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Rediscovering Thumos: Developing Virtue in Boys

  • Lori Borgman Contributor
  • Published Apr 25, 2006
Rediscovering Thumos: Developing Virtue in Boys

I am at a car dealership with a four-year-old boy in tow. He is in an open space, arms outstretched, spinning circles with wild abandon.

What I am watching may well be a glimpse of thumos.

Thumos (thoo-mos') is an ancient Greek term for a state of being best described as spiritedness. It was a concept familiar to Plato and Aristotle and the Greek epics, but it is less familiar to us moderns. To complicate matters, ancient Greek does not translate easily into modern English.

Biblical literature interprets thumos as anger. Thumos may have a negative and destructive side, but there is a positive side as well - energy, courage and creativity.

Thumos may emanate from the mind, the heart, or sheer physical strength. It is a spiritedness that can be fraught with risk and danger, as demonstrated by the boy now spinning dangerously close to the corner of a salesman's desk.

The ancient Greeks were not the only ones who witnessed thumos. We have seen it as well, but have not always put the name with the face.

Thumos refined would be Ronald Reagan in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie shouting, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Thumos untethered would be Teddy Roosevelt as (pick one) rancher, Rough Rider, naturalist, explorer, historian and politician.

Thumos in uniform would be an amputee who was wounded in Iraq and now requests permission to return.

Thumos exploited as an advertising schtick would be The Marlboro Man. He is rough and rugged, and dares anyone to snicker if he happens to have a low-fat latte in that tin cup sitting by the fire.

The ancients saw thumos as an inner state that was served best by being marshaled into the virtue of courage.

Suppose that instead of directing thumos into something positive, we sat on it, squashed it and made every attempt to extinguish it. Such strong spiritedness would not merely dissipate into the galaxies. So, where would it go?

At an early age, it could go to the principal's office or even the doctor's office. Thumos unrefined could find a place in the streets, in gangs and eventually in prison. Then again, maybe all the excess thumos just sits around growing fat and frustrated.

The fact that our boys and young men are shrinking in numbers on achievement scales has been so thoroughly documented as to be (yawn) ho-hum. One key to unlocking this trend may be found in understanding and accommodating thumos.

The raw energy of thumos in a young child needs a basic that has been been steadily disappearing in recent years. That basic is recess. Thumos demands movement, fresh air and wind in the face. Thumos needs space, unstructured play, forays into the wonders and hazards of nature, hands-on science, and appropriate times and places to simply be loud.

We offer safety and security while thumos yearns for the unknown and unpredictable. Thumos wants to dig in the dirt and we ask kids if they need more anti-bacterial hand gel. We say meet your mentor when thumos hungers for heroes.

I'm not advocating a manufactured macho. I'm advocating recognizing a child's natural wildness, and then training it and channeling it into marvels like courage and creativity.

The raw quality of thumos can be found in entrepreneurs, inventors, builders, researchers, painters, designers, and thinkers and doers in every arena of life.

Considering the sagging state of boys, now may be the time to rediscover thumos.

Columnist and speaker Lori Borgman is the author of several books including  Pass the Faith, Please (Waterbrook Press) and  All Stressed Up and No Place to Go     (Emmis Books). Comments may be sent to her at