Plato's Three-part Soul

In Republic IV, how does Plato’s Socrates argue for a three-part soul? Is the argument successful?

Socrates’ early ideas about using his questioning technique in the pursuit of knowledge lead to both realizations and further questions. One such problem is that people seem to have inner contradictions. If people were able to have one overriding virtue, or one principle of moral action, or one guiding concept of decision making, then there shouldn’t be a contradiction within an individual person about what is good or just, or what to do, in any given circumstance. And yet, this exists.

Plato seeks to solve this problem in ‘The Republic’ by proposing a three part soul, allowing for the three parts to potentially contradict each other. This solution emerges from the phenomenological experience of the self and the observation of other humans such as expressed in discussions and debates. The three proposed parts of the soul are the reasoning part that is able to do rational thinking and the generation of ideas and knowledge, the emotional part, and the appetitive part.

It’s easy to see how each of these parts can seem to take a perspective on the other parts and therefore acts almost as if a miniature personality within the personality. We can think in an approving or disapproving way about our emotions and our appetites. We can have emotional reactions to our thoughts and our appetites. We can have an appetitive desire to feel or to avoid emotions, and to gain or avoid gaining knowledge. Each area of the soul taking a perspective on each other area of the soul.

For instance, let’s say the decision in question is whether or not to drink a soda. For many people their appetitive desire to drink a soda is addictive and compulsive. It drives them from the inside in a way that they cannot resist without significant effort and a real possibility of failure in that effort. Yet, many people attempt to stop drinking soda for health reasons. They rationally think about the potential consequences in their future, determine that discontinuing drinking soda will help them lose weight and that will help their heart health. That stopping drinking soda will help them lose weight and relieve some of the pressure on their aching joints. That stopping will mean they consume less sugar and may be able to drop their blood glucose levels back to a healthier range. And there are more, so the reasons are there. Yet, the appetite is so powerful it overwhelms their reasons and they drink the next soda. Each time they determine that they are quitting they have an emotional reaction of hope that they will succeed, embarrassment that they have the problem and have to make a commitment to quit, and dread that they may fail. Each time they break their resolve and drink another soda they are happy because they get the satisfaction of drinking soda and the release of the pressure of attempting to resist, along with despair over having once again failed, and embarrassment that others will notice the failure as well. Only by bringing these three parts into a balanced harmony, with the rational part emphasized in decision making, is correct action possible.

This is a simple example that is common. And therefore, based on that, Plato’s argument is supported. However, it’s easy to find a potential contradiction. Even in this example some are revealed, most notably in the emotions that I mentioned. When the person is making the commitment to quit they have hope, embarrassment, and dread at the same time over the same decision. Are these a contradiction within themselves? Hope is positive and dread is almost the exact opposite. How can these two exist at the same time, about the same decision, in the same direction? Are these two separate parts of the soul? If so, we now have one appetitive part, two emotional parts, and one rational part.

It’s obvious that this division doesn’t make sense unless it’s carried further to at least separate the emotions. There are different theories of how many emotions there are covering a range such as: anger, fear, joy, grief. But, emotions aren’t the only part of the soul that can be further divided. We then have the different appetites such as: hunger, sleep, sex, thirst. There are also the different aspects of ideation: perception, abstraction, imagination, judgment. These lists are not extensive, and yet we are already at twelve qualities. Should we then consider that the soul is made up of twelve different parts, all of which can potentially contradict themselves on any given decision point? I think this is a reasonable proposition.

It appears what Plato has done is to abstract the different types of experiences that humans can have as part of their phenomenological field into three main categories: thinking, emotions, appetites. This division allows us to conceptualize, think about, and talk about these ideas at a reasonable and useful level, and therefore Plato has concluded that a division into three parts is the most useful and therefore the truth. Similar to how Charles Sanders Peirce defines truth in the original version of Pragmatism.

Here we can see the two sides of this question as to whether or not Plato’s arguments in ‘The Republic’ are successful about the tripartite nature of the soul. On the one hand there does seem to be a human experience of a division with separate and sometimes conflicting motivations, and this supports Plato’s proposition. However, it seems that there could be many more divisions than three within the same person, so that the number three isn’t necessarily supported. Yet, the various potential parts do seem to divide up into what could be considered three conceptual areas of similarity. It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that Plato’s division of the soul into three parts can be a useful conception in some circumstances, even if it isn’t the whole and complete answer. It’s more of a conceptual and communicative convenience in dealing with an approximation of the representation of the truth within the world itself, and in most applications can be classified as true enough, depending on the necessity for greater expansion or simplification within a given context.



Popular posts from this blog

Why is Slytherin House Bad?

Fighting Local Government Corruption - Part 1 of ?

Pro-Global Warming

Donate to Jeff's Work