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Plato’s Psychology

June 17, 2013 7 comments

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato (427-334 BC) recorded perhaps the oldest surviving model of moral psychology in the western tradition. His ideas appear in his Dialogues, and we will concentrate mostly on The Republic. While his ideas on man’s moral motivations have been surpassed by more recent philosophers and psychologists (and therefore seem almost quaint today), it’s interesting to see prescient echoes of his ideas in modern life.

Plato started his argument by assuming that humans contain an eternal soul responsible for our desires. He then argued that this soul has three parts. The first is the logical part, which allows us to separate what is real from what merely seems real through reason. This part of the soul desires truth and loves goodness. Next is the spirited part of the soul, which is competitive and seeks honor and victory. Finally is the appetitive part of the soul, which gives us our more base desires. This appetitive part can be concerned with three kinds of appetites: those which are necessary (e.g. simple foods for nutrition), those which are superfluous but permissible (e.g. luxuries), and those which are lawless (e.g. theft).

The Republic is ostensibly a search for the definition of “justice.” Plato, however, finds an interesting way of seeking this definition. He starts by assuming that there is a direct analogy between a just man and a just society, one simply being a macro view of the other. He then sketches a utopian society so that he can “more easily see” what is justice in this larger view. Finally, he extrapolates the definition of justice for an individual by its analogy to justice within larger society.

Plato links five regime archetypes to the concerns of the tripartite soul, and demonstrates a relationship between a state of a certain temperament and a man of that same temperament. For example, he argues there is a relationship between a tyrannical state and a man ruled by lawless appetites. Read more…