Furthest Right

Arete, Thymos, and Hubris

Without civilization, humans do not get very far; those who organize replace those who do not. For this reason, the question of how we work together in an organized fashion forms the center of human life, since even the most advanced individuals are helpless without civil order.

This leads us to the oldest question for humans, namely how we work together, and that in turn shows us how this question relates to the very personal task of discovering our purpose and meaning in life. It turns out that organized thought leads to a better self as well.

With this in mind, we can see how personal mental organization leads to the type of thought that permits organized society, and therefore, how the two issues cannot be separated. Sanity as an individual and sanity of group organization relate to the same question, “What is good?”

As I wrote in an introduction to conservatism some time ago:

The term “conservative” comes from the Latin verb for “to conserve or preserve,” and reflects the nature of conservatives as those who seek to preserve the best of human endeavor and nature throughout all of history, measuring it qualitatively to achieve excellence (arete) in defiance of the human tendency toward solipsism (hubris).

We can have two types of good: good sensations and knowledge of good. The former can be sensual, like drugs or sex, or emotional, meaning that we can spoof our own minds into feeling happiness by denying reality. The latter requires knowledge of reality, and application of that to ourselves.

Humans tend to think of reality as a physical thing out there, but it actually comprises a system of order. We call this logic, but it means more than that, since it includes patterns we find that repeat in different places in the world.

For example, we see that things run in cycles. A new thing starts out, then its inertia leads away from its goal, then it becomes irrelevant and collapses, then restarts. When summer becomes too abundant, fall must appear, and after winter, then spring comes.

Conservatives adopt realism as the basis of their outlook because we see that there is wisdom to the way the world works; it is not random, but logical, even when inconvenient for us. Within the options presented to us by reality, we choose the ones that produce the best outcome.

We measure “best” by arete, or the concept of that which is both good and rising, meaning oriented toward future greatness as well as present goodness. This transcends our individual desires and aims toward the order around us, something which perpetuates itself from usefulness and quality.

This qualitative outlook pairs with the rather dry nature of realism, since the latter determines what is possible, but the former looks toward its potential, recognizing that some things in life have more power, beauty, pleasure, and wisdom to them, and aiming for that lofty goal.

By doing this, we reach toward the goal of conservatism, which is understanding life as a transcendent order, or one in which the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. It has potential beyond what it is, including through its self-perpetuation, even if this occurs through scary stuff like conflict.

This transcendental goal addresses our need for meaning in life, expressed by the term thymos which means a will to power in which we only feel significant for having done something of note in life. Thymos commands that we achieve the productive and notable in the world, not just in our heads.

This contrasts normal human behavior which is to withdrawn into our minds through a process called hubris, an outlook similar to solipsism, where we decide that the world is bad because it has scary parts and ignore any ultimate good that comes from the conflict between bad and good.

Arete addresses this conflict between bad and good, pointing out that when good aspires to defeat bad, it rises above the tendency toward hubris and comes to know itself, then by asserting itself, improves the world at the same time it disciplines itself.

In this way, we can become good, or manifest what is good in ourselves, and through conflict reach knowledge of ourselves and the world to the point where we see the meta-good that comes from the conflict between good and bad.

Modern conservatives have forgotten these goals which are related to the why behind what we do. We defend methods, like independence from the herd and free markets and even family, but have lost the connection between these things and how they shape our minds, in turn shaping our society.

In this viewpoint, humans exist to reach self-actualization, or transcendence of fears and resentments in order to aspire to meaning, which results from a connection with the world, including civilization. Without undergoing this process, we remain jailed in our minds in a constant state of hubris.

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