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Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul

Plato's Republic

In his most famous, and historically widely influential work - The Republic, Plato attributes dialogue to Socrates, and others, surrounding the possibilities of achieving Justice so that people could hope to live in an ideal state or society.

Such an ideal situation, as it seemed to Plato, very much required that the aspirations, and behavioral tendencies, of the inhabitants of that state or society should be accommodated and fulfilled, rather than denied or repressed.

Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul holds that individual people differ as to their being ruled by desires, by being spirited and courageous, or by being open to what foresight and knowledge can follow from the exercise of reason. Any would-be just or ideal state or society, then, must accommodate and fulfill, rather than deny or repress, appropriate expressions of desires, spiritedness and reason by its inhabitants.

Plato's Ideal State was to be one for people to live fulfilled lives, and justly.

Where society is held to be "for people" Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul might be held to offer a degree of theoretical preparedness to view Human Beings as variously endowed with desires, spiritedness and reason - which perhaps better allows for a degree of realism as to what form of society Human Beings might find appealing, and how it is to be brought about (and maintained).


Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul is rather hesitantly introduced in some Socratic Dialogue in Book 4 of Plato's The Republic:
  ...can we possibly refuse to admit that there exist in each of us the same generic parts and characteristics as are found in the state? For I presume the state has not received them from any other source. It would be ridiculous to imagine that the presence of the spirited element in cities is not to be traced to individuals, wherever this character is imputed to the people, as it is to the natives of Thrace, and Scythia, and generally speaking, of the northern countries; or the love of knowledge, which would be chiefly attributed to our own country; or the love of riches, which people would especially connect with the Phoenicians and the Egyptians.

  Certainly.

  This then is a fact so far, and one which it is not difficult to apprehend.

  No, it is not.

  But here begins a difficulty. Are all our actions alike performed by the one predominant faculty, or are there three faculties operating severally in our different actions? Do we learn with one internal faculty, and become angry with another, and with a third feel desire for all the pleasures connected with eating and drinking, and the propagation of the species; or upon every impulse to action, do we perform these several actions with the whole soul…

And more fully asserted in some Socratic Dialogue in Book 9 of Plato's The Republic:
  ...As there are three parts, so there appear to me to be three pleasures, one appropriate to each part; and similarly three appetites, and governing principles.

  Explain yourself.

  According to us, one part was the organ whereby a man learns, and another that whereby he shews spirit. The third was so multiform that we were unable to address it by a single appropriate name; so we named it after that which is its most important and strongest characteristic. We called it appetitive, on account of the violence of the appetites of hunger, thirst, and sex, and all their accompaniments; and we called it peculiarly money-loving, because money is the chief agent in the gratification of such appetites.

  Yes, we were right.

  Then if we were to assert that the pleasure and the affection of this third part have gain for their object, would not this be the best summary of the facts upon which we should be likely to settle by force of argument, as a means of conveying a clear idea to our own minds, whenever we spoke of this part of the soul? And shall we not be right in calling it money-loving and gain-loving?

  I confess I think so, he replied.

  Again, do we not maintain that the spirited part is wholly bent on winning power and victory and celebrity?

  Certainly we do.

  Then would the title of strife-loving and honour-loving be appropriate to it?

  Yes, most appropriate?

  Well, but with regard to the part by which we learn, it is obvious to everyone that its entire and constant aim is to know how the truth stands, and that this of all the elements of our nature feels the least concern for wealth and reputation.

  Yes, quite the least.

  Then shall we not do well to call it knowledge-loving and wisdom-loving?

  Of course we shall.

  Does not this last reign in the souls of some persons, while in the souls of other people one or other of the two former, according to circumstances is dominant?

  You are right.

  And for these reasons may we assert that men may be primarily classed as lovers of wisdom, of strife, and of gain?

  Yes, certainly.



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Plato's Tripartite Theory of the Soul is something of "a means to an end;" by attempting to take account of Human motivations and dispositions the route towards Justice in an Ideal State or Society can hope to more clearly discerned.

Plato goes on to endorse a state of affairs where a class of Artisans, who are personally particularly motivated by their desires, engage principally in economic activity, a class of Auxiliaries, who are personally particularly spirited and courageous, are engaged in defending the state against external threats and internal disorders, and a class of Philosopher-rulers, lovers of truth, who, after processes of selection, and a period of training that can be all of five decades long, are held to be capable of applying foresight and knowledge to the direction of the functioning of the state.

"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature."
David Hume

Such celebrated "Men of Letters" as Emerson and Shakespeare have accepted that Human Nature is 'Tripartite' and Emerson accepted that there was an investigable association between Human Nature and History.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)

Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

"The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole spring of actions."
Georg Hegel, 1770-1831, German philosopher, The Philosophy of History (1837)


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Several truly notable authorities
endorse Tripartite Soul Theory


Key Socratic Dialogues from
Book 4 and Book 9 of Plato's Republic



Plato's Ideal State       Plato's Chariot allegory      


Philosophy - Eastern and Western & 'Tripartite' Human Nature


FIVE major World Religions & 'Tripartite' Human Nature



Understanding the Human Condition


Understanding the Human Condition


The Human Condition psychology


Human Condition examples


Understanding History Human Nature