Republic 3-4: The Cardinal Virtues and the Tripartite Soul

Republic 3-4: The Cardinal Virtues and the Tripartite Soul

In this essay I’ll examine Books 3 and 4 of the Republic and set forth Plato’s account of the cardinal virtues and his theory of the tripartite soul.

After concluding his description of the guardians’ mental and physical education, Socrates observe that what has thus far been called “the guardian class” actually contains two classes: complete guardians and auxiliaries (414b). Complete guardians understand the good of the city, and thus should rule, and the auxiliaries should likewise enforce the judgements of the complete rulers (414b). Socrates observes that only the best of the guardians should rule (412c), and that the best guardians will, by definition, be those who best guard the city (412c). They must be “knowledgeable and capable” and “care for the city” (412c). Knowledge and capability are proven through the educational process sketched earlier. But care, claims Socrates, is proven through love. He observes that “one cares most for what one loves” (412d) and argues that one loves something most, when “he believes that the same things are advantageous to it and himself and supposes that if it does well, he’ll do well, and if it does badly, then he’ll do badly” (412d). In believing that his own good corresponds to the good of the city, a man would be motivated to extend his self-love to it. Hence, guardians must be selected who “seem most of all to believe throughout their lives that they must eagerly pursue what is advantageous to the city and be wholly unwilling to do the opposite” (412e). Complete guardians must therefore be tested and selected on the basis of whether they can maintain this belief when confronted by what Socrates calls theft, magic, and compulsion (413b). By theft, Socrates means the loss of belief through forgetfulness or specious argumentation (413b). By magic, the loss of belief through pleasure and fear (413c). And by compulsion, the loss of belief through pain or suffering (413b). To test potential guardians, Socrates stipulates that “we must keep them under observation from childhood and set them tasks that are most likely to make them forget such a conviction or be deceived out of it, and we must select whoever keeps on remembering it and isn’t easily deceived, and reject the others” (413d).

“Anyone who is tested in this way as a child, youth, and adult, and always comes out of it untainted, is to be made a ruler as well as a guardian; he is to be honored in life and to receive after his death the most prized tombs and memorials” (414a).

We thus have three classes in Plato’s city: the complete guardians, the auxiliaries, and the cultivators. The complete guardians are to understand what is best for the city and make laws, the auxiliaries are to defend the city and enforce its laws, and the cultivators ground and grow the material life of the city. With this model in view, Socrates then suggests that we are in a position to determine where the cardinal virtues reside in the city.

Wisdom, claims Socrates, is attributed to a city on account of the complete guardians. He notes that we call a city wise because it exercises good judgement, and that good judgement is a kind of knowledge “for it’s through knowledge, not ignorance, that people judge well” (428b). There are clearly different forms of knowledge, such as knowledge of carpentry, metallurgy, or farming, but the kind of knowledge that grounds good civic judgment is “not about any particular matter but about the city as a whole and the maintenance of good relations, both internally and with other cities” (428d). The complete guardians, though the least numerous, are those who possess such knowledge. Socrates observes, “then, a whole city established according to nature would be wise because of the smallest class and part in it, namely, the governing or ruling one. And to this class, which seems to be by nature the smallest, belongs a share of the knowledge that alone among all the other kinds of knowledge is to be called wisdom” (429a).

Courage, the second cardinal virtue, is found in the city’s auxiliaries. Unsurprisingly, we find civic courage in the part of the city “that fights and does battle on its behalf” (429b). Courage is the ability to preserve one’s belief about what is rightly to be feared even in the face of pain, pleasure, desire, and fear (429b-c). Socrates therefore likens it to a dyed garment which retains its color despite being washed with strong soap (429e), and notes that such a habituation of the soul was one of the primary goals of the educational system set forth earlier. He observes:  

“We were doing something similar when we selected our soldiers and educated them in music and physical training. What we were contriving was nothing other than this: That because they had the proper nature and upbringing, they would absorb the laws in the finest possible way, just like a dye, so that their beliefs about what they should fear and all the rest would become so fast that even such extremely effective detergents as pleasure, pain, fear, and desire wouldn’t wash it out—and pleasure is much more potent than any powder, washing soda, or soap. The power to preserve through everything the correct and law inculcated belief about what is to be feared and what isn’t is what I call courage” (430a-b).

Moderation, our third virtue, unlike the previous two, is not confined to a single class, but applies to the city as a whole. It is “a kind of consonance and harmony” (430e), “a kind of order, the mastery of certain kinds of desires” (430e). This concept is at play in the idea of “self-control”. Prima facie, this idea of “self-control” sounds absurd, since there is only one self, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about one thing controlling itself, since it would appear to result in an infinite regress. If the self must control itself, it must also control the controlling of itself, control the controlling of the controlling of itself, control the control of the controlling of the controlling of itself, etc… But Socrates argues that the concept of self-control does make sense if we think of the self as complex, containing better and worse elements (431a). Such a view can be seen in Goethe’s Faust when he laments:

“Two souls, alas! Are log’d within my breast,/ Which struggle there for undivided reign/ One to the world, with obstinate desire, / and closely-cleaving organs, still adheres;/ above the mist, the other doth aspire,/ With sacred vehemence, to purer spheres.” (Goethe, Faust I).

[Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,/ Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;/ Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,/ Sich an die Welt, mit klammernden Organen;/ Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust,/ Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.]

Socrates argues that the best escape from this predicament, is for the better element to rule the worse. He observes:

“Whenever the naturally better is in control of the worse, this is expressed by saying that the person is self-controlled or master of himself… But when, on the other hand, the smaller and better part is overpowered by the larger, because of bad upbringing or bad company, this is called being self-defeated or licentious and is a reproach.” (431b).

Moderation, then, is when “the better rules the worse” (431b). And since, in the city, the worse element will consist in “the inferior majority” and the better in the guardians (431c), a moderate city must “be in control of itself and of its pleasures and desires” (431d), or, in other words, “the desires of the inferior many” must be “controlled by the desires of the superior few” (431d). The virtue of moderation is thus distributed throughout the whole city, since it consists in an agreement between all parts as to which should rule and which should be ruled. This is what makes it a kind of harmony, since “unlike courage and wisdom, each of which resides in one part, making the city brave and wise respectively, moderation spreads throughout the whole. It makes the weakest, the strongest, and those in between—whether in regard to reason, physical strength, numbers, wealth, or anything else—all sing the same song together. And this unanimity, this agreement between the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is to rule both in the city, and in each one, is rightly called moderation” (432a).

Finally, Socrates observes that civic justice consists in each citizen practicing the occupation for which he she is naturally suited. In short, “justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own” (433b). Justice is “what is left over in the city when moderation, courage, and wisdom have been found. It is the power that makes it possible for them to grow in the city and that preserves them when they’ve grown for as long as it remains there itself.” (433c). Socrates sets forth two arguments for his account. First he argues that, when examined together, it would be hard to determine which of these virtues is best. The principle that each person should do their own work and not meddle in the work of others would thus appear to rival wisdom, courage, and moderation in in importance (433e). Therefore, it is a likely candidate for the fourth virtue we are looking for, viz. justice.

Socrates’ second argument asks us to consider how good judges render their judgments in court. He notes that “their sole aim in delivering judgments [should] be that no citizen should have what belongs to another or be deprived of what is his own.” (433e). The general content of just judgments, then, would be “the having and doing of one’s own.” (434a). For, consider what would happen to a city if this principle was violated:

“When someone, who is by nature a craftsman or some other kind of money-maker, is puffed up by wealth, or by having a majority of votes, or by his own strength, or by some other such thing, and attempts to enter the class of soldiers, or one of the unworthy soldiers tries to enter that of the judges and guardians, and these exchange their tools and honors, or when the same person tries to do all these things at once, then I think you’ll agree that these exchanges and this sort of meddling bring the city to ruin…. Meddling and exchange between these three classes, then is the greatest harm that can happen to the city and would rightly be called the worst thing someone could do to it….And… the worst kind of thing that someone could do to his city is injustice…. Then, that exchange and meddling is injustice. Or to put it the other way around: For the money-making, auxiliary, and guardian classes each to do its own work in the city, is the opposite. That’s justice… and makes the city just.” (434b-c).

After thus determining what justice is in the city, he then turns to the primary concern of The Republic: the justice of the individual. If there is to be an analogy between the virtues of the city and those of the individual, then the individual human soul must, like the city, be complex, divided into distinct functions. To account for this distinction Plato, through the voice of Socrates, articulates his famous tripartite theory of the soul. Socrates’ argument for the complexity of the human soul turns on a metaphysical correlate to the logical principle of non-contradiction. Socrates observes:

“It is obvious that the same thing will not be willing to do or undergo opposites in the same part of itself, in relation to the same thing, at the same time” (436c).

So, for example, a peacock might display a myriad of colors, but it wears them on different parts of its body. Its head is blue, its lower wings are brown, and there is some green in its tail feathers. A peacock, though multicolored, is not blue, and brown, and green in the same place at the same time, in relation to the same thing. Or, to use an example employed by Socrates, a man can stand still while waving his hands. The man, as such, is not both moving and at rest, since these are conflicting properties. Rather, he can do both because he is a complex entity divided into different physical parts. His hands can move, while his feet and torso remain immobile. Socrates then applies this principle to the soul, observing: “So, if we ever find this happening in the soul, we’ll know that we aren’t dealing with one thing but many” (436c).

One pair of contraries for the soul are assent and dissent. Socrates questions: “Then wouldn’t you consider all the following…. as pairs of opposites: Assent and dissent, wanting to have something and rejecting it, taking something and pushing it away?” (437b). Socrates then observes that one part of the soul is subject to bodily desires. This appetitive part of the soul is, for example, that by which we hunger and thirst. Socrates queries: “Wouldn’t you say that the soul of someone who has an appetite for a thing wants what he has an appetite for and takes to himself what it is his will to have, and that insofar as he wishes something to be given to him, his soul, since it desires to come about, nods assent to it as if in answer to a question?” (437c). So, to the extent that one has thirst, one desires drink, and not, for example, salt; and to the extent that one has hunger, one desires food, not aromatherapy.

Now given that desire and aversion are contraries, if there are experiences in which the same thing is both desired and not desired, then, multiple parts of the soul must be posited to ground these conflicting states. Consider, for example, the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness. According to this story:

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:1-4 ESV).

In this story, Jesus is clearly hungry, so some part of him desires food. Yet he also does not desire food obtained through the miraculous powers at his disposal. So, another part of him does not desire food on this occasion. Thus, to avoid the contradiction of attributing desiring food and not desiring food to Jesus, we must posit in him a complex soul with multiple faculties, one of which desires food and one of which does not. Socrates likens the situation to that of an archer drawing his bow: with one hand he pushes the bow away, and with the other he draws it towards him (439b). Socrates calls these two parts of the soul the rational and the appetitive. He observes, “hence it isn’t unreasonable for us to claim that they are two and different from one another. We’ll call the part of the soul with which it calculates the rational part and the part with which it lusts, hungers, thirsts, and gets excited by other appetites the irrational appetitive part, companion of certain indulgences and pleasures” (439d).

To these two elements, Socrates then adds a third. He calls it the the spirited element and associates it with anger. He establishes that it is a distinct faculty through an argument similar to the one set forth above. If the spirited element can be shown to desire something that conflicts with the other two, then it must be posited as a distinct part of the soul. Socrates first demonstrates that the desires of the spirited element can conflict with those of the appetitive. He does this by recounting the story of Leontius:

“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally, overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed toward the corpses, saying, ‘look for yourself, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight!” (439e-440a).

According to Socrates, this story “proves that anger sometimes makes war against the appetites, as one thing against another” (440a). The appetitive part of Leontius’s soul wanted to look at the grizzly spectacle, but the spirited element in him judged it to be disgusting. A similar case can be seen in the self-recriminations of the drunk after a weekend of binge drinking. Though his appetites desire alcohol, the spirited element in him judges debauchery to be shameful. Socrates notes that in such civil wars of the soul, spirit and reason align against the appetites.

Socrates explains:

“What happens when a person thinks that he has done something unjust? Isn’t it true that the nobler he is, the less he resets it if he suffers hunger, cold, or the like at the hands of someone whom he believes to be inflicting this on him justly, and won’t his spirit, as I say, refuse to be aroused? …. But what happens if, instead, he believes that someone has been unjust to him? Isn’t the spirit within him boiling and angry, fighting for what he believes to be just? Won’t it endure hunger, cold, and the like and keep on till it is victorious, not ceasing from noble actions until it either wins, dies, or calms down, called to heal by the reason within him, like a dog by a shepherd?” (440c-d).

Socrates then demonstrates that the spirited and rational parts of the soul are also distinct. He observes first that children can be full of spirit from birth, yet they do not attain to reason till they mature. So, since you can have the one without the other, the spirited and rational elements are distinct (441a). He makes a similar argument from the animal kingdom (441b). A disgruntled cat can be spirited, yet it lacks discursive reason. Hence, the two are separate faculties. Finally, Socrates points the example of Homeric heroes who strike the breasts and rebuke their hearts. Here the rational part chides the spirited for its desires. And again, since the desires in question are contradictory, the faculties that exemplify those desires must be distinct (441b).

Having thus established that the soul has three faculties corresponding to the three classes of the city, Socrates extends his analysis of civic virtue to the virtues of the individual. Just as civic courage is found in the auxiliaries, so too is individual courage found in the spirited part of the soul. Socrates observes: “It is because of the spirited part… that we call a single individual courageous, namely, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn’t.” (442c). Likewise, just as civic wisdom resides in the complete guardians, so too does individual wisdom reside in the rational part of the soul. Socrates notes: “We’ll call him wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.” (442c). And just as moderation was spread throughout the whole city in that all citizens share a common agreement as to who should rule and who should be ruled, so too does moderation involve all the parts of the soul. A person is moderate “because of the friendly and harmonious relations between these same parts, namely, when the ruler an the ruled believe in common that the rational part should rule and don’t engage in civil war against it.” (442c-d). And finally, just as civic justice consisted in each class sticking to its own role, so too does individual justice, the object of our inquiry, involve each part of the soul performing its role and not usurping those of others. Reason must reason, spirit be courageous, and the appetites desire and appropriately pursue their natural objects. Hence, Socrates explains the just soul as follows:

“S: We surely haven’t forgotten that the city was just because each of the three classes in it was doing its own work?

G: I don’t think we could forget that.

S: Then we must also remember that each one of us in whom each part is doing its own work will himself be just and do his own.

G: Of course, we must.

S: Therefore, isn’t it appropriate for the rational part to rule, since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey it and be its ally?

G: It certainly is.

S: And isn’t it, as we were saying, a mixture of music and poetry, on the one hand, and physical training on the other, that makes the two parts harmonious, stretching and nurturing the rational part with fine words and learning, relaxing the other part through soothing stories, and making it gentle by means of harmony and rhythm?

G: That’s precisely it.

S: And these two, having been nurtured in this way, and having truly learned their own roles and been educated in them, will govern the appetitive part, which is the largest part in each person’s soul and is by nature most insatiable for money. They’ll watch over it to see that it isn’t’ filled with the so-called pleasures of the body and that it doesn’t become so big and strong that it no longer does its own work but attempts to enslave and rule over the classes it isn’t fitted to rule, thereby overturning everyone’s whole life” (441d-442b).

With this conception of justice in hand, Socrates can now make his first tentative account of why justice is an intrinsic rather than instrumental good. He notes that justice, on this account, is an internal state, the state of being well-ordered through self-rule. He observes:

“[Justice] isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and his own. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale—high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts—in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And so he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust, and calls it so, and regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance” (443d-444a).

Injustice too would likewise be an internal state, a state of disorder in which the various parts of the soul carry out a civil war against one another (444b). The appetites, for example, might rebel against reason, and the spirit might side on some occasions with the former, and on others with the latter. Note then, how justice and injustice are both primarily internal states. We call actions just or unjust only derivatively. Socrates draws an analogy to the terms “healthy” and “unhealthy” in this regard. Bodily health and illness are primarily internal states, a body being healthy when it is well ordered and ill when it is disordered, and actions are “healthy” or “unhealthy” in virtue of their causal relations to those internal states. An action is healthy if it produces health in the body and unhealthy if it destroys it (444c). Socrates then expands this analogy to note that just as bodily health concerns the order and harmony of the body, justice concerns the order and harmony of the soul. And, just as health is an intrinsic good of the body, so is justice an intrinsic good of the soul. He explains:

“S: Healthy things produce health, unhealthy ones disease.

G: Yes.

S: And don’t just actions produce justice in the soul and unjust ones injustice?

G: Necessarily.

S: To produce health is to establish the components of the body in a natural relation of control and being controlled, one by another, while to produce disease is to establish a relation of ruling and being ruled contrary to nature.

G: That’s right.

S: Then, isn’t to produce justice to establish the parts of the soul in a natural relation of control, one by another, while to produce injustice is to establish a relation of ruling and being ruled contrary to nature?

G: Precisely.

S: Virtue seems, then, to be a kind of health, fine condition, and well-being of the soul, while vice is disease, shameful condition, and weakness.

G: That’s true.

S: And don’t fine ways of living lead one to the possession of virtue, and shameful ones to vice?

G: Necessarily” (444c-e).

Health, then is the well-being of the body, and justice that of the soul. But note that we pursue such well-being for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. In other words, health and justice are intrinsic rather than instrumental goods. Glaucon, agreeing with Socrates, observes:

“Even if one has every kind of food and drink, lots of money, and every sort of power to rule, life is thought to be not worth living when the body’s nature is ruined. So even if someone can do whatever he wishes, except what will free him from vice and injustice and make him acquire justice and virtue, how can it be worth living when his soul—the very thing by which he lives—is ruined and in turmoil?” (445b).

Just as food, drink, money, and power prove worthless for one with a ruined body, so will the power of the tyrant prove worthless to him on account of his ruined soul. I believe Plato’s account of the tripartite soul and consequent concern for its health has much to teach our own degenerate era. When reductive materialists hold up the health of the body as the chief end of man and neglect his spiritual nature and calling, they end up sacrificing the health of BOTH body and soul. A culture, might, for example, applaud the shameful actions of even its best athletes, when dressed in the therapeutic language of so-called mental health (a language far removed from Plato’s concerns for the health of the soul). In such a culture, what would once have been derided as weakness and cowardice would be rebranded and celebrated as stunning and brave. Nietzsche, despite being a vocal anti-Platonist, nonetheless provides an insightful characterization of a culture that takes a crass pharmacratic conception of health as its highest good in his account of the last man. Nietzsche, through the character of Zarathustra, prophecies:

“The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough. But one day this soil will be poor and domesticated, and no tall tree will be able to grow in it. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir!

            I say unto you: you must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.

            Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.

            “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star? Thus asks the last man, and he blinks.

            The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.

            “We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it is hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

            Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.

            One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.

            No shepherd but one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.

            “Formerly, all the world was mad,” say the most refined, and they blink.

            One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else it might spoil the digestion.

            “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

            “We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink. (Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra, Preface 5 trans. Kaufmann).

Here Nietzsche observes what happens when health is defined purely through bodily pleasure and the satisfaction of appetite. In other words, Nietzsche imagines a world in which the rational and spirited elements have been completely excised from man, and the appetites are all that remain. Because reason and spirit no longer have a voice, even the possibility of chaos is removed. Man is rendered amoral rather than immoral. As a result, he can no longer conceive of a star, something to inspire awe and for which to yearn, and can no longer even despise himself. Instead, he gathers together with the mob seeking entertainment and trivial pleasures. Though today’s mob perhaps rubs together on twitter and through triple masks, since one “has a regard for health”, Nietzsche’s overall prediction still holds eerily true for our own era, an era happy both in stie and slaughterhouse, which when asked about what is eternal in man, can only stand and blink.  A similar point was observed in the 20th century by C.S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man. Lewis observed that when educators decided to cut out the spirited element of their pupils, claiming that there were no objective values to which judgements could conform, they thereby also excised the rational element. All that would remain would be the appetites. I’ll leave you to reflect on his prescient observations:

“At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature [as in mere Nature red in tooth and claw], we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us forever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man).

Plato’s response to such a scenario would be clear. Such an inhuman world must be resisted with all the powers of the human soul, and by grace, also by those that are beyond it.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is by Raphael and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ]

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