Popeye reaches for a can of spinach in a still from an unidenitified Popeye film, c. 1945. (Image by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Kavanaugh’s ‘Popeye Moment’

- October 3rd, 2018
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People of a certain age will remember what I like to call a “Popeye moment.” Popeye, confronted by some injustice, exclaims “that’s all I can stands, ‘cause I can’t stands no more!” before downing a can of spinach and righting the wrong. The Greeks had a name for a Popeye moment: thumos, righteous indignation. This is what we saw with Brett Kavanaugh last week: a thumotic response to the scurrilous calumnies that his opponents have heaped on him (on calumnies in a republic, see Machiavelli, Discourses, I.8).

The Greeks divided the soul (psyche) into three parts. The highest part, nous, is the intellect and seat of reason. The lowest is epithumeia, the appetitive part and the seat of base desire. In the middle lies thumos, the seat of spiritedness, the defender of honor and the vindicator of justice.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates shows how nous and thumos work together to tame epithumeia. In the allegory that Socrates employs in this dialogue, he describes thumos as “a lover of honor and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory…”

Those who have used Kavanaugh’s response to his critics as a criticism of his “temperament” would do well to ask themselves if an honorable man would do anything less than the judge did. He did not become “unglued.” Instead one witnessed a man whose honor and reputation have been dragged through the mud by night crawlers—individuals who can’t hold a candle to Kavanaugh in terms of character—respond with the controlled, righteous rage of a man who has been wronged.

Of course, having engaged in the worst sort of character assassination, the night crawlers are now complaining that he didn’t take it lying down.  Kavanaugh’s thumotic “Popeye moment” was the proper response of an honorable man to the calumnies to which he has been subjected and, more importantly, to the night crawlers who have calumniated him.


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