Introduction to Philosophy
Dr Tom Kerns

Plato's
Three Parts
of the Soul

 

 

 

Sometimes Plato's division of the psyche into its three main elements can be easily misunderstood. Some who read about it for the first time think it is the same as Freud's division of the psyche into the ego (das Ich), id (das Es), and superego (das Über-Ich), but it isn't the same as Freud's division. Others think it's the same as the old adult-parent-child division, but it's not that either. Nor is it the same as the conscious-subconscious-supraconscious division.

Plato's identification of these three distinct elements of a person's inner life is unique, and can be validated by directly turning inward to one's own experience of the self.

Plato's three elements of the psyche are

1. The appetites, which includes all our myriad desires for various pleasures, comforts, physical satisfactions, and bodily ease. There are so many of these appetites that Plato does not bother to enumerate them, but he does note that they can often be in conflict even with each other. This element of the soul is represented by the ugly black horse on the left.

2. The spirited, or hot-blooded, part, i.e., the part that gets angry when it perceives (for example) an injustice being done. This is the part of us that loves to face and overcome great challenges, the part that can steel itself to adversity, and that loves victory, winning, challenge, and honor. (Note that Plato's use of the term "spirited" here is not the same as "spiritual." He means "spirited" in the same sense that we speak of a high-spirited horse, for example, one with lots of energy and power.) This element of the soul is represented by the noble white horse on the right.

3. The mind (nous), our conscious awareness, is represented by the charioteer who is guiding (or who at least should be guiding) the horses and chariot. This is the part of us that thinks, analyzes, looks ahead, rationally weighs options, and tries to gauge what is best and truest overall.

I've put together the following little chart of metaphors to help Plato articulate what each of those three elements is. For example, if we had to pick some body part to symbolize what each of those elements is, Plato says that the rational part of the soul is like the body's head, the spirited part is like the hot blood in the heart, and the appetitive part would be best represented by the belly and genitals. (These are Plato's metaphors.) If we had to pick one of the classical psychologists to represent each of these three parts (this is my metaphor, obviously, not Plato's), Carl Jung could represent the mind, the part that loves rationality and ultimate wisdom; Alfred Adler (with his emphasis on how the drive for power shapes human behavior) could represent the spirited part; and Sigmund Freud (with his claim that the pleasure principle drives all human behavior) could represent the appetitive part. Some parts of this chart are Plato's and only a few are my own. For example, the notion of somatotypes didn't arise until the 19th century, so I added that, but Plato discovered the characteristic virtues and vices common to each of the psyche's elements.

So I offer this little chart only as one more small aid in trying to make sense of what Plato meant by the three distinct elements of the soul that he delineated.

One other common misconception: Some think that Plato believes these three elements of the psyche should be in balance with each other, i.e., should each have its equal "say" in a person's life. But that isn't the way Plato sees it. He thinks the charioteer should be in charge of the whole system, should make the determining decisions about when to give each horse its rein and when to hold it back. The whole system should not be governed by the wishes of the horses (nor by the inertia of the chariot itself, the body) but by the rational decisions of the charioteer.

Finally, in Plato's vision, neither of the horses are good or bad in themselves. The appetites, for example, make great servants, but make very bad masters.

 

Here's the chart:


The Three Parts of the Soul
in Plato's Republic and Phaedrus

Parts of the Soul

Rational

Spirited
("Thymos")

Appetitive

Chariot Part

Charioteer

White horse
on Right

Black horse
on Left

 Loves

Truth/Wisdom

Honor/Victory

Pleasure/$$

The Virtue

Wisdom

Courage

Temperance

The Vice

Pride/Sloth

Anger/Envy

Gluttony/Lust/Greed

Somatotype

Ectomorph

Mesomorph

Endomorph

Geographic Symbol

Athens

Sparta

Egypt/Phoenicia

  Body Symbol

Head 

Heart 

 Belly/Genitals

Psychiatrist

Carl Jung

Alfred Adler

Sigmund Freud

Music Type

Cerebral

Martial

Lydian/Sensuous

Class in Republic

Guardians

Auxiliaries/Soldiers

Merchants

 

If you think of other tripartite metaphors to represent Plato's three elements of the soul. Please feel free to suggest them to us in the class forum.

 


email Dr Kerns

 

Philosophy homepage | Plato | Hebrews | Plutarch | Locke | Berkeley | Hume
Kant | Schopenhauer | Swedenborg | Buber | Tolstoy | other philosophers
TK homepage | Curriculum Vita | Public lectures | Jenner homepage
EVT homepage | study questions | lectures | discussion questions
site map

© copyright Dr Tom Kerns