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The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul


The concept of the soul has long fascinated humanity, occupying a central place in the collective consciousness. In the framework of ancient Greek history of thought, the notions of it formed a vibrant and evolving tapestry. The ideas surrounding the soul that emerged from ancient Greek thought exerted a profound influence on subsequent intellectual developments, particularly within the realm of Christianity and Western European philosophy. From the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophers, the soul remained a focal point of inquiry and speculation. Even in modern times, the legacy of the Greek understanding of the soul persists, shaping the contemporary conceptions and debates. The exploration of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and ethical considerations all bear traces of the enduring influence of Greek philosophy on the existent beliefs on the matter.

This series of articles seeks to explore the multifaceted concept of the soul in ancient Greek literary, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Beginning with foundational literary works such as those of Homer and Hesiod and progressing through the profound theories put forth by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others, it aims to unravel the diverse and evolving understanding of the soul in ancient Greece.

The series is divided into the following chapters:

4. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul

5. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Aristotle’s Psychology

6. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms

7. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Air and Fire of Pneuma

8. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul

In the wide-ranging body of work by Plato, the idea of the soul remains one of the most enduring and intellectually stimulating contributions. This article aims to delve into Plato's nuanced perspectives on the soul with a particular emphasis on his two seminal dialogues: the Phaedo and the Republic, each serving as noteworthy landmarks in the evolution of Platonic thought. The Phaedo is acclaimed for its thorough exploration of the soul's eternal attributes, engaging with profound issues, such as mortality. In turn, the Republic offers an exhaustive examination of the soul's tripartite structure—comprising of Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—and its implications for the formation of a just and well-organised society. Through careful scrutiny and thoughtful analysis, this article seeks to provide a coherent interpretation of the themes and ideas that Plato develops concerning the soul across his work.

When examining Plato's theories about the soul, a comprehensive analysis emerges that positions his theories within the context of ancient Greek thought in the Classical era. Several theories from this era expanded upon a more simplistic, pre-existing understanding of the soul in everyday language. There is evidence in Plato’s Phaedo that indicates that mainstream fifth-century BCE Greek culture had an ambiguous view of the soul's afterlife. Through dialogues with characters who initially question the soul's immortality, Plato’s Socrates probes this uncertainty. The affinity argument emerges as particularly informative in understanding Plato's own stance on the soul. This argument situates the soul closer to eternal, unchanging entities rather than to perishable ones. However, it's crucial to note that the argument does not claim the soul's eternal nature outright, instead, it suggests the soul is less prone to dissolution than the body. Accepting the soul's durability in comparison to the body, however, does not necessarily offer assurance of its eternal existence, but perhaps suggests a longer lifespan. Further scrutiny opens the door to intriguing questions, particularly about the soul's potential intermediate status, being like eternal entities but not categorically belonging to that realm (Lorenz, 2009).

Figure 1: Plato (copy of Silanion ca. 370 BCE).
The Nature and Functions of Plato's Soul

According to the philosophical tenets presented by Socrates in the Phaedo, the soul possesses an immortal nature. The highest state of the soul manifests through wisdom, achieved by directing focus towards intelligible objects rather than those that are merely perceptible. This emphasis on the eternal and immutable draws a stark contrast to the transient and perishable matters of the physical world. To elaborate further on Plato's view of the soul's nature, the affinity argument serves as a crucial theoretical construct. This argument posits that the soul bears a closer resemblance to divine, immutable, and intelligible forms of reality than to the perishable, physical world. Such a close alignment suggests that the soul is likely immortal, given its shared characteristics with entities or forms that are eternal and unchanging. In this philosophical context, the natural function of the soul is in alignment with principles considered divine or of a higher nature. These principles govern and lead the individual toward wisdom and moral virtue. This guiding force provides the soul with a robustness and durability that far exceed the limitations imposed by the physical body. In Plato's metaphysical framework, the soul is not a mere abstract concept. Rather, it is a vital entity with a strength and longevity far greater than that of corporeal forms (Lorenz, 2009).

Plato's conception of the soul is rich in cognitive and intellectual functions. It is not just the seat of emotions but the centre of reasoning and regulation. The soul, as conceived by Plato, is broader than what contemporary audiences might understand as the mind as it also acts as the animating life force in living beings. This comprehensive framework attributes both intellectual and vital functions to the soul, extending its relevance to all forms of life, including plants. The idea of plants sharing the qualities of ensoulment with humans was further developed in Plato's Timaeus. In this work, plants are described as a kind of living creature, conceived to provide a form of reinforcement for mortal life existing in the realm of fire and air. While the soul of a plant does not have the capacity for reasoning or forming opinions, it is capable of experiencing sensations such as pleasure and pain, as well as other accompanying desires. Plants are depicted as inherently reactive to external stimuli, lacking the ability to initiate their own motion or to reason about their own conditions. Although cultivated types have been 'civilised' by human husbandry, they still fundamentally differ from humans. Both literally and metaphorically, their essential nature is rooted in a unique type of soul, which makes them living entities but sets them apart from humans (Skemp, 1947).

Figure 2: Wall painting depicting Socrates (1st–5th century CE).

In Plato's theory of the soul, the soul serves a dual function: it is both the principle of motion and the subject of cognition. This means that the soul is not just a metaphysical or spiritual entity; it has cognitive functions, allowing it to think and deliberate. It is through cognitive acts, such as examination and reasoning, that the soul is able to move or influence things in the world. This suggests that, in Plato's view, no soul is entirely unintelligent or inherently evil. Instead of being agents of disorder, souls act as guiding forces. The orchestration of this order was originally set by a higher cosmic entity, the Demiurge, the cosmic craftsman responsible for shaping the universe. Thus, in Plato's perspective, the soul's cognitive capabilities have a direct bearing on its function as a principle of motion, further solidifying its centrality in comprehending both human conduct and the structure of the natural world (Campbell, 2021).

Plato seeks to address several critical questions: the potential immortality of the soul, its essential characteristics, and its function both in life and any existence beyond. The philosopher's theory of the soul also includes a moral dimension, highlighting virtues such as courage, justice, and self-control. This moral aspect has made Plato's concept a foundational element in many religious and philosophical traditions, which often view the soul as both the repository of virtue and an immortal entity. However, despite its far-reaching influence, Plato's framework for understanding the soul has prompted questions about its internal coherence, particularly when compared with earlier Greek interpretation, which often presented the soul in a more limited, functionalist manner (Lorenz, 2009).

Figure 3: "The Death of Socrates" (David, 1787).

Plato's Phaedo provides a deep yet complicated view of the soul, filled with difficulties and contradictions in the field of traditional philosophy. One interesting feature of this text is that Plato confines the soul's roles to only certain mental or emotional states. Plato's soul doesn't represent the full scope of one's thoughts, wishes, and feelings. Instead, they are partially shifted to the animate body. This distinction creates a unique role for the soul as a centre for intellectual and ethical abilities, separating it from other emotional aspects. One might infer from this that the Platonic soul is solely an intellectual construct. However, such an inference would be incomplete; the soul, in Plato's view, is not devoid of emotional or desirous attributes. It has its own emotional spectrum and even feels joy, especially the joy that comes from learning. In addition, the soul helps manage and govern physical functions and feelings. Adding to the complexity is Socrates' proposal within the Phaedo of a tiered understanding of the soul’s roles. According to this view, the soul has both general and specific roles in the sphere of life's actions. This tiered approach suggests that the soul, while widespread in its impact, has a special and elevated role for certain duties. Firstly, the soul is responsible for the general life activities of any living organism. For instance, one could not feel hunger or thirst unless one is ensouled. Secondly, Socrates presents a more specialised set of responsibilities for the soul. These are activities that the soul conducts directly, such as contemplation of mathematical truths. Unlike the general responsibilities that encompass various life activities, these specialised roles are highly intellectual and moral in nature (Lorenz, 2009). Despite these nuanced observations, Plato's Phaedo has its limitations. One such drawback is the text's failure to adequately explore the unity of emotional life. The mental or emotional activities that we commonly see as united appear somewhat divided in Plato's framework. Intellectual tasks, for example, are closely linked to the soul, but physical cravings are strangely separate, creating a gap in the conceptual unity of the soul’s function in human psychology. These shortcomings in the Phaedo are somewhat tackled in Plato's later text, the Republic, which offers a more unified view of the soul and its diverse abilities.

The Soul in the Plato's Republic

In Phaedo, Socrates suggests that the soul has a restricted set of activities for which it is responsible. It appears to have a functional division with the animate body, where certain mental states and activities are not solely the purview of the soul but shared with the body. Here, the soul takes on more intellectual pursuits and regulates the body and its passions. On the other hand, bodily desires like hunger and thirst are related to the soul only to the extent that an organism must be ensouled to have such desires. The Republic, however, offers a more synthesised view. It suggests that the soul, by its virtue, is responsible not just for intellectual functions but also for moral virtues like justice and courage. This aligns with the dialogue's broader aim to show that justice is more profitable than injustice, effectively serving as a central virtue for the soul. This conception complements the soul's responsibility for the life of the organism, cognitive functions, and moral virtues, portraying it as a multifaceted entity (Lorenz, 2009).

Figure 4: Fragments of Plato's Republic (Oxford Papyrology, 3rd century CE).

The argument in Book 1 of the Republic, which states that a just person is happier than an unjust person, suggests that the soul's condition plays a key role in determining one's quality of life. The soul is not merely a detached intellectual entity; it governs a person's ability to lead a distinctively human life. Virtues like justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance are manifestations of a soul in good condition, influencing a person's capability to lead a fulfilling life:

“Then the just is happy and the unjust miserable.” “So be it,” he said. “But it surely does not pay to be miserable, but to be happy.” “Of course not.” “Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus, can injustice be more profitable than justice.” (Plato, Republic, 1.354a)

The crux of the Republic's argument about the soul lies in its principle that opposite actions or states cannot occur simultaneously in the same part of a single entity. This leads to the conclusion that human souls have at least three distinct components: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. Each has its own orientation and responsibility—Reason towards truth and wisdom, Spirit towards honour and esteem, and Appetite towards basic bodily desires. Importantly, the multi-part soul respects the unity of the mind, something that the Phaedo lacks, by allowing all psychological functions to be attributed to a singular subject—the soul. The Republic emphasises that the journey towards justice is not just a societal construct but deeply rooted in the state of one's own soul. Plato meticulously sets the stage for understanding this intricate relationship between the individual and society, underlining that the "good life"—which in Plato's terms is synonymous with a "just life"—is achieved by attaining a particular inner state of the soul. Each of the three elements—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—has its unique role and function. In an ideally just soul, these elements are in perfect harmony with each other, akin to a musical ensemble where each instrument plays its part flawlessly. This harmony is not a static condition but a dynamic balance, requiring continuous attention and cultivation. The inner state of equilibrium serves as the foundation for just actions and interactions in the larger social fabric. The individual, when harmoniously balanced, contributes to the harmony of society as a whole, thus achieving the 'better life' that Plato describes (Ho, 2015).

Figure 5: Plato's Academy mosaic (1st century BCE).

Understanding the different roles and functions of the three-part elements is crucial for grasping the Republic's idea of the soul as the basic element for justice, both individual and societal. The rational element, as outlined by Socrates in the dialogue, serves a dual role in the three-part soul. On one side, it takes on the practical role of identifying what is truly good for the soul, guiding actions accordingly. This element enables long-term decision-making that is beneficial not only for individual elements but for the whole soul. On the other side, a natural tendency towards gaining knowledge and wisdom exists. This inclination is not just a mysterious quest for truth, it lays the foundation for the practical aspects of the rational element. Driven by a love for truth, the rational element prompts actions in line with acquired knowledge and wisdom. Thus, it acts as the cornerstone of the quest for objectivity, directing the view of the world as it really is and allowing for action free of misleading biases or personal preferences. The development of this rational element may happen late or may never come to be, making it a key area for individual growth (Singpurwalla, 2010).

“And that is why we say that the primary classes of men also are three, the philosopher or lover of wisdom, the lover of victory and the lover of gain.” “Precisely so” “And also that there are three forms of pleasure, corresponding respectively to each?” “By all means.” (Plato, Republic, 9.581c)

The spirited element, according to Socrates in the Republic, provides a complex view, covering a range of emotions and motivations, mainly anger, shame, and pride. Although acting as the emotional centre of the soul, it isn't the source of all emotions. First described as the part of the soul where anger lives, the spirited element takes on a varied role. It acts as the natural ally to reason, aligning with the guidelines of the rational element. The goals of this element are winning and honour, with a strong focus on social standing and physical skill. This spirited part captures the need for social recognition and self-confidence. It controls the extent to which actions aimed at gaining honour or getting back lost honour are carried out. Thus, this element holds a key role in social and self-perception, behaving both defensively and assertively depending on the situation and perceived threats to self-image (Singpurwalla, 2010).

Figure 6: Alcibiades being taught by Socrates (Vincent, 1776).

The third, the appetitive element is a mixed force driven by different desires. Initially labelled as the source of physical needs, such as the need for food, drink, and sexual satisfaction, it is also called the money-loving part. However, in the Republic Socrates expands this idea considerably. The appetitive element is not limited to quick bodily satisfaction; it can desire abstract ideas like power, respect, or even a flawed form of philosophising. Therefore, this element acts as a flexible and changeable part of the soul, chasing what seems appealing or attractive at a specific time. Its changing nature makes it the most unpredictable part and, under certain conditions, the hardest to control (Singpurwalla, 2010).

The further development of Plato's understanding of the soul is keenly explored by Christopher Bobonich (2003), a distinguished philosopher and foremost authority on Ancient Greek philosophy. In a notable departure from Plato's earlier works, he argues that the later dialogue, the Laws, introduces a unique viewpoint that diverges from the well-known tripartite concept of the soul. The author contends that these shifts extend beyond mere psychological theories and have broader implications for Plato's ethical stances (Bobonich, 2003). As a result, Bobonich's analysis serves as a catalyst for renewed discourse on evolving themes such as the nature of the soul and ethical virtue in Plato's body of work.

Figure 7: Plato, detail of "The School of Athens" (Raphael, 1509-1510).

Plato's conception of the soul serves as a cornerstone in Western philosophy, transcending its metaphysical origins to make pivotal contributions to ethics, epistemology, and political theory. Across his dialogues Plato grapples with the complex nature of the soul, exploring its aspects. These discussions address manifold dimensions of human existence, including cognition, emotion, morality, and societal harmony. Each dialogue adds a layer of nuance to Plato's already intricate tapestry, developing a concept that encompasses both cognitive and moral capabilities while offering an array of functional roles in the sphere of life’s activities.

Critically, Plato evolves the traditional Greek notion of ensoulment to portray the soul as a dynamic, multifaceted entity, subject to change and growth. In his dialogues, Plato draws a complex hierarchy within living entities. The Republic took an integrative approach, formulating the tripartite structure of the soul and defining its elements. This model rectifies some of the inconsistencies present in the Phaedo, notably the apparent compartmentalisation of emotional life. The Republic expands upon the functional roles and moral dimensions, ultimately establishing the soul as the fulcrum of justice, both individual and societal. In doing so, Plato accomplishes a harmony between the individual and collective ethical frameworks, underlining the soul's capacity for virtuous conduct as crucial for both personal well-being and societal stability. The confluence of these texts and theories highlights the enduring legacy of Plato's philosophy of the soul. His multi-dimensional approach not only maps the conceptual contours of the soul but also outlines its functional roles and ethical imperatives. However, this does not come without questions about its internal consistency and adaptability, opening avenues for further exploration and interpretation. Thus, Plato's account of the soul, in its layered complexity, continues to offer a rich framework for understanding the human condition, the pursuit of justice, and the moral fabric of society.

Bibliographical References

Bobonich, C. (2002). Parts of the soul and the psychology of virtue. In Plato's Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics (Online ed.). Oxford Academic.

Campbell, D. R. (2021). Self‐motion and cognition: Plato's theory of the soul. Southern Journal of Philosophy, 59(4), 523-544.

Ho, H. (2015). The good life for Plato’s tripartite soul. In R. King (Ed.), The good life and conceptions of life in Early China and Graeco-Roman Antiquity (pp. 265-280). De Gruyter.

Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient theories of soul. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 ed.).

Plato. (1966). Phaedo. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 (H. N. Fowler, Trans.; W. R. M. Lamb, Intro.). Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library:

Plato. (1969). The Republic (P. Shorey, Trans.; Vols. 5 & 6). Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd. Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library:

Singpurwalla, R. (2010). The tripartite theory of motivation in Plato’s Republic. Philosophy Compass, 5(11), 880–892.

Skemp, J. (1947). Plants in Plato's Timaeus. The Classical Quarterly, 41(1-2), 53-60.

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