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Plato's Tripartite Soul - Discussion and Evaluation

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Plato's Tripartite Soul - Discussion and Evaluation

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  • April 24, 2008
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In Plato’s, Phaedrus, Plato describes what has become known as the Tripartite Soul which describes the human soul as having three parts corresponding to the three classes of society in a just city. Individual justice consists in maintaining these three parts in the correct power relationships, which reason ruling, spirit aiding reason, and appetite obeying. In ‘A Study of Human Nature’ Plato tries to explain his Tripartite theory by ways of a parable, a vivid illustration which describes the soul as having three parts (tripartite): ‘I divided each soul into three parts – two having the form of horses and the third being the charioteer… I have said that one horse was good, the other bad.’

These three parts are described as a charioteer guiding two horses, and each represents a different part of the soul. The good horse is ‘upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is one who loves honour with modesty and temperance, and the follower of true opinion; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.’ The white horse stands in place as spirit (thymos). It stands for the rational or moral impulse or the positive part of the human soul. This spirit is responsible for our feelings of anger and indignation. In a just soul, spirit acts as henchman to reason, ensuring that appetite adheres to reason’s commands.

The other horse he describes in his allegory is considered the ‘bad horse’, and is ‘a crooked, lumbering animal’… ‘he has a short, thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.’ The dark horse represents the appetite (the eros) and the irrational passions of the human soul. Appetite acts as the seat of all our various desires for food, drink, sexual gratification and other such pleasures. It contains both necessary desires, which...