Selected Passages from Plato's Dialogues

The Tripartite Theory of the Soul

The character Socrates argues for the Tripartite Theory of the Soul in Book IV of the Republic. According to this theory, the soul has three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite.

Each part can give rise to desires. The sources of motivation that give rise to desires in reason are beliefs about what is good and what is bad. The sources of motivation in spirit and appetite are "beliefs" (δόξαι), but they are not beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

It is helpful to use the terms "rational" and "nonrational" to talk about the Tripartite Theory. In this, the terms are not meant to have their ordinary meanings in English.

In the Tripartite Theory, there are "rational" and "nonrational" parts of the soul. Reason is the rational part. The nonrational parts are appetite and spirit. The desires of the rational part are "rational desires." The desires of the nonrational parts are "nonrational desires."

Rational and nonrational desires can be reasonable or unreasonable. Rational desires are reasonable just in case the beliefs that give rise to them are reasonable. Nonrational desires are reasonable just in case they are in accord with the beliefs of reason.

Republic IV.429e

  [Y]ou must conceive what we too to the best of our ability were doing when we selected our guardians and educated them in music and exercises of the body. "in music and exercises of the body (μουσικῇ καὶ γυμναστικῇ)"

  "We surely are aware that when in a man the desires incline strongly to any one thing, they are weakened for other things. It is as if the stream had been diverted into another channel.
  Surely. Socrates.
  So, when a man's desires have been taught to flow in the channel of learning and all that sort of thing, they will be concerned, I presume, with the pleasures of the soul in itself, and will be indifferent to those of which the body is the instrument, if the man is a true and not a counterfeit lover of wisdom (φιλόσοφός).
  That is quite necessary" (RepublicVI.485d).
The sole aim of our contrivance was that because they had the proper nature and upbringing, they should be convinced and receive our laws in the finest possible way, like a dye as it were, so that their belief about the things that are to be feared and all other things would become so fast that even such extremely effective detergents as pleasure, pain, fear, and desire would not wash it out--and pleasure is much more potent than any powder, washing soda, or soap. This power, then, to preserve through everything the correct and law-inculcated belief (δόξης ὀρθῆς τε καὶ νομίμου) about things to be and not to be feared is what I call and would assume to be courage, unless you have something different to say.
  No, Socrates, nothing, for I presume that you consider correct belief about the same matters not produced by education, that which may manifest itself in a beast or a slave, to have little or nothing to do with law and that you would call it by another name than courage.
  That is most true.
  Well then, I accept this as courage.
  Do so, and you will be right with the reservation that it is the courage of a citizen.

Notes on the Text

Socrates has set out the fitting or appropriate organization of human beings into a city. Such a city is "rightly founded," and because it is rightly founded, it is "completely good" and hence is "wise, brave, temperate, and just" (Republic IV.427e). He has found what makes the city wise (Republic IV.428e), and now he turns his attention to what makes the city brave.

Socrates has in mind beliefs about the appropriate actions in situations that can inspire fear. The aim is to instill these beliefs in the guardian in such a way that the prospect of pleasure or pain does not lead those who have gone through this education to abandon their beliefs.

It is a little unclear how this idea is to be mapped into the Tripartite Theory.

Republic IV.435b

  But now the city was thought to be just because three natural kinds [the rulers, auxiliaries to the rulers, and the workers] existing in it performed each its own function, and again it was temperate, brave, and wise "conditions and states" (πάθη τε καὶ ἕξεις) because of certain other conditions and states of these three kinds.
  True, Socrates.
  Then, my friend, we would expect an individual to have these same kinds of things in his soul, and to be correctly called by the same names as the city because the same conditions are present in them both.
  Goodness gracious, here is another trifling inquiry into which we have plunged, the question whether the soul really contains these three kinds of things in it or not.

Notes on the Text

Socrates has found justice in a city. It is the parts each doing its own job. He says that we can expect justice in the individual to be the same, but this means that the soul must have parts.

Repubic IV.435e

  Is it not impossible for us to avoid admitting this much, "kinds and characteristics" (εἴδη τε καὶ ἤθη)

"spiritedness" (τὸ θυμοειδὲς)

"love of knowledge" (τὸ φιλομαθές)

"love of money" (τὸ φιλοχρήματον)
that the same kinds and characteristics are to be found in each one of us that are in the city? They could not get there from any other source. It would be absurd to suppose that spiritedness was not derived in cities from the private citizens who are reputed to have this quality as the populations of the Thracian and Scythian lands and generally of northern regions; or the love of knowledge, which would chiefly be attributed to the region where we dwell, or the love of money which we might say is not least likely to be found in   "And reason and spirit thus reared and having learned and been educated to do their own work in the true sense of the phrase, will preside over the appetitive part which is the mass of the soul in each of us and the most insatiable by nature for money (χρημάτων). They will keep watch upon it, lest, by being filled and infected with the so-called pleasures associated with the body and so waxing big and strong, it may not keep to its own work but may undertake to enslave and rule over the classes which it is not fitting that it should, and so overturn the entire life of all.
  By all means, Socrates" (Republic IV.442).

"One part, we say, is that with which a man learns, one is that with which he feels anger. But the third part, owing to its manifold forms, we could not easily designate by any one distinctive name, but gave it the name of its chief and strongest element; for we called it the appetitive part (ἐπιθυμητικὸν) because of the intensity of its appetites concerned with food and drink and sex and their accompaniments, and likewise the money-loving part (φιλοχρήματον), because money is the chief instrument for the gratification of such desires" (Republic IX.580d).
Phoenicians and the population of Egypt.
  One certainly might.
  This is the fact then, and there is no difficulty in recognizing it.
  Certainly not.
  But the matter begins to be difficult when you ask whether we do all these things with the same thing or whether there are three things and we do one thing with one and one with another, learn with one part of ourselves, feel anger with another, and with yet a third desire the pleasures of food and sex and their kind, or whether when we set out to do something, it is with the entire soul that we act. That is what is really hard to determine properly.

Notes on the Text

Now Socrates turns to the soul and whether it has three parts like the city.

Republic IV.436b

  Let us then attempt to determine whether they are identical with one another in this way.
  It is obvious that the same thing will never do or suffer opposites in the same respect in relation to the same thing and at the same time. So that if ever we find these contradictions in the functions of the soul we shall know that it was not the same thing functioning but a plurality.
  Very well.
  Consider, then, what I am saying.
  Say on, Socrates.
  Is it possible for the same thing at the same time in the same respect to be at rest and in motion?
  By no means.

Notes on the Text

Socrates introduces a premise about "opposites" to prove that the soul has three parts.

It is a little unclear just what this premise is.

One idea in the neighborhood is what is sometimes called the indiscernibility of identicals (if x is y , then x and y are indiscernible). The indiscernibility of identicals is generally thought to be a truth about identity. It follows that if x is F and it is not the case that y is F, then x is not y.

This consequence of the indiscernibility of identicals seems to fit the example Socrates gives. If x is at rest and it is not the case that y is at rest (because y is in motion), then x is not y.

Republic IV.437b

  Will you not then, set down as opposed to one another assent and dissent, and the endeavor after a thing and the rejection of it, and embracing to repelling—do not these and all things like these belong to the class of opposite actions or passions; it will make no difference which?
  None, but they are opposites.
  What then, of thirst and hunger and the appetites generally, and again consenting and willing, would you not put them all somewhere in the classes just described? Will you not say, for example, that the soul of one who desires either strives for that which he desires or draws towards its embrace what it wishes to accrue to it; or again, in so far as it wills that anything be presented to it, nods assent to itself thereon as if someone put the question, striving towards its attainment?
  I would say so.
  But what of not-willing and not consenting nor yet desiring, shall we not put these under the soul's rejection and repulsion from itself and generally into the opposite class from all the former?
  Of course, Socrates.

Notes on the Text

Socrates gives more examples of "opposites."

Republic IV.437d

  This being so, shall we say that the desires constitute a kind "desires" (ἐπιθυμία) and that the most conspicuous members of that class are what we call thirst and hunger?
  We shall.
  Is not the one desire of drink, the other of food?
  Then in so far as it is thirst, would it be of anything more than that of which we say it is a desire in the soul? I mean is thirst thirst for hot drink or cold or much or little or in a word for a draught of any particular quality, or is it the fact that if heat is attached to the thirst it would further render the desire—a desire of cold, and if cold of hot? But if owing to the presence of muchness the thirst is much it would render it a thirst for much and if little for little. But mere thirst will never be desire of anything else than that of which it is its nature to be, mere drink, and so hunger of food.
  That is so.

Notes on the Text

This is a little confusing. The point seems to be that thirst is state the typically prompts a desire to drink. Similarly hunger is a state that typically prompts a desire for food. Thirst and hunger indicate that the body needs replenishment, and drink and food are the proper replenishments.

Republic IV.439a

  The soul of the thirsty then, in so far as it thirsts, wishes nothing else than to drink, and yearns for this and its impulse is towards this.
  Then if anything draws it back when thirsty it must be something different in it from that which thirsts and drives it like a beast to drink. For it cannot be, we say, that the same thing with the same part of itself at the same time acts in opposite ways about the same thing.
  We must admit that it does not.
  So I fancy it is not well said of the archer that his hands at the same time thrust away the bow and draw it nigh, but we should rather say that there is one hand that puts it away and another that draws it to.
  By all means.
Socrates uses this language in the Phaedo, but he does not draw a conclusion about the existence of parts of the soul.

  "Does the soul yield to the feelings (πάθεσιν) of the body or oppose them? I mean, when the body is hot and thirsty, does not the soul oppose it and draw it away from drinking, and from eating when it is hungry, and do we not see the soul opposing the body in countless other ways?
  Certainly" (Phaedo 94b).

  "Well then, do we not now find that the soul acts in exactly the opposite way, leading those elements of which it is said to consist and opposing them in almost everything through all our life, and tyrannizing over them in every way, sometimes inflicting harsh and painful punishments (those of gymnastics and medicine), and sometimes milder ones, sometimes threatening and sometimes admonishing, in short, speaking to the desires and passions and fears as if it were distinct from them and they from it" (Phaedo 94c).
  Are we to say, then, that some men sometimes though thirsty refuse to drink?
  We are indeed, many and often.
  What then, should one affirm about them? Is it not that there is something in the soul that bids them drink and a something that forbids, a different something that masters that which bids?
  I think so.
  And doesn’t the element doing the stopping in such cases arise—when it does arise—from the calculations of reason, while the things that drive and drag are present because of feelings and diseases?
  Apparently, Socrates.
  Not unreasonably, shall we claim that they are two and different from one another, naming that in the soul whereby it reckons and reasons the reasoning part (λογιστικὸν) and that with which it loves, hungers, thirsts, and feels the flutter and titillation of other desires, the nonreasoning and appetitive part (ἐπιθυμητικόν)--companion of various repletions and pleasures.
  It would not be unreasonable but quite natural for us to think this.

Notes on the Text

Socrates argues for two parts of the soul: τὸ λογιστικὸν and τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν.

Socrates assumes, plausibly enough, that sometimes thirty people do not want to drink. In this situation, the person has a motivation to drink and a motivation not to drink. These motivations are opposites. So they must belong different parts of the soul. The motivation to drink belongs to the appetitive part. The motivation not to drink belongs to the reasoning part.

How does desire fit into this picture?

We understood Socratic Intellectualism to be the view that desire stems from beliefs about what is good and bad. These beliefs are the sources of movitation in human beings. Based on these beliefs, we think we is best in the circumstances and desire to do it.

If we think about the Tripartite Theory along these same lines, then the parts of the soul have the sources of motivation. Desire results from the part of the soul in control.

On this interpretation, there are no conficting desires. In a conflict between reason and appetite, there is not a conflict between a desire of reason and a desire of appetite. The conflict is between reason and appetite. In the example of the thirsty who refuse to drink, appetite would drive us to drink if it were in control. Reason, though, is in control, and based on its beliefs about what is good and what is bad, it judges that not drinking is best and thus desires not to drink.

How does reason win or lose when there is a conflicting motivation in the appetite?

Socrates, it seems to me, does not say. Instead, he seems to the past for the explanation. When reason loses against appetite, the person did not do what he needed to do to make his appetites reasonable or that he follow reason rather than impulse if they are not reasonable.

Republic IV.439e

  But now spirit, that with which we feel anger, is it a third, or would it be identical in nature with one of these?
  Perhaps, with one of these, the appetitive.
  But I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Peiraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried, 'There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!'
  I too, have heard the story.
  Yet, surely, this anecdote, signifies that the principle of anger sometimes fights against desires as one thing agaist another.
  Yes, it does.
And do we not on many other occasions observe when his desires And don’t we often notice on other occasions that when appetite forces someone contrary to his rational calculation, he reproaches himself and feels anger at the thing in him that is doing the forcing; and just as if there were two warring factions, such a person’s spirit becomes the ally of his reason? But spirit partnering the appetites to do what reason has decided should not be done—I do not imagine you would say that you had ever seen that, either in yourself or in anyone else.

Notes on the Text

Socrates argues that the soul contains a third part too: τὸ θυμοειδὲς. He thinks there are cases in which anger, not reason, conflicts with appetite. This is the Leontius case.

The spirited part can ally with reason against appetite but not with appetite against reason.

What does this mean?

The point, it seems, is that although reason and spirit can fail against appetite, this failing does not occur because spirit joined appetite against reason.

Republic IV.440e

  That what we now think about the spirited element is just the opposite of our recent surmise. For then we supposed [this is Glaucon's in the second line in the above quotation] it to be a part of the appetitive, but now, far from that, we say that, in the factions of the soul, it much rather marshals itself on the side of the reason.
  By all means.
  Is it then distinct from this too, or is it a form of the reasoning part, so that there are not three but two kinds in the soul, the reasoning and the appetitive, or just as in the city there were three existing kinds that composed its structure, the moneymakers, the helpers, the counsellors, so also in the soul there exists a third kind, the spirited part (τὸ θυμοειδές), which is the helper of reason by nature unless it is corrupted by bad upbringing?
  We have to assume it as a third.
  Yes, provided it shall have been shown to be something different from the reasoning part, as it has been shown to be other than the appetitive.
  That is not hard to be shown, for that much one can see in children, that they are from their very birth chock-full of rage and high spirit, but as for calculation, some of them, to my thinking, never participate in it, and the majority quite late.
  Yes, by heaven, excellently said, and further, one could see in animals that what you say is true.

Notes on the Text

What results when spirit has been "corrupted by bad upbringing"?

The answer, it seems, is not that spirit joins with appetite against reason. Rather, reason and spirit do not always win when there is a contrary motivation in appetite.

Socrates asks for an argument to show the conflict in the Leontius case is not a conflict between reason and appetite. If it were, the case would not establish a third part of the soul.

Glaucon argues that such conflicts are in children and that reason is not a factor in their actions.

Socrates agrees and says that we can see such conficts in animals too. This shows that the spirited part is not the reasoning part because animals do not have reason.

go back go back