Plato, copy after Silanion

...continued from Part 2: Metaphysics

This moves us on to a consideration of the psychology of Plato. What is the soul according to Plato and his tradition?

We need to go back to the simplest terms here: psyche in Greek means breath – the signal of life: our earthly life is traditionally measured from the first breath to our last. So for the Greeks psyche is the life giver, the thing which makes otherwise inanimate matter live. It is even more obvious in the Latin, for anima is what animates matter. There are clearly three forms of earthly life – that of plants, that of irrational animals, and that of rational human life. According to Aristotle's De Anima, each form of life must have a different form of soul, for as the old Platonists point out, we must judge an essence by its energies, or the nature of a thing by its activities.

For a life to be rational, there must be a soul which is rational, for it is impossible for an essence to be less than its energies – for we can no more get rational energies from an irrational essence than we could pour a litre of water from a half-litre jug. Thus it is that in the First Alcibiades when Alcibiades and Socrates are looking to come to a simple understanding of what is happening as they converse, Socrates says (at 130e), "This therefore was our meaning when we said a little before, that Socrates discoursed with Alcibiades, making use of reason: we meant, it seems, that he directed his words and arguments, not to your outward person, but to Alcibiades himself, that is to the soul."

Leaving aside then other forms of soul, let us survey what Plato says of the human soul, or, if you like, the rational soul.

The soul is the self, not the possession of the self. It is the soul which possesses body, not the body which possesses the soul. According to Plato the soul may detach itself from the temporal body and remain a viable unity (see especially the Phaedo, 66b ff) – in fact he claims that the soul detached is more itself, and more rational, than when attached to an earthly body.

The rational soul has within itself, in some sense, all the reasons or forms which underlie the entire manifested universe, so that there is nothing it cannot understand, so long as it gives each thing the proper attention: Photius, in his Life of Pythagoras,7 asserts that it was one of the important teachings of Pythagoras that man is a microcosm, a compendium of the whole universe because "he contains all the powers of the cosmos."

This teaching is echoed in the Timaeus, where it is said that "the motions which are allied to the divine part of our nature are the dianoetic 8 energies and circulations of the universe" and that we should restore the "revolutions in our head through diligently considering the harmonies and circulations of the universe, that the intellective power may become assimilated to the object of intelligence, according to its original nature." Even if modern science doesn't now consider the mechanism of the manifested world to be driven by the circulations of the heavenly bodies, we can see that the underlying principle still holds: by studying the universe and its laws, we come to understand the self, or the soul which is a microcosm of the universe and which is governed by the same laws.

As I have said, the Timaeus presents the soul at its coming into being, as being shown the nature of the universe, and in the Phaedrus (at 246a ff) Socrates tells a story of how in her9 pristine condition the soul rides as a winged chariot drawn by two horses in procession with the Gods through the heavens glimpsing the eternal ideas which are the lights of the heavens – but being of a mixed condition and finding her horses difficult to control, she is unable to sustain this flight and falls to earth, with but the faintest memory of the nature of eternal ideas, which are further obliterated by the confusion caused by her contact with materiality.

For Plato, all real learning is the recovery of these ideas: in other words the child is not a blank tablet upon which anything can be written but a soul with a host of beautiful reasons waiting to be reborn when introduced to the reflections of ideas in the material life. This theory of innate ideas is explored and demonstrated in the Meno, where a slave boy with the minimum of mathematical learning is shown to have the knowledge how one may draw a rectangle double the area of an already existing one. At the start of Socrates' examination of the boy's knowledge, the slave, thinking he knew how the problem could be solved gave the wrong answer; but once he had been questioned in the right way, he first realised that what he had thought was the answer was wrong, and after further questioning the correct geometry emerged from him with no information being passed from Socrates to the boy.

In other words we have a certain distant memory of such things as true justice and absolute beauty – both purely immaterial things – but require the experiences of earthly life to draw these memories into conscious possessions. This is the whole thrust of Plato's philosophic system: it asks every aspiring philosopher to look at examples of ideas in manifestation and then consider what is an adhering incidental to the idea, and what is the idea "itself by itself." And this examination is carried out from our innate power of reason, and rests upon our interior relationship to eternal ideas: as Socrates in the Republic (518d) says of the construction of a truly philosophic path along which the seeker may reascend to the Good, "This would appear to be the art of his conversion, in what manner he shall, with greatest ease and advantage, be turned. Not to implant in him the power of seeing, but considering him as possessed of it, only improperly situated, and not looking at what he ought, to contrive some method by which this may be accomplished."

This theory is an elegant solution to the question of how it is we go through a process of learning: if we knew everything when born we would certainly not have to learn anything, on the other hand if we knew nothing, then how, when we discover a truth, would we know that it was a truth? How could we go through a process of classification – so basic to science as we know it – if we did not already possess the ideas of sameness and difference, similarity and dissimilarity, the equal and the unequal? What is often missed when Plato's theory of innate ideas is considered is the all-important view of the pristine station of the soul, in which pure forms are glimpsed: the reminiscence of ideas is the result of her life before conjunction with the earthly body, not, primarily, the result of previous earthly experiences. An obvious point, I think, and one that Plato makes clear – if this were not the case, the very problem of how it is we learn would not be addressed by the doctrine, and the scholars who claim that the theory is "mired in infinite regress" would be correct.

So starting with the first affirmation that human beings know the fundamental and universal ideas which underlie manifestation, Plato then goes through the different levels of reality and correlates different forms of perception to them. The four levels of being, and our four levels of perception are outlined in the sixth book of the Republic in the passage concerning the divided line. Plato asserts in this famous geometrical outline that we have sense perception (together with a unifying faculty that allows a multitude of external perceptions to be considered as one thing); then we have doxa, or opinion, that allows us to affirm various facts (or supposed facts) – to say that a thing is, without being able to say why it is; then we have dianoia or ordinary reason, that allows us to investigate the relationship between abstract ideas and other abstract ideas and between abstract ideas and material things; finally we have intellect proper (or intuition) which knows pure ideas not in terms of process or in terms of relationships, but as themselves.

It is the goal of Plato's philosophical system to exercise this highest faculty which allows the soul to understand without being tied to external things which, as we have seen, he considers to be in a constant state of flux. At each succeeding level of knowledge the soul becomes more and more similar to the eternal which is beyond all change: for the Platonic tradition sees knowledge and being as two sides of one coin, and, therefore, our being is a reflection of our knowing, and our knowing is a reflection of our being.

Even the form of the writings of Plato, where the emphasis is so often of question and answer, is designed, I would suggest, to stimulate reason and intellect. Socratic questioning, or if you like, Socratic dialectic, first liberates the reader from the worst of all forms of ignorance – that of double ignorance, where we are ignorant of our own ignorance; it then excites the mind to investigate truth; it finally moves the dialectician to a new level of certainty, as it reawakens the soul to her own memory of those intelligibles which subsist according to sameness – eternal ideas.

It is this essential core of unchanging knowledge, this "divine part" which defines the soul's relationship with her eternal source. And it this essence which leads Plato to assert that the soul is immortal, able, in the closing words of the Republic, "to bear all evil and all good" – for that which is most similar to the eternal is indestructible, even though it may appear to go through decay and death. In the Phaedo Socrates, even as he takes the poison allotted to him by the Athenian court, has achieved a consciousness that shows birth and death not to be beginning and end, but a mere change of circumstance of something infinitely more endurable than the shadowy body which is sometimes mistaken for the self.

While the soul provides the inner unity for the whole human organism – it is the soul which thinks, feels, judges, wills – Plato also considers the soul to have three primary faculties: logos, thumos, and epithumos sometimes translated as reason, anger10 and desire. The reason is the faculty by which the soul learns and knows, desire is the faculty by which the soul moves towards what is identified as good and beautiful, and anger (sometimes translated as the spirited part) is the connecting and intermediate faculty which endeavours to direct the activities set in motion by desire in the light of the knowledge held by reason. In the Republic the initial discussion concerns how the different parts of the human whole act with justice, but the consideration of justice is expanded and transferred to how it acts within a city-state because a city provides a parallel which is easier to inspect.

Plato divides the inhabitants of his ideal republic into governors, auxiliaries and producers: the governors are, like reason, those charged with pursuing wisdom; the auxiliaries are those who defend and enforce the laws enacted by the governors; the producers are those who pursue wealth. The same pattern is used in the Phaedrus where the soul in her pristine condition is portrayed as a winged chariot processing through the heavens: the chariot has a charioteer (the reason), a well-bred horse responsive to the reins (the spirited part) and an ill-bred horse which pulls against the reins and makes the chariot move erratically (desire).

A superficial reading of the dialogues may lead the student to believe that Plato wishes the faculty of desire to be extinguished, and that he was the forerunner of the dualistic separation of body and mind which has so marked the past two thousand years. But this view cannot be sustained in a closer reading, for we see that in the Phaedrus the horse of desire is the very thing which drags the whole chariot, charioteer and partner horse and all, towards the beautiful. Furthermore in the Symposium, Plato marks out a path to the final state of contemplation of absolute beauty starting with the love of one body. In other words Platonism does not reject materiality nor the body, but honours them because they are the recipients of eternal forms, and the means by which the pure form is remembered.

Of course, where the material invades the essentially intellectual soul and overwhelms its ability to know and contemplate ideas, then Plato does seek purification. There is, I think, an interesting passage in the ninth book of the Republic which shows how a balance between desire and reason is the practical ideal of our philosopher, rather than the repression of desires. It reads: "when a man is in health, and lives temperately, and goes to sleep, having excited the rational part, and feasted it with worthy reasonings and inquiries, coming to an unanimity with himself; and allowing that part of the soul which is desiderative neither to be starved nor glutted, that it may lie quiet, and give no disturbance to the part which is best, either by its joy or grief, but suffer it by itself alone and pure to inquire, and desire to apprehend what it knows not, either something of what has existed, or of what now exists, or what will exist hereafter; and having likewise soothed the irascible part, not suffering it to be hurried by any thing, to transports of anger, and to fall asleep with agitated passion: but having quieted these two parts of the soul, and excited the third part, in which wisdom resides, shall in this manner take rest; - by such an one you know the truth is chiefly apprehended . . ."

And, of course, in the Symposium Socrates is to be found describing Love – that is to say Eros, or desire – as a mighty semi-divine creature which connects us with the very highest. The transformative powers of love are underlined by this dialogue, in which the festival of Dionysus is celebrated by an evening during which speeches in praise of Love are to be given: it should not escape the notice of the perceptive reader that whereas the first six speeches do indeed praise Love, the seventh, given after Socrates has taken his listeners through a series of initiations concerning the reality of the "mighty daemon love", is a speech by Alcibiades in praise of Socrates himself.

So the message of Platonic psychology is this: the soul has within itself an essential correspondence to the eternal world of ideas, and to the divine; that it is also capable of being embodied; further, that these two things are not mutually exclusive – as rational souls we need to avoid an over-identification with the movement and changes of the body which would be an obstacle to our renascent through intellect to divinity. As Plotinus says,11 "the aim is not to be without sin, but to be a god." Plato sets before us the embodied Socrates who passes through the initiation of the mysteries of love and appears as the paradigm of the enlightened soul.

As Proclus says,12 "Through the circular conversion therefore, of the soul to itself, the Demiurgus [the creator of the manifested world] effected the soul's gnostic peculiarity, and which Plato in what he says in the Timaeus, more clearly manifests. For in order to show how the soul knows all things, he says, that it revolves in itself, and thus revolving, began to live a wise and intellectual life. Hence, it is immediately evident, that the conversion to itself, is the knowledge of itself, and of every thing in, prior to and proceeding from itself. For all knowledge is a conversion to the object of knowledge, and an alliance and adaptation to it. And on this account also, truth is an agreement of that which knows with the thing known. Since however, conversion or regression is twofold, the one returning as to The Good, but the other as to being, hence the vital conversion of all things is directed to The Good, but the gnostic to being." So the soul as a life-bearing principle returns to the Good, and as a gnostic creature returns to the real being of eternal ideas.

Continue to Part 4: Ethics...


Endnotes are found in Part 5: Summary.

Tim Addey

Author: Tim Addey

Tim Addey is a published author and chairman of the Prometheus Trust, a charity that has published many of the key texts in Platonic philosophy. Please visit the website of the Prometheus Trust for further details at : His books include The Seven Myths of the Soul and The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition, and co-author of Beyond the Shadows: The Metaphysics of the Platonic Tradition.