Thumos and Parts

Greek philosophy has many interesting ideas that still resonate. For example, Thumos is part of the psyche described in Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot. The chariot driver is “reason”, the white horse that pulls toward heaven is “Thumos”, and the black horse that pulls toward earth is “passion”. Thumos is an active drive for victory. It pushes us to want to win battles that are important to be fought. It pushes us to strive for honor and glory in our pursuits. It needs to be controlled by Reason, just as Desire needs to be controlled by Reason. If properly balanced, the chariot follows a path toward heaven. If there is no balance, the chariot goes out of control, or ends up in hell.

This classical story resonates with many psychological models. I’m drawn to Internal Family Systems (IFS). In IFS the mind is considered to consist of various parts. You can experience this when you think about anything in your life that you have mixed feelings about: a part of me loves barbeque, and another part of me struggles with how bad it can be for me. Still another part of me thinks about the inhumane treatment of farm animals. Another part of me pushes back on this part with a more cold reply about animals being bred for thousands of years for the sole purpose of human consumption. You get the idea. A topic can raise a variety of responses with a variety of possible actions to take.

There are three main types of parts in IFS: Managers, Exiles and Firefighters. Managers generally take care of business. They don’t like messy emotions. Exiles hold a lot of emotional vulnerability- maybe childhood hurts and traumas. Firefighters sweep in and douse emotional flames quickly with some serious and typically short-sighted action. They’re not thinkers, they’re doers.  The Managers and Firefighters make up the “protective system”. They are afraid of the intense emotions held by the Exiles, so they work to protect us from feeling this by keeping the Exiles, well, exiled.

At the center of the mind is the Self. It’s often compared to the soul. It connects us to other people, nature and the universe. It can’t be destroyed. The problem is that most parts don’t know this. Managers fear the Exile’s emotion will lead to permanent disruption. Firefighters back up the managers and shut down emotion when it gets too intense. Exiles typically wait until there is a weak spot in the Manager’s defenses and burst out in a gush of emotion.

The task of IFS is getting to know all the parts and allowing them to have open access to the Self. The Self provides a sense of peace and compassion for all memories, experience, and parts. Once the parts allow the Self to lead, harmony is restored and the parts can contribute to a person’s existence without dominating it. Love your parts.

Somehow Thumos relates, but seems a bit distinct. Is it more of Manager or a Firefighter? It doesn’t seem like an Exile. Being in touch with this energy within us, a drive to win battles that are worth fighting, and to strive for glory, seems like an important pursuit. Too much Thumos killed Achilles. Not enough Thumos keeps you on the sidelines of your life.

Whatever you choose to call it, it is important to own your drives, fears, triggers, strengths, parts, thoughts, feelings and actions. Live a life of choice, not reaction.

Important to note: I picked up the idea of Thumos from a podcast called the Art of Manliness. It doesn't always hit the mark, but there are some interesting and valuable ideas there.