Platos Tripartite Soul

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(2) Critically evaluate Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul, in Republic.

Plato’s espousal of a tripartite conception of the ‘soul’ as displayed in The Republic, 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. We can also see in The Republic a progression of the soul from his earlier, more primitive account, that saw that man could only act in his best interests (even if these were subsequently flawed). Plato has developed his arguments considerably so as to take into account that there may be lower order appetites and desires that can obfuscate and subvert 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 conglomerate of three distinct forces, this raises philosophical issues regarding the soul’s immortality (that has been and is still affirmed by the author).

It is helpful at this point to identify Plato’s earlier conception of the soul, in order to see how this is ennobled into its tripartite structure in The Republic. In the Protagoras, Socrates admits that men are not always guided by intellect alone, citing that ‘…when men act contrary to knowledge they are overcome by pain, or pleasure, or some of those affections which I was just now mentioning…’ . However what is of note is that Plato believes that whilst human behaviour may be influenced by factors other than reason, if one has rational knowledge as to their best course of action, this cannot be subverted to such lower desires, as if ‘…knowledge were a slave, and might be dragged about anyhow…’ . Consequently Plato’s early account of the soul is largely an intellectualist faculty, purporting reason as having the power of veto when making decisions, and viewing other desires as subsidiary, for ‘…no emotion can ever get a person to act against what they believe is best as long as they maintain that belief…’ . The soul that Plato espouses in The Republic consequently rejects this view, for as we will see, it underestimates the composition of the soul and how such integration of the relevant faculties can guide human conduct. Before we can begin an exegesis of The Republic’s ‘soul’, an exposition of his philosophy concerning the construction of the individual and its parallel with the state must occur, in order to contextualize his view on how the psyche operates. We must acknowledge that the generation of The Republic is a treatise aimed to respond to Glaucon and Adeimantus’ query as to why the state of being just is (in itself) more preferable and rewarding than operating unjustly.

Plato begins his response to this question by appealing to a macroscopic view of human conduct – by virtue of the natural fact that human beings (in general) live communally (and we can extrapolate from this that there must be some benefit derived from doing so). Thus, given the nature of morality and ‘justice’ (in that it involves the interaction of humans with one another), it may be useful to approach the subject by looking at how cities and states are organized, so that we may make assertions as to the individual account of justice and ethics. As such, there is a duality of intention to The Republic, for it not only seeks to understand why being just is truly preferable, but also in establishing the necessary constituents of an ‘ideal’ state – that is, the general requirements that are required by a human community...
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