In book 4 of the Republic, Plato sets forth perhaps the most famous psychological theory from Greco-Roman antiquity: the tripartite model of the human soul. But how good of a model is it? How does it hold up from the perspective of modern psychology?

With us to discuss these questions and more is Jonathan Lear, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and a practicing psychoanalyst who serves on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. His article "Inside and Outside the Republic" remains one of the most important pieces of scholarship on the psychological theory offered in book 4.

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Transcript of the Episode's Prologue

The 2015 Pixar animated film Inside Out tells the story of a little girl named Riley whose parents suddenly decide to uproot the family and move far away because of their work. Feeling isolated and deprived of her friends and familiar habitat, Riley struggles to adjust to her new environment. But the real action of the movie doesn’t unfold in her new neighborhood or school. It takes place inside her head, in which 5 personified emotions sit around a sort of command center and collectively steer Riley’s decisions in life. Joy tries to be in the driver’s seat, while Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness also exert their influence, sometimes even overpowering Joy and calling the shots without her. In other words, Riley’s inner self is depicted as a composite of 5 entities that are constantly negotiating, cooperating, or even struggling with each other.

While this particular depiction of the inner self as a complex battleground, as it were, is obviously fictional and comical, it resonates with us in part because we are used to thinking of the self as a composite thing, like a computer with many separate tabs and programs running simultaneously. Just open any book on psychoanalysis or neuroscience today and you’ll read about the various parallel processes that are going on in our minds and that influence, often subconsciously, our thoughts and decisions.

But as mentioned briefly in the last episode, this way of thinking, which is all around us today, was not the standard view throughout history and across cultures. Of course, the feeling of inner conflict between opposing emotions or inclinations is probably something that all humans throughout history have experienced. But the question is, how do you explain that phenomenon?

Plato’s hypothesis was that the soul is actually composed of three separate parts: the appetitive part, which houses the appetites and desires, the spirit or thymos in Greek, which feels things like anger, shame, and self-esteem, and the rational part. It’s hard to know how radical of a proposal this tripartite view was in the early 4th century BC, given that the surviving texts we have from the time period are probably less than 1% of what existed back then. But Plato’s idea of a divided soul seems to be a significant departure from the view of his teacher Socrates, who thought that the soul is essentially reason. And it’s also very different from the view of the philosophical school that rose to prominence in the centuries after Plato, namely the Stoics. They thought, perhaps reviving Socrates’ view, that the soul is wholly and homogeneously rational and that when we behave irrationally or with violent emotion, that’s not because there’s an irrational or emotional part of our soul that’s acting up. It’s because our fully-rational soul is making mistakes, it’s glitching.

The Stoic view remained influential among philosophical circles until the rise of Christianity. During the ensuing Middle Ages, especially in the Latin West, the Christian view of the soul, while quite different from the Stoic conception in many ways, was also one of a homogeneous, uncompounded entity. You had a body, and you had a soul. Your soul could be corrupted by the body, or by the devil, and it could be guided or saved by God’s grace. But it was one thing, not a composite.

So, what’s the point of this brief history? When you look at Plato’s theory of psychology in the context of other ancient theories, his model looks surprisingly modern in its attempt to understand the soul as a composite entity. As mentioned last time, Freud was actually influenced by Plato when developing his tripartite model of the psyche, consisting of the ego, the id, and the superego.

But the fact that Plato’s model looks modern doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good model. If we just think back to the movie Inside Out, there we are presented with a different model of a composite soul, which seems very plausible. I don’t know about you, but by the end of the movie, I could totally imagine those same five cartoons running around inside my head, and I could interpret each of my actions as the result of some interplay between those five emotions. But nobody takes Inside Out to be offering a scientifically rigorous psychological model. It’s just a creative, highly entertaining, witty, fantasy. And that is pretty much what a lot of philosophers today think of Plato’s tripartite model offered in the Republic. They think it’s not an empirically founded scientific model, but a creative and clever invention designed to lend support to the political vision of an ideal society Plato is advocating for.

As I was researching book 4 of the Republic for this podcast series and encountering the usual skepticism from other philosophers, I kept wondering, what would a modern psychologist think about Plato’s theory? So, I reached out to one of the few people in the world who is an expert in both ancient philosophy and psychoanalysis, and he agreed to come on the show.

Jonathan Lear is professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he serves as director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. He’s also a practicing psychoanalyst who serves on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. His most recent book is called Wisdom Won From Illness.

Johnathan Lear was actually mentioned briefly back in episode R2.5 when I was asking our guest Rachel Barney about the merits of the city-soul analogy. And the reason she mentioned him is that several decades ago, Lear wrote a paper that is still required reading for any scholar working on the connections between the polis and the individual psyche. The paper is coincidentally titled “Inside and Outside the Republic.” There’s a link to it in the show notes, in case you’re interested, and you’ll hear us discuss it in the latter part of today’s episode.

And now, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Jonathan Lear on Plato’s anatomy of the soul.