Kavanaugh’s ‘Popeye Moment’

By | 2018-10-03T11:35:57-07:00 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.


About the Author:

Mackubin Owens
Mackubin Thomas Owens is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He recently retired after 29 years as Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1990 to 1997, Dr. Owens was also Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly defense journal Strategic Review and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston University. Owens is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (January 2011) and coauthor of US Foreign and Defense Policy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (2015) and The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic (2014). Before joining the faculty of the War College, Owens served as National Security Adviser to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy during the Reagan Administration. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired as a Colonel in 1994. Owens earned his Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Dallas, a Master of Arts in Economics from Oklahoma University, and his BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara.