Frequently revered as one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived; Plato pioneered many great ideas that fascinate people to this very day. Among his thoughts, he spoke of the “tripartite soul’ in book IV of The Republic. In this book, he believed that that the soul was made out of three parts: Logic, Spirit and Appetite. Plato states that these three parts contribute to developing a just person where logic allows a person to think reasonably, with the aid of the spirit providing passion to take the right decisions, whilst keeping the appetite for desire under control. In this article, the tripartite soul will be examined, upon which I will also give my personal viewpoints & critique on his idea.
The overall idea of the Tripartite Soul
In order for people to understand what he meant by the tripartite soul, Plato gave several analogies to help clarify his idea of while I’ll list a couple here. One comparison he made was with the human body, in which he revealed that the head is the logical part of the soul, the heart is the spirited part and the belly is where the appetite is derived. In another example, Plato breaks down “desire” into three portions representing the tripartite soul. The rational portion desires truth, the spirited part desires self-preservation and the appetite desires basic instincts such as hunger, sex and warmth.
In terms of what Plato meant by a just soul, the three parts can be attributed to the four classical virtues that he frequently speaks of: wisdom, bravery, temperance and justice. For an individual to be wise, she must possess a certain level of Logic to lead her to make the wisest decision. Bravery can be associated with the Spirit aspect; in order to be brave; a person must have a certain level of passion and courage to undertake a given decision. Furthermore, according to Plato, temperance is maintaining an inner harmony and balance which can be attained by equalizing all three parts of the soul. Lastly, his fourth virtue of justice is associated with all parts of the soul; a person can partake in justice if she can logically find an answer to which she has the courage and control to actually to judge correctly.
A Closer look at Logic, Spirit & Appetite
Through the character Socrates in book IV of The Republic, Plato states that the logical part of the soul “loves the truth and seeks to learn it”. He also says that logistikon (logic) aspect distinguishes what is real and not merely seeming, judges what is factual and what is untrue and wisely makes just choices in agreement with its love for goodness. Moreover, Plato says that logic is the most important portion as he also identifies it as the intellect of the soul. The logical section of the soul is in control for the thinking of things such as mathematical equations. Moreover, it is the part of the soul that seeks knowledge and education, the reason part of the soul is why we are able to think things through and then make choices (Miller). According to Plato, this part of the soul is what makes philosophy conceivable, permitting us to think critically and examine things from different viewpoints. This part of the soul can be seen each time we get inquisitive about something and pursue answers instead of just accepting it as it is.
In explaining the “spirited” portion of the tripartite soul, Plato states that this part of the soul is very vital as it is the part of the soul that directs our passion. The spiritual part of the soul provides us the determination to take action and at the same time, acting as a moral compass that we strive to listen to (Scandalon).
According to Plato, the appetite portion is also known as the “desiring part of the soul”, which controls the bodily needs and seeks instinctive satisfaction (Baird). Plato says that this part of the soul pays attention solely to our physical selves. The appetite portion seeks the physical pleasures or tries to keep us away from physical unhappiness. An example of this is in which we experience erotic love, hunger, thirst, the wish to be pain free, sleep, and even our urges for material things which the reason and spiritual parts do not gain anything.
To begin with, I must admit that I found Plato’s tripartite soul philosophy quite intuitive, Plato was indeed reaching “higher” in terms of philosophy. As can be seen in the explanations of the tripartite soul, the three portions of the soul work well in explaining how we humans operate. On the logical portion of the soul, Plato gives an excellent explanation on how this portion of the soul is associated with the thinking aspect of the mind and how this portion only sees truth. However, Plato’s idea of “truth” has two conflicting components – the mathematical truth and the truth which is always changing and always in flux (Heraclitus). For example, 80 years ago Radium was considered safe and healthy as that was its “truth” at the time. However, soon after it was found out to have been a dangerous & highly radioactive substance, which is the current “truth”. So if truths can never stay the same, how can we logically think about truth?
Plato talks about Spirit as being the motivational driver to everything we do. This to me makes a lot of sense because we would not be able to accomplish our personal satisfactions if we did not possess the spirit to do so. However, as Plato states that the spirit acts as a “moral compass”, I fail to see how this applies to spirit. If someone is motivated to do the wrong thing, how does spirit work as a compass if the individual does not know that they are committing an act of evil or good. It does not act like a compass as there is no visual object that portrays to what extent and direction of good or evil we have committed.
The last part of the tripartite soul is appetite, which is broadly described by Plato. It almost seems as if everything in this portion of the soul does not require a higher level of thinking. It seems to me that the entirety of this section of the soul in terms of needs and material objects do not require great levels of intellect and relies heavily on instinct. Though, there is a problem that I have with Plato’s explanation. How can something material be an instinctual satisfaction? For example, if I bought a car that I liked – I probably put a lot of hours into researching the car for its safety, reliability and so forth. Theoretically, I used the logical part of my mind to purchase the car that met my desire and urge to purchase the car. If that is the case, how can Plato say with certainty that these two parts are separate from each other?
In explaining the very basic aspects of this three part soul, Plato gave several excellent analogies that helps people understand his idea. In addition to his analogies, he constructed a clear model in which he associated his soul idea to the view on what a just person is – which included the four parts: wisdom, bravery, temperance and justice. When Plato went into further details about each part, there is a substantial intuitive appeal to how they actually apply to us; we do possess a logical aspect, a spirited aspect and the appetite aspect. However, as was seen in my personal analysis of this soul, there were some problems with it in terms of the “truths” associated with the logical part, the subjectivity of the spirited part of the soul and the thinking issue associated with the instinctual portion. Despite some of the issues brought up in this article regarding this soul idea, Plato does an excellent job of creating a meaningful philosophy to the basic structure of the human soul.
Plato was truly a masterful philosopher, it’s too bad that we cannot revive him(yet) and ask him to further clarify some of his philosophical ideas!
Thank you for reading!!
References for further reading:
Baird, Forrest E. “Plato’s Republic.” Baird, Forrest E. Ancient Philosophy. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2011. Book.
- M. A. Grube, C. D. C Reeve. Plato: Republic . New York: Hackett Pub Co, 1992. Book.
Miller, Patrick Lee. “Plato’s Divided Soul.” A Dissertation Proposal (2006). Journal Article.
Scandalon. “Plato’s Tripartite Soul.” n.d. Scandalon UK. Document. 1 August 2013. <http://www.scandalon.co.uk/philosophy/plato_tripartite_soul.htm>.