Plato: the Tripartite Soul

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” – Alfred Whitehead

So yeah, Plato’s pretty important to Western philosophy.

His view of human nature was explained through the tripartite soul, outlining three distinct elements of the soul: reason, passion and desire. The parts are to be harmonized so that we can transcend ordinary things and  gain knowledge of truth through the realm of forms.

Theory of Forms

One of the problems central to Western philosophy is that of the ‘one and the many,’ where there are many different instances of something which all belong to the same class. A common example is how there are many different types of chairs, but they all belong to a named class – they are all called chairs.

Plato’s answer to this was the theory of forms. He believed there are two realms:

  1. Ordinary things: these are things as they appear in the world; changing, perishable, imperfect, many and are becoming something.
  2. Forms or ideas: these are things which are not tangible in the world, they are archetypes; unchanging, eternal, perfect, one and being.

So in Plato’s conception, behind the many instances of the chair is a form or idea of a chair which is eternal, constant and perfect. It is a bit like a cookie-cutter or stamp.

The class of forms is also applied to abstract concepts, such as beauty, justice and virtue. The forms are of perfect beauty, complete justice, absolute virtue etc. The realm of forms encompasses more than just the perceivable.

I will come back to the theory of forms after explaining the tripartite soul and show how Plato links the two.

The Tripartite Soul

Plato believed that people have souls separate from their physical bodies. The soul was thought to be immortal. All living things were considered by Plato to have souls. Plato’s concept of the soul is very closely linked with the mind. He had a view where all learning was actually recollection from our soul of things known in previous lives. So while the body can die, the soul lives on and is reincarnated, continuously recollecting knowledge.

Plato’s tripartite soul is comprised of the following three parts:

Desire

  • This part of the soul is that which wants for things like food, sex and drink. It is the part that is responsible for hedonism and pleasure seeking, as well as survival and procreation. It is thought of as being the harder part of the soul to manage, being less biddable and more likely to rebel.

Passion

  • This part is seen as representing ambition, victory, achievement, honour, reputation. It is the part of the soul that feels righteous anger, that wants to uphold moral codes, the part which drives a person to fight for justice and valour. It is considered to be more biddable than desire and more likely to be tamed and subordinated to reason.

Reason

  • Reason, Plato says, is the part which utilizes knowledge. It wants to find truth and understanding. Reason is also responsible for subduing and directing desire and passion, so that neither runs away. Behind this is the reason part wanting harmony in the soul so it is not distracted by ordinary things and can pursue knowledge of the forms.

This is where knowledge of the forms comes back. The whole purpose of the soul, according to Plato, is to regain knowledge of the forms – truth, perfect beauty, justice, the good etc.

The tripartite soul is often alluded to as a chariot. Passion and desire are two horses fighting for control of the chariot, while reason is the charioteer seeking to tame the horses and drive the chariot. He wants to do this so he can steer the chariot towards knowledge of the forms.

Plato believed the soul was reincarnated, and the body it was reincarnated into dependent on previous knowledge gained of the forms. So by reason attaining this goal, the soul would be working its way into better reincarnations – climbing the reincarnation ladders. To be reincarnated as a human, having a human soul, meant one must possess at least some knowledge of the forms, which would equate to some ability to act virtuously, know some truth, recognize beauty etc.

The forms are thought to live in a heavenly realm, amongst the gods flying around in their winged chariots with clear, perfected knowledge of the forms.

Humans are wingless chariots, that have been caught up in worldly pursuits by allowing desire or passion to run away with the soul. Reason must conquer these parts in order to recollect perfect knowledge of the forms and once again fly around heaven in their crazy winged horse chariots like brainy gods.

Critique

Plato’s a pretty big name in Western philosophy, but I still think his conception of human nature is crazy.

His argument for an immortal soul falls back on some loose ideas about reincarnation and constant movement, that everything is always in motion and so the soul must be the same. He also tries to show that people already ‘know stuff’ and often recollect stuff we didn’t know we knew, some weird argument like that.

I tend to be a sceptic around these items. I don’t think he provides a convincing argument for the immortal soul. It seems entirely possible that our minds can just stop regardless of constant motion in the universe. I also think humans learn stuff really fast, which is mistaken for prior knowledge, a priori reason, a soul,  a spirit, divine knowledge.

I also don’t see the three parts as being distinct as Plato outlines them. Much of what is attributed to spirit is just the action of either reason or desire, or a competition between reason and desire. People normally experience righteous anger when something they desire is threatened, or they have reasoned something to be wrong for practical purposes.

Things like achievement, honour, victory, valour etc are all just abstracted desires. Sure they may be different from basic desires like food, drink and sex, but I still see it as being a form of desire. Thing like achievement and valour are often sought as tools or leverage so that desire can attain even more ‘ordinary things’, i.e. a pecking order or social status.

I don’t think passion is an entirely separate human expression to desire, it is normally just desires that are acted upon, or defended. I guess this partly arises through taking more of an egoist view, that people act morally out of self-interest. So that which is attributed to passion is often a form of reason working to subordinate immediate desires for a more long-term desire. These long term desires, like security, are more sensible ways of ensuring basic desires are constantly maintained.

It makes sense not to let someone steal all your food, not because it is passionately the ‘right’ thing to do in upholding a concept of justice, but because otherwise you’ll get hungry and being hungry sucks. Passion in terms of righteous anger or ambition is just long-term play at short-term desires like food, drink and sex.

I also think the three parts do not universally explain human nature. From what I can see in the world, there seem to be many people who almost completely abandon reason to follow desire. Or people who have very little passion (as it is used in this context), with no ambitious drive. Alternatively, there are also people who don’t appear to be constantly caught up in having to subdue their desires, seeming to have naturally modest desires.

Plato doesn’t seem to focus on or explain free-will. He does paint this picture of reason trying to tame desire and passion,  but doesn’t acknowledge that some people will exercise free-will in choosing to chase desires over reason. A person may be fully aware of his theory of forms and reincarnation, yet still choose not to pursue knowledge. Plato rates reason as being the best ruling element, but from how people live their lives, many would seem to favour desire.

He breaks the soul into 3 parts and then attributes different aims or inclinations to each part. But where do these inclinations and aims come from? What drives the passion part of the soul to seek ambition, if not simply desire? Why does reason want to achieve knowledge of forms, if not to alleviate suffering… another form of desire?

I think Plato does well at describing a common conflict in humans, that between desire and reason. But I disagree that his tripartite soul, seeking knowledge of true forms, is a universal and fundamental explanation of human nature. It seems to neglect free-will and the balance between the parts of the soul, particularly passion, are not a universal explanation.

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