Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.06

Rachel Barney, Tad Brennan, Charles Brittain (ed.), Plato and the Divided Self.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press , 2012.  Pp. xi, 396.  ISBN 9780521899666.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University (


The volume is a collection of papers delivered on different occasions, mostly at two conferences held at University of Toronto and Cornell respectively.

In Plato, the ‘true self’ is discussed in the context of knowledge and embodiment, and involves the view that we acquire our true self when we activate our latent knowledge of the Forms. The question is whether the sheer fact of embodied existence does not raise an insurmountable obstacle to our reaching this state. Iakovos Vasiliou distinguishes two positions. In the Phaedo, philosophers search for wisdom but do not achieve it; possession of wisdom awaits death. By contrast, in the Republic philosophers are supposed to attain knowledge while embodied in the world. Wisdom involves knowledge of Forms. The citizens of the lower two classes in the ideal state described there, however, will be more similar to the philosophers described in the Phaedo. They recognize that Forms are not identical with sensible things or properties, and also recognize that sensible things have properties in virtue of participating in the relevant Form, but they cannot give an account of the Form. The relation between wisdom and the other virtues in the Phaedo is also a complicated issue, tackled thoroughly in the paper. One might claim that, by saying that wisdom is a purifying rite (69c3), whereas courage and temperance are purifications, Plato seems to attribute an instrumental role to wisdom. In that case, wisdom might not be chosen for its own sake only. The situation described in the Phaedo will be paradoxical since, if full wisdom is acquired upon death only, and courage and temperance depend on wisdom, then courage and temperance will be acquired upon death, with no practical relevance anymore.

Louis-André Dorion sets himself a threefold aim: to discuss the link between the virtue of self-mastery (ἐγκράτεια) and the partition of the soul in the Republic, to show that such a link is to be found in the Gorgias as well, and to explain why Plato never fully rehabilitates ἐγκράτεια. Tripartition, he argues, is not necessary for ἐγκράτεια since bipartition would already be sufficient: indeed, the bipartite scheme in the Gorgias allows for an assimilation of self-government (ἑαυτοῦ ἄρχειν, 491d9) to self-mastery (ἐγκρατῆ αὐτὸν ἑαυτοῦ, 491d12) with regard to pleasures. But we only ever get a partial ‘rehabilitation’ of ἐγκράτεια even in the Republic since, conceived of as a distinct force, ἐγκράτεια would be without purpose. It is reason, supported by the spirited part, that is ultimately responsible for controlling the passions.

The tripartition of the soul in the Republic invites the question, discussed by Eric Brown, of whether we are allowed to talk about the unity of the soul. According to Brown’s argument, there is a unity which is complex, both serving as the locus of moral responsibility and explaining the unity of consciousness. The complexity is shown by the ‘argument from conflict’, restated at 439b3-6, which allows a human agent to move in one part but stay still in another. The unity of the soul is a function of the order or harmony of its parts. The harmony is produced by the parts as they are causally related to one another. To me, this seems to be an excessively normative notion of unity and one may ask for an explanation of the unity of disharmonious souls. The principle of psychological hegemony serves to account for the rule of desire/spirit in the soul, but does not explain normative unity.

In order to explain the unity of the soul, we have to be clear about the nature of its parts. Rachana Kamtekar argues that Plato’s psychology represents our motivations as themselves person-like. They are personified to the extent that all three parts of the soul are considered subjects of desires and beliefs which can initiate movement. Personification is a persistent feature of Plato’s psychology and can be explained with reference to his protreptic to philosophical virtue. In contrast to civic virtue (430a-c), philosophical virtue does develop the best of our abilities and requires the disciplining of the others. We find the same model in the Phaedrus as well, and Kamtekar claims that the treatment of the soul here is quite similar to Plato’s treatment of stories about the gods in the Republic. She supposes that the immortality and the self-motion of the soul act as a kind of constraint on the content of a likely account, analogous to the god’s goodness in the Republic.

Tad Brennan focuses on one part of the soul, the spirited, and invites us to think about it from the point of view of psychogony. He argues that the introduction of the spirited soul can be best understood as a reaction to the threats posed by the appetitive soul. All of its functions involve a response to its potentially harmful activities. It works as a bond between appetite and reason and has two roles, since it deals with manifestations of appetitive activity in other people as well in oneself. The former function leads, among other things, to competitive virtues and a sensitivity to honour, while the control of our own appetites leads to moderation. Distribution of appetitive goods is tied to the system of honour. As honour can sometimes act as a value that is opposed to appetite, so spirit can choose honour instead of pleasure. The fact that the spirit responds to the concept of οἰκεῖον, referring to the cohesiveness of social groupings, shows that Plato attributes a cognitive content to spirit (116). As a kind of objection one may ask about the origin of this content. If it is the rational soul, how shall we explain the possible conflict between reason and spirit?1

James Wilberding focuses on the education of appetite. He argues that ὁμοδοξία in the soul involves the appetitive part containing a sort of belief; it is in some sense capable of conceptualization (although this differs from reasoning). Moreover, it develops an attitude towards the abstract claim of following the guidance of reason, which happens by habituation. The Timaeus offers a good parallel (47e5-48a5 where necessity is persuaded the intellect), while Proclus’ commentary on Alcibiades I helps to elucidate different kinds of education, which are adjusted to the various parts of the soul (in Alc. I 193.21-194.17). Wilberding takes it to support his interpretation of the Republic that appetite is trained by γυμναστική, understood as diet, and not physical exercise. We might add that the Timaeus passage highlights the limits of habituation since intellect can persuade necessity to a certain extent only.

Raphael Woolf discusses the passage on the true nature of the soul in Rep. 10, 611b9-612a6, and shows that the analogy between Glaucus and the soul is far from clear. The accretions on the sea-god cannot be likened to appetite and spirit, which are genuine parts of the soul. What is more, Socrates has doubts about whether even an immortal soul must be simple, which come from a methodological difficulty rather than metaphysical assumptions. It would be easy if we could infer that the soul must be incomposite because it is immortal; but that conclusion would have to be revoked were one to discover a soul that, in addition to being immortal, is in fact composite. Such a discovery would show that the two features are compatible. Justice poses a special problem, since in Book 4 it is defined as a harmony of the three parts. Even so, Socrates’ methodological prescription for seeing the soul in its unencrusted state leaves undetermined the soul’s relation to justice and injustice. Justice must bear on happiness and the Glaucus passage presents a challenge to explain the relation more precisely.

Jennifer Whiting reads the Republic as allowing for ‘radical psychic contingency’, involving (1) contingency of the internal structure the soul-parts have in any given individual, and (2) contingency in the number of soul-parts belonging to any individual soul. (2) means that the Republic can permit a model such as that described in the Phaedo: the model described in the Republic itself is meant to refer to the soul of most folk. Based on Book 4, 443c10-e2, Whiting argues that the only agent-like thing in a person is the person himself; that Plato is open to the possibility of there being more than three parts in the embodied soul; and also that many psychic parts might become one. The argument from opposites in Republic 4 allows for the possibility of there being, between reason and appetite, more than one element which is partly but not fully responsible to reason. Even appetite is doubled since its form in corrupt souls differs from the form it has in well-ordered souls, although a difference between the collective and distributive use of the term ἐπιθυμία can take different forms.

Developments after the Republic are discussed in four papers. Frisbee Sheffield examines the accounts of ἔρως in the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Her aim is to show that these dialogues do not provide evidence for the commonly held view that Plato revised – or even renounced – the account he gave the tripartite soul. The Symposium does not contain any psychological commitment alternative to the notion of threefold soul, or incompatible with it. Moreover, the supposedly intellectualistic strand of the Symposium needs to be re- evaluated since even though Plato had an intellectualistic view of ἔρως, the dialogue avoids a more general claim about desire as such. On the other hand, the Phaedrus may also lack a clear commitment to the tripartite soul; the difference lies between the three distinct kinds of movement or desire. Furthermore, the view on ἔρως in the Symposiumwas not revised or recant substantially. The concept of rational desire was held throughout in these dialogues. Reason has no need to borrow desiderative forces elsewhere in the soul.

Hendrik Lorenz suggests that in the Timaeus Plato supplies appetite with cognitive resources even if he denies understanding or belief to it. It is equipped not only with information through sense-perception, but also with ϕαντασία. The nature of the liver is an important factor since it transmits – but does not reshape – the pictorial accounts formulated by reason. One might raise the question of how appetite is connected to sense-perception directly. After all, the physiology of perception suggests that it is connected to the brain, which implies that sensory information also reaches the appetite via reason. But if so, how do its pictures differ from the ones given by ϕαντασία?

Pictures are examined by Jessica Moss too, who doubts if we are entitled to generalize the claim made in the Republic that the seats of passions are the non-rational parts of the soul. She points out that both in the Philebus and in the Timaeus passions are endowed with cognitive characteristics. They can respond to evaluative appearances (distinguishing between good and bad) and, in the Philebus, are judgments that something is the case. Rational desires, pleasures and ἔρως are formed by cognition that is not image-based but rational. Hence Plato anticipates much of what Aristotle says in the Rhetoric.

Luc Brisson asks two questions: is there a radical shift between the Republic and the Laws concerning ethics and politics, and does Plato renounce the tripartition of the soul and the state? He shows that the threefold division is present in the Laws. Brisson argues that the position on ethics and politics in the Laws is much the same as in the Republic. Even if one agrees with the overall claim, it may be interesting to see that, e.g., the relation of the four cardinal virtues to one another (see Laws 1. 631b-d) differs from the one we find in Republic 4.

The section on developments after Plato is meagre, but consists of fine contributions. Jan Opsomer examines Plutarch’s theory of the world soul and human soul, showing that their structure is identical, and that both have a kinetic and cognitive aspect. In discussing Plato’s tripartition in De virt. mor., Plutarch manages to reconcile it with his own twofold division by saying that both appetite and spirit belong to the non-rational part of the soul. The non-rational is an essential part of human nature and its cure of excessive passions is our moral task. This also shows that Plutarch’s theory of the soul is intimately linked to his ethics which promotes moderation in passions.

Unlike Plutarch, Galen is committed to the Platonic division.3 Drawing on his arguments for tripartition in PHP, Mark Schiefsky examines the psychological and physiological sides of the theory. As sources of motivation, the psychic parts are situated in the brain, the heart and the liver, which are the principles of the three main duct systems of the body: the nerves, the arteries and the veins respectively. To prove it, especially in the case of the liver, Galen faced considerable difficulties, and his explanation of ἀκρασία seems also problematic.

Relying on Enn. VI 8.6.19-22, Eyólfur Kjalar Emilsson analyses Plotinus’ view of the link between soul and external action. Plotinus emphasizes internal activity, that is thinking and contemplation, and argues that it is hard to see how virtuous action can be ‘up to us’ since Plotinus believes that, as an event in the physical world, action is determined externally. It can only be ‘up to us’ insofar as it flows from internal activity: such action then is like an image of a paradigm, a view to be linked with Republic 443c. But there is no clear link between a harmonious soul and the nature of the action. It simply happens that some actions bolster and preserve internal harmony whereas others have the opposite effect since actions are determined by external forces. Plotinus does not account for the reason why some are harmful.

The volume is welcome addition to the study of ancient moral psychology. It is supplied with bibliography and two indices.


1.   Interestingly enough, the argument from conflict in Republic 4 is not applied to the relation between spirit and reason explicitly, except for the claim that bad upbringing may be the cause of their possible conflict.
2.   Woolf also claims that the main function of reason is deliberation. The claim may need to be modified since ruling and deliberating go together, and in 442c6 reason is said to command (παρήγγελλεν) and it must rule, which is due to its share in σωϕροσύνη (442c10-12).
3.   Although not in Meth. med. 9.10. I owe this point to a reader at BMCR.

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