Freedom and Thymotic Politics in Sloterdijk

Peter Sloterdijk has written extensively about the political function of thymós (the spirited part of the soul in Plato’s three-fold schema of intellect-spirit-appetite). Here his reflections on that term open onto a discussion of freedom (libertatem). It turns out the liberals and neo-liberals are getting it wrong.

This term [thymós] referred to an inner affective centre that motivates people to reveal themselves to their social surroundings as owners of giving virtues. Yes: thymós, as a liberal mentality of the giving life, offers the only declaration of freedom that has nothing to fear from any naturalistic reduction to exogenous causes and neurological conditions. People have usually searched for freedom in places where one cannot possible find it—in the will, in the act of choice or in the brain—and overlooked its origin in the noble disposition, in uplift, in generosity. In reality, freedom is simply another word for nobleness, by which I mean the mindset which takes the better and more difficult as its point of reference under any circumstances, precisely because it is free enough for the less possible, the less vulgar, the less all-too-human. In this sense, freedom is availability for the improbable. Freedom still remains true to its essential negativity in the turn towards practical action, because everything it does expresses its rejection of the tyranny of the most probable. Whoever acts out of freedom revolts against the meanness they can no longer bear to see. This freedom is the opposite of everything envisaged by those who see it as a licence to let themselves go into the ordinary, all-too-ordinary.

[…]

Never before have such terms as ‘liberal’ or even ‘neo-liberal’ taken on as nefarious a connotation as in the last few years. Never before has liberal thought, especially in our country, been so far from the noble pole of human possibilities. Never before has freedom been so narrowly and fatally associated with the possession of humans by the stress of greed. But what does that prove? One thing alone: that the cause of liberality is too important to be left to the liberals. This restriction does not apply only to a single political party; the cause of the real and its reform is too important to be left to parties. Caring for cultural tradition is thus too comprehensive a task to be entrusted merely to conservatives. The question of preserving the environment is too significant to be considered only a matter for the green parties. The search for social balance is too demanding for social democrats and leftists to be given sole responsibility for it. Yet each of these elemental motifs requires one main party voice.

Peter Sloterdijk, Stress and Freedom, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity Press, 2016), 54-56.

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