This week’s friday question comes from QUB Undergraduate Christopher Corbett.
Plato had a great many ideas about the soul and how it was constituted, in what form it existed and for what length of time it would exist. These ideas can seem deep and baffling at first but they are very rewarding once properly understood. At the very least, if you take nothing else from this, you can sound profound the next time you talk to your friends.
Firstly, Plato argued that our souls were constituted of a tripartite Form (Forms were what Plato saw as the true reality, beyond the material manifestations of the physical, that could only be understood through pure thought). In basic terms this means that it consists of three parts – the appetitive, the rational and the spirited. Plato believed that these three aspects were what made each person an individual. Here is a quick sketch of each;
- Appetitive – This aspect of the soul governs the necessary and unnecessary cravings within our bodies. The necessary cravings being eating, drinking, etc. Whilst Plato considered the unnecessary cravings to be sexual excess and over-indulging in necessary cravings.
- Rational – This is the aspect of the soul that seeks truth and reality; what Plato called the Forms. Since you’re reading this you are currently feeding the rational aspect of your soul, well done.
- Spirited – This aspect of the soul enforces the rest of the soul, ideals such as justice and morality would be characteristics of this. It would also ensure that all three aspects of the soul were functioning as they should (Plato defined this as just).
Plato made a comparison between the soul and how a state should be run. In ‘The Republic’ he refers to workers, auxiliaries and guardians within a state. Each of these had a specific role in order that the state could function properly. The workers (appetitive) performed manual, brutish tasks, the guardians (rational) governed the people and the auxiliaries (spirited) enforced the other two, ensuring they performed their tasks properly and adequately. It is easy to see the comparison Plato makes between the perfect state and the perfect soul; a tripartite system that ensures the proper functionality of each separate part. However, it is interesting to speculate as to which of these he first conceived. Did he first imagine the perfect state and then apply it to his concept of the soul or vice versa?
When it comes to the length our souls remain in existence, Plato also has an interesting theory. Again, in its most basic form, Plato argued that souls never go out of existence. He saw the world as a series of opposites that come from opposites. Trees (which are large) come from nuts (which are small) which come from trees (which are large), etc. This too was how he viewed life and death. Death is the opposite of life and the process by which we die is called dying. However, Plato also believed that these processes had their opposites and so from dying there is coming-to-life. Essentially, Plato believed the soul existed in a perpetual cycle of coming-to-life, life, dying, death and then back round to coming-to-life. This means that the soul of Plato himself would still exist today in another body; perhaps that soul resides in someone reading this right now.
Now that I have discussed the basics perhaps you will pay more attention to your soul (if you even believe it exists). Do these theories seem ridiculous or do they strike a chord with you? Are modern scientific breakthroughs such as evolution, neuroscience and the Big Bang Theory (thus, giving the Universe a beginning unlike Plato’s concept of a continual cycle), too much for this theory to compete with? I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.