Plato's Tripartite Soul - Discussion and Evaluation

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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 should be indulged (such as the desire to eat enough to stay alive), and unnecessary desires, and unlawful desires. Though the appetite lusts after many things, Plato dubs it ‘money-loving’, since money is required for satisfying most of these desires. In a just man, the appetite is strictly controlled by reason and reason’s henchman, spirit.

The charioteer represents rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature and directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, and to proceed towards enlightenment. The charioteer is reason (logos) and lusts after truth and is the source of all of our philosophic desires. In the just man, the entire soul is ruled by reason, and strives to fulfil reason’s desires.

Plato’s tripartite conception of the ‘soul’ offers an interesting and valuable account of the human psyche, and for the motivational factors that can influence individual conduct. By virtue of searching for why a man should follow courses of action that are seen to be ‘just’, Plato compliments his ethical answers by establishing a psychological structure that shows that conflict predominantly occurs during our decision making as moral agents. Plato has developed his arguments considerably so as to take into account that there may be lower order appetites and desires that can confuse and weaken reason, and that this is the reason why people may error with unjust actions.

As a philosophical treatise, it is to be commended for appreciating the complexity of human motivations, however given our contemporary biological knowledge we can see that the simplified composition of the ‘soul’ espoused by Plato may be untenable. Also, by virtue of the soul being a corporation of three distinct forces, this raises philosophical issues regarding the soul’s immortality. The soul would not be strong enough to survive the destruction of the body. This can not be true because the soul directly controls the motions of the...
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