressed, ignored, or misdirected towards ends that are far too low for the possible greatness of our species.
In light of the above it should be clear that pride is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s a powerful and admirable quality that separates us from animals who are locked into the pursuit of satisfying their natural desires. But Plato’s warning should also be kept in mind: this vital spiritedness must be guided by wisdom and channeled into beneficial projects.
Without that subordination of spirit to wisdom the result is hubris, and perhaps nothing is more ridiculous than the exaggerated self-love of petty, small-minded souls. Unfortunately we no longer believe in wisdom, and consequently our pride has become absurd. And not only absurd but also dangerous.