STRETCHING GREEK

Thomas Russell Wingate
September 2009



Ancient Greek—I make no pretense of knowing it—provides two nouns American writers should use carefully. (Their English adjectives are hubristic and thumotic. Both may be spelled with y instead of u.)

Hubris refers to what American idiom calls “being too big for your britches.”

Icarus, you may have read, tried waxen wings and flew too near the sun. When the wax melted, Icarus became an unfortunate UFO.

Hubris, it was believed, led to nemesis (doom, undoing, destruction).

In Genesis we read of the Tower of Babel. See also Proverbs 16:18.

Let us not overlook Frankenstein and its cinematic descendants (such as Forbidden Planet).

Thumos is a bit harder for majorities to understand. Translators offer “spiritedness” and “internal urge, desire for recognition.” A more befitting encapsulation would be: “making something of yourself and having it known.” See Proverbs 22:29.

One reads that investors have “animal spirits” and “irrational exuberance.” What is meant is thumos.

Throughout most of history it has been considered contaminating to rise above one’s origins by unswerving self-initiated effort. This resentment avails itself of the folklore of hubris and nemesis.

Globalization is the greatest opportunity for improvement most people now living have ever known, imagined, or stumbled upon.

The global left deems individual excellence to be hubristic and therefore a threat to society (or at least to the left). The American right deems individual excellence to be a blessing to everyone and wishes for more of it.

“Social justice” can easily be made to sound good. “Upward mobility” tastes good.

To put it oversimply: America is thumos.
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