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Identity summary

Francis Fukuyama

The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

4.3 (92 ratings)
27 mins
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    Human beings crave positive judgments about their dignity and worth.

    Have you ever won a sporting competition, workplace award or academic accolade? If so, no doubt you felt proud and content. The joy gained from being recognized and valued is one of life’s great feelings, and it’s a natural reaction that we all share.

    This truth was known as far back as ancient Greece, whose scholars believed that we all crave positive judgments about our worth and dignity. The philosopher Socrates even argued that this was a distinct part of our souls: thymos.

    Investigating human nature, Socrates identified three parts of the human soul. The first centers around our primitive desires, such as thirst or hunger. The second is more rational – like the voice that tells us to avoid rotten meat even when we’re hungry. But independent of these is a third part, thymos, which yearns for dignity and recognition from other people.

    If we receive these positive judgments from our community, we become proud and happy. If we don’t, we feel angry about being undervalued, or ashamed at not living up to others’ expectations.

    And thymos is crucial to understanding today’s identity politics – a tendency for people to form political alliances based on membership in a particular group. Identity politics is rooted in thymos, because it revolves around a particular group’s fight for dignity and recognition.

    Let’s look at the gay marriage movement. In the last twenty years, and thanks to growing public pressure, many countries have legalized same-sex marriage. For the couples involved, there are clear economic motives driving their desires to wed: married couples tend to receive unique tax benefits, and there are important legal consequences regarding things like rights of inheritance. But these issues could be solved with a civil union, which often offers participants the same legal and financial benefits as marriage, only under a different name.

    Yet for many, civil unions are unacceptable. If they offer the same economic and legal benefits as marriage, what exactly are gay marriage proponents fighting for? The answer lies in thymos.

    Supporters of gay marriage are fighting for equal recognition. Civil unions allow gay couples to be together legally, but they also imply this bond is different from a heterosexual one. Advocates want their governments to recognize clearly the equal status and dignity of same-sex couples.

    So, thymos helps us understand that recognition is a primordial human desire. Our current understanding of identity, however, is far newer.  

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    What is Identity about?

    Today, there is an increasing tendency for groups of people to form alliances based on shared traits, like gender, religion or sexual orientation; this is known as identity politics. But while we should be proud of our identities, they can also divide us. In Identity (2019), Francis Fukuyama charts the evolution of one of modern society’s most divisive topics, explains the problems it raises, and suggests what can be done to fix this situation.

    Who should read Identity?

    • Progressive citizens curious about the weakness of left-wing politics
    • History buffs puzzled over the origins of identity
    • Activists searching for a different opinion on their objectives

    About the Author

    Francis Fukuyama is an internationally recognized academic, specializing in political science and currently teaching at Stanford University. His 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man was a global bestseller and argued that liberal democracies and free market capitalism might be the final type of human government.

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