I happened upon this word today: Megalothymia. It was a term coined by the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man. It is the compulsion to be superior to others; it is the spirit that drives tyrannical ambition.
I love this word. But I think it is descriptive of a not so lovely, often downright evil aspect of human nature — and one dystonic to Christian values and behavior. It is something like Nietzsche’s will-to-power, which was an extension of Schopenhauer’s will to survive and to propagate. The 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all life was animated by the twin drives to survive and to propagate the species. But Friedrich Nietzsche added, “Life simply is the will to power.” To Nietzsche, human consciousness itself was no more than a manifestation of the will to power.
I have written about the temptation of power/control in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptation. I describe the drive to dominate others as one of the three wilderness temptations presented to Jesus by Satan during his 40-days in the desert. The all too prevalent drive to control others and seeing that need as possibly the essential human evil was brought to my attention back in the mid-1980s by the writings of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck.
Dr. Peck was in the Army during the Viet Nam War and was part of a team that investigated the My Lai Massacre. In 1968, a company lead by the infamous Lt. Calley went on a rampage and slaughtered over 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in and around the hamlet of My Lai. That investigation, plus working with several inexplicable clients after the military, led Peck to the conclusion that there were people outside of the conventional psychiatric diagnostic nomenclature who could only be diagnosed as “evil.”
One of the characteristics of evil people was the need to control others for their own nefarious purposes. Desiring to have control over others is one of the characteristics of a psychopath, and the psychopathic/sociopathic behavior of some individuals was nothing new to the behavioral sciences. However, casting the value judgement “evil” as a diagnostic category was new.
Labeling some behavior as evil inevitably leads one to think about value systems, morality, religion — and ultimately to God — not something science and medicine is at all comfortable addressing. However, Dr. Peck did, and in the 1980s his first two books The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie were groundbreaking. The first book was about the search for meaning, for the transcendence of a God, and the second book about evil and evil people.
As I read Peck’s book about evil people it struck me that this need to control others was the essence of most manifestations of evil on this earth — it was the essential evil, the source of most human generated misery. Controlling another could be as small as manipulating ones neighbor for an advantage, micromanaging an employee, tyrannically ruling ones family — or as large as the unrestrained violence of genocide, of the Holocaust. Committing murder is the ultimate control of another person.
I could not readily think of a term for the need so many have to be dominant over their fellow man. But voila, Fukuyama’s “megalothymia” fills the bill rather handily.
The Greek word for spirit thumos is rendered thymic in English. Thus, the word for a long lasting mild to moderate depression as a diagnosic term is dysthymia or Dysthymic Disorder. The word for something which agrees with our nature is euthymic. And now for the drive people have for power/control we have the term megalothymia. Some may disagree and say that Fukuyama’s use of the term is not exactly the same, but at least as far as I’m concerned it fills a need rather nicely.
Megalothymia is so prevalent that one could say that it is endemic to human nature. Perhaps for primitive man it was a survival skill. Perhaps. without the drive to dominate and control others we would not have survived as a species. This may have been true after the Fall — but before Jesus.
One of the fundamental truth’s about Jesus was that He came to set men free. But free from what? I believe that what He came to free us from is not only sin and specifically our basic After-the-Fall human natures — and an integral part of that human nature is our survival at the expense of others.
Jesus said that after loving God wholly and passionately we should love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). All of The Law is encompassed in that one commandment. But beyond loving others as ourselves He proposes a sacrificial love — in a way loving others even more than ourselves. Jesus laid down his life for our freedom and so in various ways we should sacrifice ourselves for our brothers and sisters. The Good Shepherd (John 10:11) leaving the 99 to seek the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) makes no sense from a practical human survivalist point of view but in God’s upside down economy it makes perfect sense.
I believe Jesus came to set us free from our megalothymia, our often obsessive need to run the lives of others, to dominate others, to exert power and control over others. Loving others means giving them the same freedom that we are offered by Jesus.