How to live philosophically | On Plato’s theory of soul

What is it to live philosophically? If we are to know the answer, what should we do to get there?

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These questions may seem daunting, though it is not so difficult, after all, to discover the solution.

The life of wisdom is a philosophical life. As soon as one gets to wisdom, he will love it. At the same time, nobody reaches wisdom without practising the proper way of life. Thus, theory and practice, knowledge and action are inseparable. And this poses a catch 22 – without wisdom you can’t live as a philosopher. Still, without action, you won’t be able to approach wisdom. However, to think so would be analogous to the belief that one cannot play a musical instrument without memorising all musical grammar and, vice versa, cannot understand the grammar without being able to play well. Any way of life, any good activity requires knowledge and action to go hand in hand and grow proportionally to each other.

The soul

Whether there should be an initial drive towards philosophy in one’s soul1 is, as there is a similar drive called talent in music, another question. We will presuppose that one must have it and proceed to the way of getting it.

What is that unity, the source of movement in an alive creature? In classical philosophical terms, the source of life that moves (enlivens, ensouls) every living being is a soul. There are kinds of soul and their similar kind of creatures. A human soul is specifically a rational soul; a soul that can go beyond natural processes and understand the world and itself. Being higher than other kinds of soul, it contains those lower ones as well, that is vegetative and animal souls (if we rely on Aristotle’s theory).

Why was the soul believed to be divine in Greek philosophy? What is so unique about it, and what kind of activities can make it happy? We should mention that we would like to keep the language of Plato here and not name things modern-like. However, we will make some parallels with modern psychology and contemporary philosophy on the way.

The idea of the soul as Plato developed it is the most straightforward and vital to understand before launching into the confusion of the later development in philosophy.

The parts of the soul

What do we, as human beings, usually do if we are to generalise our activities? We articulate emotions, will, and think.

All our emotions come from desiring or avoiding something. The desire by itself is a blind ability that often misjudges things that can bring pleasure or pain, especially in the long term. We should tell now that desire is the third and lowest function of the soul, according to Plato. A passion stirs our will, or what Plato calls the spirited soul, and misleads it, creating all sorts of problems. Our spirited part must be ruled by reason, that is the intellectual soul.

Now, having provided the comparison between emotions, will, and knowledge and Plato’s functions of the soul, we must renounce the former way for the analogy stops here. The spirited part is not exactly will because our intellect and desire will as well. Moreover, emotions are too narrow to describe the desiring part of the soul. And not to forget that the rational soul is not merely a computing machine as we often understand intellect today.

Plato’s theory of the soul is not psychological and has a broader scope. It goes to corresponding virtues of each part.2

By understanding each part of the soul, we can likewise understand how a man becomes wise, that is knowledgeable and virtuous.

The structure of the soul

Let’s accept a few Platonic statements (we will argue in favour of them at another place and time):

  1. A man has two parts – body and soul, though properly speaking, he is a soul entrapped into a body.
  2. The soul is immortal because it’s simple, not created and the source of movement.
  3. There are three functions of the human soul – intellectual, spirited, and appetitive.
  4. There is a proper telos or a goal to each element of the soul.

Now, as we have the structure of the soul, we can begin to analyse who we are, trying to bring sense into all the variety of our life. The most common problem of our disordered life and perpetual struggle is ignorance of a proper division and classification. As much as there could be all the intricate psychological and sociological explanations of us, with all the empirical investigations of our childhood and the society around, they depend on a certain metaphysical construct that supports their method. These days it is mostly the materialistic view of reality with sometimes exotic additions to it. Also, each of the empirical investigations tends to universalise its way of explanation, saying that it is only childhood, society, and so on that matters. Our inner being is taken for granted as receptive, passive, a tabula rasa that will take whatever is out there for it. It is not so with Plato.

Which part should rule?

The soul is an active being; it is what I am, and the perpetual struggle is that I cannot organise myself to my proper activities. Being ignorant, deprived of philosophy, I am groping in the dark for my good life but usually, go as far astray as possible. It takes not a wild guess to realise that most people or souls tend to choose the appetitive part as a ruler, and this part compels the spark (the spirited part of the soul) to the sole goal of getting more and more sensual pleasure; besides, it puts the intellectual to sleep.

Such a soul is the most scattered around for petty things seem to know no boundary; though truthfully, they are just the selfish pleasure in all its variants repeated all over again. Eating, sex, entertainment, and so on can go wild when there is no measure to them. They will distract the soul so much that the task of coming back to its simplicity and reflection, possess itself as an ordered unity again will have become almost unsurmountable.

However, Plato argues, even when the soul hits its rock bottom – the opposite of what it is as a source of life, that is death, it does not disappear as the body would do. When sickness overcomes the body, it dies, but the illness of the soul, which brings harm to it, does not do the soul away. In a disgraceful state that it is, it still exists.

We’ll launch now into the question of knowledge before explaining what happens what each part of the soul is in charge.


We mentioned above that to improve one’s life it is necessary to understand what our soul is and what is its telos (purpose). As it is always with philosophy, knowledge and action are inseparable. First of all, because knowledge is the highest kind of action; and, second of all, because each proper human activity should be guided by reason (I say proper because processes of the body as growth and senses are not those of the soul or mind). To prove beyond doubt that there is a soul and it has such and such functions would be to come to the stage of understanding. However, being lower than the level of noesis, we can have intuitions of being soulful, believe that it exists.

The thought

The only stage that poses a problem to the existence of the soul is stage 3 – the thought. In German philosophy, it became understanding, the form of consciousness that takes the mind and reality to be different entities; that wants to exclude thought from reality though it is a thought. When it becomes sceptical of everything subjective and wants to explain everything through natural causes, it cannot tolerate the category of purpose to exist in nature because it would imply that there is the reason in nature.

Thus, the soul, being a purposeful activity, has no place in its scheme. It has been like this with the understanding since modern times. At Plato’s time, it was a bit different, though somewhat similar. Epicurean or stoic philosophy would not dare to say there was no soul; they could not see its existence apart from nature. And later sceptics would deny any chance of certain knowledge, including that of the soul in philosophy. If and only if stage 3 has been sublated (assimilated into noesis or reason)3, can we know what the soul is?

The structure of knowledge

  Form of intellect Object of knowledge Method of knowledge
Truth Understanding (noesis) (*reason in classical German philosophy – Vernunft) Eternal forms | The Good Dialectic | Contemplation
  Truth Thought (dianoia) (*understanding – Verstand) Mathematical objects | Laws of nature Mathematic | Sciences
  Opinion Belief (pistis) Visible things Perception
  Opinion Imagination (eikasia) Shadows Sense-certainty

As we can see, our intellect, logical part (logistikon) of the soul has an intricate structure and potential. It starts its journey with the basic stuff, gradually coming to know the Truth. According to Plato, there is no certainty and stable knowledge at the bottom half of things because the sensual reality is in constant flux. Whatever we know about physical reality is only probable; thus, we can hope only for the most likely theory of the cosmos and its content. The only reality we can know for sure is eternal forms and the Good itself.

Knowledge up to ‘thought’ does not inevitably lead to the right action. A smart person may easily distinguish things but serve evil ends. Only on the condition that a man is turned towards the Good and the Truth loves them, he becomes good himself. Love can be of servile things as well, things that will serve my needs.

Role of pleasure in the ethics of virtue

The ethics of pleasure is the only resultant one if humans are merely appetitive beings. Though this way of thinking cannot withstand even simple arguments against it. If one were to place pleasure as a cornerstone of ethics, then it would follow that pleasure is the good. However, we judge pleasure as good or bad. Thus, there is some other standard by which pleasures are judged. The good cannot be the pleasure; the pleasure is instead a byproduct of activity, sometimes as pleasures of the body after a need is satisfied, and often as pleasure beyond bodily needs, such as the pleasure of a good company, friendship, honour, and finally pleasure of learning. There is a hierarchy to pleasures according to its good.

Improper values and dispositions of the soul

What happens when the spirited part rules over the rest? It is akin to anger, to a spark to act, but without the intellect, it brings havoc and mostly serves appetites. Even if it conquers its destructive powers, it does strive for honour aka power as its sole good.

It is time we said what is the good for each part of the soul and its opposite, and what is the highest good for the soul as one. Plato talks of virtue, arete, which we can recognise as excellence. Each part has its virtue: the appetitive temperance, the spirited courage, the reflective wisdom. Each has its function that results in these virtues, and when they do what is proper to them, that is when the logical part rules, the spirited acts based on sound judgement, and brings the appetites to moderation. When each part does what is proper to it, the result is the highest virtue – justice. If the contrary happens, then there are insolence, cowardice, ignorance, and injustice consequently. These bring confusion and harm both to the individual and society.

Three ways of life

Plato realises that there will always be people with either the appetitive or spirited souls governing them. He divides folk into three types – money-making, guardians, and philosophers; their combination will provide both different political regimes and forms of the individual of soul.

A timocratic person

When someone has honour as the goal, it is a timocratic person. A person that places its good in courageous deeds has war in the role of its most proper activity; sees philosophy as a tool for his power.

An oligarch

Money playing the main motivation factor, we have an oligarchical type of character that regards profit higher than anything else and disregards philosophy for it has no monetary value.

A democratic person

When a character values individual freedom most of all, and at the same time sees every type of life as justified as any other, with some exceptions that are harmful to the peace in society, we have a democratic character. Its principle of knowledge is opinion. It can easily tolerate the faults of others and himself; it barely envisages universal ethics and rigorous knowledge.

Although it is to a degree a mild character, wishing others only well, it is prone to become a victim of his desires. His values are wishy-washy, it takes some pleasure in knowledge, but only when it serves his needs and does not threaten his beliefs and take his pleasures away. It is a character that runs from one belief to its contrary and back; weak when is required to take serious action and make a sacrifice; very sentimental; materialistic to its core and ridiculously enough can accept spiritual teachings indiscriminately; absolutely weak, thus can fall prey to evil people.

A tyrannical person

In the end, when such a character is spoiled and gives way to every pleasure as equal, it becomes a slave of them, ad addict. All reasons, even those limited ones he used to have held no sway over him, and he becomes a tyrannical character. The latter seeks only his, suppresses everything that criticises his way of life and listens to flattery only. As an individual, this kind of person is an unreliable, whimsical and harmful to his fellow mates. He is under control of appetite and very emotional.

An aristocratic person

Thus, each character has its flaws. The only one left is the aristocratic one. It has wisdom and justice as his highest values. However, to love wisdom, be a philosopher is to know that there is something else except material reality and perception that takes it. It is to go beyond senses, to think per se, take pleasure only in cognising, and disregard all material, including emotions, resulting from it as a flux that has no being.


The questions left, is there such a non-material reality, and is it possible to be a philosophical character? To answer this is to embark on a philosophical journey. After all, there is no other way to check if one’s judgement is right then to live it.

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  1. It is the right time to say that the talk is going to be about the soul as it was worked out by Plato. This classical term disappeared from philosophical jargon in recent time, but now it seems to be coming back. Anyhow, if it is easier for the reader to think of the soul as mind, they may. The mind also has desires, motivation, and logical processes. Although today, the mind can be thought of as an exclusively computing or reflexive kind of power; which limits the scope of the present article.
  2. More precisely function. We will use the words part and function interchangeably. Although, properly speaking, the soul is a unity that can’t be divided and has functions, but not parts.
  3. We rely on Hegel’s term “aufheben” here and its role in explaining the history of philosophy.
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