Plato’s Tripartite Theory of Soul vs the Stoic Monistic Soul with Varying Tension

Plato had the conception that the soul was composed of three parts:  reason, emotion, and desire/appetite.  This is somewhat useful because it explains some of our ideas about how our conception of the self works.  The rational area of the soul, which was the pinnacle, loves truth and wisdom.  The emotional area of the soul loves honor and victory.  Finally, the appetite area of the soul loves pleasure and money.  When reason was operating correctly it had the virtue wisdom, emotions operating correctly had the virtue courage, and the appetites working correctly had the virtue temperance.  As a result of three parts of the soul working correctly by achieving wisdom, courage, and temperance, the virtue justice would arise.  Justice was a result of a healthy soul with each of its three parts working properly.

The Stoic conception of the soul is much more unified.  The Stoics believed the soul or pneuma (breath) is an active material that was present throughout your passive material body, present in other organisms, in inanimate objects, and throughout the whole universe itself.  The Stoics classified the pneuma as having four different types of tensile strengths.  The most rarefied of pneuma was reason itself present only in humans.  The least rarefied pneuma was present throughout the whole universe including humans.

The Stoics weren’t exactly panpsychists but they were “panpneumists.”  They believe that an active airy/fiery breath was present throughout the cosmos and the most rarefied in the body of humans, specifically in the area of the brain (although they were once mistaken and thought reason was in the heart).

Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, as intuitive as it sounds, isn’t psychologically helpful.  Plato had the idea that reason is a charioteer that steers two horses, a white horse which is emotion and a black horse which is desire.  Unfortunately reason doesn’t exactly operate that way in my humble opinion.  Reason doesn’t command emotions and desires, reason persuades emotions and desires by using therapy.  The Stoics invented several techniques we can rationally use to persuade our emotions/desires and not have to compel them like a tyrant.  If we try to compel our emotions/desires like a tyrant, they’ll push back.

In fact, the source of our negative emotions has a lot do with our reason itself making false judgments about externals.  If we fix this issue by forming the correct judgments about externals our negative desires/sentiments will dissipate.  Reason cannot remove negative passions until reason has fixed itself.  Once you remove incorrect judgments from your rational faculty, your emotions will calm down and you’ll even feel some joy from this experience.

Paolo Monti - Servizio fotografico (Napoli, 1969) - BEIC 6353768.jpg



Stoicism and David Hume

David Hume held the belief that ethics couldn’t be derived from reason but only from sentiment.  Basically, morality is founded on non-rational emotional responses to experience.  Hume thought of reason like a dog tied to a cart going wherever passion/desire would take it and doing so quite willingly.

Stoicism’s views are similar to Hume’s in the early stages of human development; for example, young children are motivated by the sentiment of self-love.  However, when humans grow older they develop bonding relationships with people around them and eventually their rational faculties develop and they extend their self-love to love of others.  First they develop love for their family, then their friends, then their community, then eventually for humanity.

The difference between Hume and the Stoics is that the Stoics believe that as you mature, you’ll eventually overcome sentimental morality.  How does this come about?  Well, it has to do with taking a look in the mirror and getting to know ourselves.  Once we know ourselves we realize that our emotions are inflamed or defused by our cognitive/rational beliefs about the world.

Hume would say that our moral judgment comes from emotions/desires that are essentially beyond our control.  But the Stoics believed that our emotions/desires were based on rational judgments that are within our control.  In fact, the Stoics were clever enough to distinguish proto-passions from passions.  Proto-passions are the knee-jerk feelings you get instantly from stimuli but passions come about from how you reflectively/actively decide to feel about the initial stimuli in the long-run.

Stoicism is actually quite radical because it essentially says that all of your desires or aversions to the external events or things in the world are based on cognitive/rational values you hold about those events or things.  If you strongly desire ice cream, it’s because you believe ice cream to be good.  If you hate ice cream, it’s because you believe ice cream to be bad.  The Stoics were quite clever in how they dealt with desires/aversions because they replaced desires/aversions with preferences or dis-preferences because we should view the externals in our life as indifferent in light of our rational/cognitive moral judgment.  The only true thing we should desire is virtue which is the true good, so everything else external is indifferent.

So Stoicism agrees with Hume in the early development of human beings but as reason develops in human beings, it grows and contributes more to passion than passion contributes to it.  Stoicism, as a philosophy, amazingly kicks reason into high gear and allows us to really hone in on our passions, whether negative or positive, and learn how to manipulate them with reason.  It’s not that reason is abstract/universal in a Kantian sense, reason is actually very concrete/contextual and interacts very strongly with the passions/desires and every value-laden belief we hold.

Hume is good for helping us think about our sentiments such that we wonder if our reason is more based on sentiments than our sentiments are based on reason.  However, the Stoics are essentially right that reason prevails in our life.   Well, reason prevails in our life if we allow ourselves to mature.

Painting of David Hume.jpg
David Hume