A 19th-century illustration of Greeks and Trojans around the body of Patroclus in the Trojan War

This article is a preview from the Spring 2020 edition of New Humanist

"Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses…"

It is there, the first word in the book that inaugurates Western discourse – μῆνιν, from mēnis, variously translated as rage, anger, wrath. The Iliad opens with this invocation. Achilles has been wronged and that which follows is not the story of the Trojan War – the poem itself covers only a few weeks of the 10-year conflict – but the story of his rage. It flourishes first when his war prize, the Trojan woman Briseis, is taken from him, and secondly on the death of his closest friend Patroclus, killed by Hector. In revenge for the first wound he sulks for nine days, refusing to take part in the war; for the second, he lays waste to Troy and slays Hector, mistreating the corpse for 12 days, dragging it around the city walls and offering it as food for the dogs.

Rage in The Iliad is fundamental – it is given to humans by the Gods, and it is heroic. The figure inhabited by rage is fully manifest, fully public, is defined by action, by the carrying out of vengeance. In Homer, the inner life of one who rages is of no consequence – it is not a psychological state, and it needs no diagnosis. Hector has killed Patroclus. Achilles, even knowing it will lead to his own doom, must kill Hector. He must go beyond even murder into desecration, for this is about honour – stripped from Achilles, it can only be regained by being stripped from Hector. Achilles enters the battle. And so, as Christopher Logue puts it in his version, Troy fell.

* * *

One of the fundamental shocks to those of us brought up within the Western liberal tradition has been the entry – the re-entry – of rage into public discourse, into the mainstream, and, unthinkably, into the corridors of power. From the rallies of Donald Trump, with their cries of “Lock her up”, to the invective surrounding Brexit, rage has become a dominant political stance in a way that is unfamiliar to a great many in the West. Those of us who have believed in rational argument as the motor of culture have been blindsided by the idea that it is only the motor of a certain kind of culture, and that those of us who access it are accessing a certain kind of knowledge, a certain way of being.

There has been an unexamined belief in a Hegelian idea of progress, that we had moved beyond rage as an animating force. The fascism of the 1930s and 40s, the Holocaust and Stalinism had been such shocks to the global community that systems of cooperation were imposed, both through fiat and through a degree of consensus. It would be disingenuous to argue that these systems were always honoured – for many, the actions of Thatcher, Bush and Blair seemed to have broken this international compact irrevocably – but leaders felt the need to justify themselves in terms of reason, even if the lip service was mendacious. Vengeance, irrationality, fascism were elsewhere – “in the Balkans”; “in radical Islam”; “in neo-Nazism”. Western liberal democracy, as an idea, as a goal, seemed not only ascendant, but normative, the natural state of being which had been inaugurated by the Greek demos, ratified by the Enlightenment and, after National Socialism and Soviet Communism, sanctified by market capitalism.

We had reached the “end of history” – Francis Fukuyama’s notorious phrase for a world where the rational claims of liberalism and democracy would be so insistent as to be incontestable. Mature democracies – Fukuyama’s phrase – would not go to war, as it would be irrational to do so. The catchiness of Fukuyama’s title, however, masked an uneasiness present in the book, but not often present in the discourse around it. It is this uneasiness that the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk focused on in his book Rage and Time, which in 2006 seemed to be a gentle warning about a world in which rage, mēnis, was assumed dead. It now seems terribly prophetic in its analysis of this first word in Western literature.

Something of a media star in his native country, Sloterdijk is a controversial figure, both in Germany and in the wider philosophical community. From his first book, 1983’s Critique of Cynical Reason, which explored cynicism in European history, he has delighted in taking an iconoclastic view of some of the shibboleths of liberalism. It was his second book, the three volume Spheres, published between 1998 and 2004, that established his reputation. It is, in a sense, a spatial companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time, and explores the various microspheres and macrospheres that describe, enable and circumscribe human being. It introduces the central theme of Sloterdijk’s thought – that the traditional dualisms of philosophy (object/subject, nature/culture) are not only false, but their predication erases the reality – human and animal, plant and machine.

Sloterdijk’s key influence is Nietzsche, whose “untimely” writings make explicable the fate of the contemporary human. The genealogy of morals is, by Nietzsche’s reckoning, the story of morality’s gradual suffocating of all that is grand in humanity. This has led the once heroic human to a state of “ressentiment” – an unrealised state of hostility towards an imagined cause of frustration. It is fuelled by a sense of inferiority, and society is built on feeding this inferiority – the Christian idea that humans are fallen, the capitalist idea that human value is assigned by wealth. For Nietzsche, the healthy individual leaps over ressentiment. The noble “live in trust and openness . . . the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints.”

Sloterdijk takes up this idea in his analysis of Fukuyama. Central to The End of History, as Sloterdijk points out, is the idea of thymos. Also Homeric, and suggesting a physical relationship with blood and breath, thymos is both a state of “spiritedness” and of the desire for recognition, for one’s honour to be upheld. It is that which animates one to fight back against a perceived injustice against the self. It is thus close to mēnis, which is the action of thymos.

It is also the action in Fukuyama’s Hegelian dialectic – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thymos is that which drives history towards mature liberal democracy, the system best adapted to the human desire for recognition. Where, for instance, communism was unable to instil self-worth by failing to recognise the individuality of each individual, liberal democracy is, by Fukuyama’s reckoning, predicated on just this thymotic satisfaction. As free actors in a society that depends upon participation (voting, buying) an individual is able to ratify their thymotic desires. A total world of liberal democracy, where no striving for recognition is required, would be, indeed, the end of history.

Here Fukuyama introduces a distinction between isothymia and megalothymia. The former is the need to be recognised as equal to others, which true liberal democracy encourages and enables. The latter is the need to be recognised as better than others, which is the state generated by unequal political systems. The spread of liberal democracy is the spread of isothymia.

In Rage and Time, Sloterdijk begins by tracing thymos back to its Homeric root. It is, he writes, the “impulsive centre of the proud self” and the hero is “a kind of prophet . . . assigned the task of actualising instantaneously the message of his force”. Here as elsewhere in Homeric cosmology, humans actualise the will and the emotions of the Gods. “It is not human beings who have passions, it is passions who have human beings.” Achilles does not have rage, rage has Achilles.

And rage has, in Homer, dignity. Where one has been slighted, one cannot fail to respond even if, as is the case with Achilles, one is doomed by doing so. In slaying Hector, Achilles condemns himself. But there is no appeal to reason before the act of vengeance. Reason is unthinkable here – the force at hand is “monothematic”. Only one affect occupies the stage.

* * *

It is only with Plato, and thus at the birth of Western philosophy, that reason becomes ascendant. In Book IV of The Republic, Plato proposes that the soul has a tripartite structure. There is the logos – the mind, the rational, reason – which is located in the head. There is thymos – emotion, spiritedness – located in the chest. And there is eros – the appetite, desire – located in the stomach. In The Phaedrus, Plato represents logos as a charioteer, steering thymos and eros, which seek to pull the soul and the psyche in different directions. It is for the logos to ensure that both work together.

This represents, for Sloterdijk, the first “taming” of rage, its “moral domestication”. In Plato’s schema it is the duty of the self to ensure that rage operates in moderation. Logos becomes dominant. Rationality is that which is to be striven for. Truth is sought through logic.

And yet rage cannot be willed away by any philosophical or political prohibition. Rather, the history of rage is, for Sloterdijk, the history of its containment in what he calls “rage banks”. Christianity, for instance, defers rage – the wrath of God that features so prominently in the Old Testament disappears from the New, until the final reckoning of Revelations, where the rage of God may once again reassert itself.

In psychoanalysis, rage is a neurotic complex, to be cured by the therapeutic environment – rage is, Sloterdijk writes, “prevented from expressing itself directly and is forced to take a detour through sublimation, internalisation, transference, and distortion.” The sources of rage are to be found in the individual – a trauma, a failure of self-identity, an inability to cope.

In any culture, an individual, in order to function, must be able to align him or herself to a society, in the hope that they can be both productive and rewarded. Sloterdijk notes: “Part of the business of morally complex systems – that is, cultures – is the self-stimulation of its actors through an elevation of thymotic resources such as pride, ambition, the need for recognition, indignation, and the sense of justice.” Rage and justice act together. To be slighted, to have one’s self misrecognised, or not recognised at all, is to suffer an injustice.

* * *

For Sloterdijk, this domestication of rage is to be regretted; as for Nietzsche, it moves us from the beings that we are to something false. Rage becomes a marginal activity – the domain, in politics, of excluded groups. Ever the iconoclast, Sloterdijk saw, in 2006, an endless future of the bureaucratisation of politics, rage endlessly deferred by neatly functioning liberalism. “The age of extremes” – Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase for the period between the start of World War One and the fall of the Soviet bloc – Sloterdijk writes:

… seems to be over, passed like a spook that, in retrospect, no one any longer understands what made it powerful. Radicalism is only important in the Western Hemisphere as an aesthetic attitude, perhaps also as a philosophical habitus, but no longer as a political style. The centre, the most formless of monsters, consistently understood the law of the hour. It made itself into the protagonist, even solo entertainer on the posthistorical stage. Whatever it touches becomes, just like itself, docile, characterless, and despotic… What is called for now are resilient bores. What is expected of them is to sit around big tables to come up with the world formula of compromise. The relentlessly soft centre creates hybrids out of everything.

For Sloterdijk, this is to be abhorred. But at the time he regarded it as a state unlikely to be overcome. The rage banks were holding, and profiting from the docile.

Sloterdijk’s position echoes that of another German thinker, whose theories have recently re-entered mainstream philosophical discourse at both ends of the political spectrum – the political theorist Carl Schmitt. Born Catholic in 1888, Schmitt fell out with the religion, although his works retain a structural debt to theological thinking – one of his earliest works is entitled Political Theology.

In it, Schmitt argues that all modern theories of the state “are secularised theological concepts”. An unrepentant Nazi – he was known as “the crown jurist of the Third Reich” – Schmitt argued that all states have within them a dictatorial element in that they allow states of emergency – exceptional circumstances in which the leader can step outside the rule of law. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” For Schmitt, such states of exception are akin to a religious miracle.

Schmitt’s most thoroughgoing work of political analysis is The Concept of the Political. Written in 1932, it is as scathing about resilient bores sitting around big tables as Sloterdijk would be 50 years later. For Schmitt, “the political” is an existential state shared by all (Western) humans. Contemporary politics is a system of compromises, and therefore lacks decisiveness, and all decisions are weakened by their temporary, contingent nature. This is the fault, Schmitt argues, of liberal democracy.

In our era, the words “liberal” and “democracy” have been cleaved together in such a way as to appear that their relationship is natural and eternal. For Schmitt, however, “liberal democracy” is a historical conjunction rather than a natural one. He argues that liberalism’s reliance on the procedural, the bureaucratic, leads to a world that is depoliticised and thus dehumanised. “There exists a liberal policy of trade, church, and education, but absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics. The systematic theory of liberalism concerns almost solely the internal struggle against the power of the state.” We are in danger of losing the political – or, by failing to enable it, of driving it down, internalising it, making it into resentment.

So how can one define the political? “Let us assume,” writes Schmitt, “that in the realm of morality the final distinctions are between good and evil, in aesthetics beautiful and ugly, in economics profitable and unprofitable. The question then is whether there is also a special distinction which can serve as a simple criterion of the political and of what it consists?”

Notoriously, Schmitt argues that the final distinction defining the political is between “friend” and “enemy”. One defines one’s own political beliefs – ultimately, what one would die for – by recognising, or even creating, an enemy.

The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.
This should not be understood as a metaphor or symbol. It is a concrete definition with its ultimate state being war, which is the total existential negation of the enemy. War is about politics, not justice. He writes:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated, a completely pacified globe, would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics. It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antitheses and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorised to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

Why this would not be a good thing is not explored by Schmitt and, in a sense (as other thinkers, such as his contemporary Leo Strauss, have argued), there is an underlying liberal morality to this – Schmitt’s argument rests on the idea that humans “as they are now” are to be respected in their political being, at any cost, and a human race that has eliminated the political is undesirable, whatever the advantages accrued by such an existential change.

But as a critique of realpolitik, and the revival of rage in mainstream political discourse, it has great explanatory power. Liberal democracy has an “exclusive” character which – given that it is generally regarded as an “inclusive” doctrine – has often been overlooked. People across the spectrum have felt increasingly powerless – a smoothly functioning liberal democracy seems not to need their input, a capitalism which generates itself, grows itself and repairs itself (at their expense) does not need their produce or their ideas.

The genius of those who have reintroduced rage into the political mainstream has been to allow this ressentiment to be given a voice. It has allowed the depoliticised to become political again. The truth or otherwise of its assertions is not at issue – what is at issue is whether one is a “friend” or an “enemy”. Given that humans have not undergone the existential change dreamed of by Fukuyama and feared by Sloterdijk and Schmitt, an appeal to rage still appeals to the part of the soul identified by Plato and celebrated by Homer: the desire for self-recognition, which vast swathes of the public believe to have been denied them.

* * *

One of the worst things than can happen to a philosopher is that they see their dreams come true. While there is no direct line from Marx to the gulags, or Nietzsche to Auschwitz, we must, as Jacques Derrida has argued, accept into our analysis the problem that those who organised the gulags and Auschwitz were able to appeal to these philosophers’ work, however crassly.

Sloterdijk bemoaned liberal democracy at a time when its overthrow seemed impossible. Now he has found himself regarded as a prophet of the alt-right; one of his students, Marc Jongen, has become the “party philosopher” and chief ideologue of the AfD, Germany’s far-right political party. Sloterdijk has sought to distance himself, telling the New Yorker: “In a perfect world, you are not responsible for your students.”

But he has continued to court controversy, dipping his toes into the field of genetics and eugenics in an article, “Rules for the Human Zoo,” which led Jurgen Habermas to accuse him of being a fascist (to which Sloterdijk replied that no, Habermas was the fascist). He has also called for an end to welfare payments, arguing instead for a system of philanthropy which would enable donors to feel self-satisfaction rather than the resentment attendant with taxation, and those receiving to feel gratitude and self-worth.

These ideas make for uncomfortable reading. But Sloterdijk’s analysis of the persistence of what might be called primitive urges in the human animal can, at its best, explain the rejection of reason. The rise of the right, he now argues, is deplorable, but had been coming for a long time. Before the 2016 US Presidential elections he described the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a choice “between two helplessly gesticulating models of normality, one of which appeared to be delegitimatised, the other unproven”.

Globalisation, driven by capital, took hold without taking into account some simple human needs: “People are not ready to feel the full pressure of coexistence with billions of their contemporaries.” The price we are paying is that rage, not reckoned on during this transition, has moved centre stage, as the disenfranchised have come to include those in power.

The Iliad, despite its opening invocation of rage, ends with a reconciliation of sorts between Priam, the father of Hector, and Achilles. Honour is restored by the rites of the funeral. “Within the palace, they a banquet shared, Magnificent, by godlike Priam given. Such burial the illustrious Hector found.”

Whether such reconciliations are now possible is the crucial question of our age.