Dr. Mark A. Wolfgram writes a fascinating letter to the Financial Times:
Sir, The August 17 commentaries by Richard Florida (“The inchoate rage beneath our global cities”) and John Kay (“Why the rioters should be reading Rousseau”), as well as the excellent Financial Times series on “The Squeezed Middle”, are all making important observations about a similar social, economic and political factor — inequality. Inequality is a fact of human societies built on hierarchies. We come to accommodate ourselves to different levels of inequality, as long as we feel that our society, overall, is at some level just.
In a recent academic work, “A Cultural Theory of International Relations”, Richard Ned Lebow goes back to ancient Greek thought on human motivations and argues that we need to reintegrate their notion of spirit into our understanding of human behaviour. The Greeks argued that humans are motivated by both appetite (the pursuit of material goods), as well as spirit (self-esteem, respect). A shortcoming of our current analysis of the riots in Britain and many other social phenomena is that western thought since the Enlightenment has dismissed spirit and focused solely on appetite as the central human motivation.
The rioters were only partly, and perhaps only marginally, motivated by material gain. How does setting a building on fire or burning a car make one wealthier? Why engage the police in pitched battles? However, if we recognise that the rioters were also pursuing spirit or seeking recognition from their peers, we gain more insight into what is happening. The stolen television or the confrontation with the police is a sign of honour that feeds the spirit and sense of self-esteem.
The ancient Greeks recognised that unconstrained pursuit of appetite or spirit in any society would lead to disaster. Therefore, they argued that reason must govern the pursuit of both appetite and spirit. When we fail to use our reason to moderate our drives, we risk falling into a world governed by fear, a world of riots…
[continues in the Financial Times (free registration required)]
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