The Tripartite Theory of the Human Soul

In the Republic, Plato introduces a new understanding of the human soul and rationality: the Tripartite Theory of the Soul.

According to the Tripartite Theory, the soul has three parts: "reason, "spirit," and "appetite." All parts of the soul have desires, but desire in appetitive and spirited parts is not a matter of belief or judgement about the good. The desires in these parts arise independently of any beliefs about what is good or bad. In the appetitive part, desires form in reaction to events in the body. In the spirited part, desires form in terms of the habitual responses developed in upbringing.

In this way, in the Republic, Plato abandons the Socratic intellectualist theory Socrates advocates in the Protagoras.

"There is reason to believe that Socrates thought that there is no such thing as acting against one's own better judgment. What does happen is that reason in certain circumstances gets confused and, instead of holding on to its better judgment, follows some other judgment. If reason knew the truth, it could never get confused in this way. Thus, according to Socrates, such cases reveal nothing but a failure of reason which in its weakness does not hold on to the true belief, but accepts a false one and acts on it. Plato, Aristotle, and their followers, on the other hand, believed that such cases could not be explained as purely intellectual failures, that one had to assume that besides reason there is an irrational part of the soul with its own needs and demands which may conflict with the demands of reason and which may move us to act against the dictates of reason, if reason has not managed to bring the irrational part of the soul firmly under its control." (Michael Frede, "The Stoic Doctrine of the Affections of the Soul," 96.)

Some Argument

Socrates argues for the existence of reason and appetite by reflecting on how human beings ordinarily understand their actions.

"Is there something in the soul of those who are thirsty but refuse to drink, something bidding them to drink and something different, something forbidding them, that overrides the thing that bids them to drink? And doesn't the thing that forbids in such cases come into play, if it comes into play, as a result of calculation, while what drives and drags them to drink is a result of feelings and diseases? Hence isn't it right for us to claim that they are two, and different from one another? We'll call the part of the soul with which it reasons the λογιστικὸν and the part with which it lusts, hungers, thirsts, and gets excited by other appetites without reason and appetitive part, companion of indulgences and pleasures." (Republic IV.439c-d)

Sometimes a person feels thirsty but decides not to drink. How is this possible? According to the Tripartite Theory, there are two desires in play. One stems from appetite. It arises naturally in reaction to events in the body, feeling thirsty. In the absence of a desire from reason, this appetitive desire would motivate the person to drink. Reason, however, in the example, has the belief that in the circumstance drinking is not what should be done. If the parts have the proper organization, the normal connection between the appetitive desire and action is interrupted. Reason overrides appetite.

Reason Rules in a Harmonious Organization

There are different possible organizations among the three parts of the soul. One of these organizations constitutes proper psychological functioning and hence rationality. When the parts are so organized, they are in "harmony." In this organization of the parts of the soul, reason rules, spirit is reason's ally, and appetite is held in line. Since reason knows the good, a human being with a properly functioning soul acts for the sake of the good.

"It is appropriate that the reasoning part should rule, since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey and be its ally." (Republic IV.441e4-6.)

If the parts are not in "harmony" because either the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul are in control, then action need not be for the good. A human being, whose soul is not in harmony, knows what is good and hence what is in his interest, but he acts for sake of satisfying the desires of the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul. If these desires do not coincide with the desires of reason, he acts for the sake of ends that are likely o make his life worse than it would have been had he acted on the basis of his knowledge of the good. His behavior in this case is irrational. His psychology is not functioning properly.

(Perseus Digital Library: Plato, Republic)