The Tripartite Platonic Soul

Plato has the distinction, among many others, of presenting the Western world with the first systematic λόγος or rational account of the ψυχή or soul; Plato is, in other words, the first psychologist. Plato’s psychology, expressed most extensively in the Republic and the Phaedrus, is still entirely plausible as a basic account of the nature and structure of the human psychē.

Plato was a philosopher with the soul of a poet, and often expressed his insights in images. He gives two famous images of the soul.  In this post, I’ll be giving you the one from the Republic.

Plato, or the Platonic Socrates, asks us to imagine a human being, and inside this human being, to imagine three part: a human being, a lion, and a many-headed monster (familiar to the Greeks and still today as the hydra, the monster that when one head is cut off, three more grow in its place—making it an ever growing, ever more-dangerous monster).

According to Plato—and to Aristotle, who follows him on this point—the human soul is basically tripartite.  It consists of a properly human part—this is represented by the man, and is the thinking and reasoning part of the soul.  In a properly working soul, this is the part that should rule or govern.  However, the problem with reason is that it has no force. Its action consists essentially in λόγος, thinking and talking.  Now, talking can be directing and commanding, but directing and commanding, even when the direction is sound, is useless if the directions are not followed. Or if one’s reasoning part is corrupted, such that it is reduced from its role as ruler to an instrument of a power properly beneath it, in which case reason because a mere tool, instrument, or slave—of honor, for example, or the passions.

The lowest part of the soul is the appetitive part, the part that is the home of our irrational fears and desires.  “Irrational” is, in Greek, ἄλογον, that is, without λόγος.  Neither fear nor desire can “talk”—we have to elevate them for them even to “speak”, but if we do so, and speak for them, we find that desire only screams, like a small child “I WANT IT!” and fear only screams, period, or at most screams “RUN AWAY!” or even less helpfully “DO SOMETHING!” Worse still, unlike reason, which is directed at truth, and so can never conflict with itself, since every truth is compatible with every other truth, the irrational, appetitive part of the soul is in constant war with itself: fear vs desire, fear vs fear, desire vs desire.  Hence, Plato’s image of the many-headed monster also signifies that the many heads are each pulling in a different direction, and often they turn on one another, and attack and devour one another.

Unlike the modern world, which tends to more simplistically divide the soul into a rational part and an irrational part, the ancient and medieval world always recognized a third, middle part of the soul, a tertium quid able to run interference and mediate between the higher reasoning part of the soul and the lower irrational appetitive part.  This, in Plato’s image, is portrayed as a lion.  (Aristotle, less glamorously compares it to a faithful hound.)

The middle part of the soul is the θυμός, a word that is not easy to translate into English. It could be rendered as “spirit” or “spiritedness” or “heart” (if rightly understood).  θυμός is what we encounter in phrases like “team spirit” or “esprit de corps.” A horse or a body of soldiers who are gung ho may be called “spirited.” The θυμός is related to the angry part of the soul—for anger, used correctly, is anger at injustice, according to the ancients, and according to Plato, justice is first of all the right ordering of the soul.

When we have a bad or unseemly passion that makes us desire something we should not desire, reason may counsel against the passion as bad or unseemly, but again, reason can only talk.  It is the θυμός that gets angry that we are being reduced to the slave of a passion. One who acts not from reason, but from a blind passion, is not acting freely, even if the passion is his or her own—for passions are not chosen or willed, but come over us, they move us, they affect us; hence they are called “emotions” or “affects” or “passions”—”passion” is the opposite word to “action.”  When in the grip of a passion, we undergo it, we suffer it, we are not agents who act, but patients.

Anger, on the other hand, is a very active and powerful force.  Blind anger is, of course, no better than blind passion. However, according to Plato, in the properly functioning soul, the θυμός, through discipline and training, obeys the reasoning part of the soul.  Reason commands, and θυμός obeys.  And the primary role of θυμός is to use its angry active force to engage the passions on their own level of force, and beat them into submission, to regulate and control them, as reason directs.  The θυμός is therefore like the police, who enforce the laws the rulers make upon the citizens, not all of whom, but some of whom, require force to obey the law—because like the many-headed monster, each citizen goes his own way, and some, left to themselves, will go outside the law.

In the Republic, Socrates illustrates the conflict between passion (ἐπιθυμία) and θυμός with a story about one Leonitus and his eyes. It transpired that Leonitus was walking back to Athens from a trip down the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and his return journey took him past the pit outside the walls of the city where the Athenians tossed the corpses of executed criminals who were deemed not to merit proper cremation.  Leonitus immediately felt himself seized with a great desire to go and gawk at the bodies in the pit. At the same time, he felt shame to have such desire.  He struggled with himself for a bit, and finally gave in to his desire, and gazing upon the bodies, he angrily cursed his eyes, saying “Go on! Drink your fill of the beautiful sight!”

What this shows is that, in addition to a desire for something, there is in us another part that can fight against the desire, becoming angry at our own weakness for giving in (as Leonitus did).  There’s a scene in Season Five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the heroes discover a skinned corpse—and the following dialogue occurs:

Xander: “This is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

Buffy: “And yet my eyes won’t look away. Stupid eyes!”

That is another perfect Leonitus moment. We’ve all had them. How many of us have had the urge to rubberneck at the scene of a traffic accident, for example? Almost all of us, judging by the way traffic slows down. And is there not for most of us (I hope) a sense of shame in wanting merely to gawk at someone else’s misfortune?

Here is my rendering of Plato’s Image of the Tripartite Human Soul:

Platos Tripartite Soul




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