Sep 27, 2012

The Divided Self in Plato's Republic

Last week, I led my Ethics students about as far as they are likely to go this semester (at least accompanied by myself) into the heart of Plato's Republic, that dense and lengthy tome often assigned and maligned in a whole host of classes. It is one of the great early works of western literature -- of immense imaginative scope, motley as democracy with perspectives, crammed with ideas whose entire importance one cannot realize upon first (or even perhaps on tenth, or hundreth) read, offering so many lenses and mirrors for regarding the world, the soul, society, the self.  

It's a seminal work for Virtue Ethics, one against whose articulation of virtues and vices any other moral theory that wants to claim real membership in that tradition must measure itself.  After the initial sparring of the first several books, Socrates shows his hand plain. Gone are the aporetic and ironic meanderings of earlier dialogues like the Euthyphro, the Lysias, the Laches, or the Charmides. It's as if Socrates takes heart from the city, the guardians, the education he envisions in discourse and imagination, from their certitude and intellectual familiarity with the virtues -- now those virtues can be told. . . and even to some extent taught.

Desire Drawing towards Virtue

One aspect I find particularly striking to the scheme of the cardinal virtues -- prudence, courage, moderation, and justice -- as Republic book 4 arranges and explains them, is their inextricable connection, even their interchangeability, with a condition, an ideal, a hunger gnawing at the core of our beings, for integration, for a kind of harmonious simplicity, even unity, of the self even in its own differentiation, its non-spatial extension and dynamic interplay. One cannot be just -- and one cannot be happy -- and one cannot be free -- without working towards, wanting, cultivating, patterning oneself in a way that not only mirrors the forms of the three other virtues within oneself, but also integrates those virtues into a whole.

Practically speaking, in the lives the majority of us (and I emphatically include myself here) lead, such a condition is more of an object of pursuit than a possession.  This unity-bringing virtue of justice ideally assumes a hopefully ever-growing presence within one's soul or personality.  In reality, for many of us (again myself included) our moral progress tends to be something occurring more by fits and starts, occasioned by fortunate realizations, chance encounters, revelations or reflections from conflicts and clashes.  Possibly this process reassembles remaining fragments of previous childhood moral disciplines, incorporates insights and advice from admired authors, emulates those people in whose actions, attitudes, and expressions we glimpse outlines of something greater than what we can grasp in the present moment.  Over time, perhaps we even begin to  systematically incorporate courses of choice and commitments aligned with, making use of, experimentally and experientially living out moral theories

The desire to be just by itself does not make the person possessing that desire a just person -- and such a desire to be (or become) just does not even render one's other desires just, whether these are considered individually or examined in their lived and more complex relations with each other.  In fact, it is possible -- so long as one is not totally unjust, entire corrupted by the opposite or the privation of justice -- to yearn for, to miss the presence and effects of, to regret or feel ashamed over the lack of justice within one's soul.  One might desire to be just for all sorts of reasons, of course, not all of which harmonize quite so well with the actual virtue of justice -- how justice, when it possesses presence and power, when it penetrates into and permeates the matters it thereby renders just, actually exists with its greatest degree of being or reality.

What is it, really though, to desire justice?  Does this translate into a wish to be thought of by others -- and think of oneself, soothing feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, or guilt, or alternately puffing oneself up with pride? Does justice then become something like a possession -- a property of a person who gets accorded that quality?  Or is the justice one desires rather to be understood as something that when added to a person cannot help but dissolve them a little, reform and remake them, replacing their older behavioral and personality patterns by etching its own distinctive markings on the person's soul.  In this case, to desire justice is to want to become its possession, to wish to become possessed by justice -- and in the process, to lose oneself.  What Plato depicts in the Republic, however, is a process of change through which instead one gains oneself, attaining greater integration of the parts and portions of the psyche -- as he puts it, "becoming one rather than many."

Conflict within the Soul

The very manner in which Plato analyses the soul would seem to presuppose some degree of missing or unattained integration within the human person -- again, nothing unrealistic to ask for! In broad strokes, what is essential to that method is noting and noticing differences within something that, at first glance appears to be a simple unity, the soul or the personality.  To say "at first glance" is of course to play upon words, since the soul is not a visible, material thing.  It is easy to distinguish and even, given instruments sharp enough, to disentangle the parts of the body -- for they are physical, corporeal organs.  Where they do interpenetrate, it is through fitting, growing, anchoring within each other, making or requiring space -- for it is characteristic of bodies that two cannot occupy precisely the same place at the same time.

This doesn't hold for psychical matters, which follow a different logic, not one which is immediately reverse to the corporeal  -- then, everything would mix and mingle with everything else -- but one which is in a different, more complex manner, its opposite.  If it is to be adequately understood, the soul demands alternate instruments of examination and analysis.  Socrates, acting as Plato's mouthpiece perhaps, proposes that they ask a question as their starting point:
[W]hether we do all these things with the same thing or whether there are three things and we do one thing with one and one with another -- learn with one part of ourselves, feel anger with another, and yet with a third desire the pleasures of nutrition and generation and their kind, or whether it is with the entire soul that we function in each case when we once begin.
He is not coming up with this proposal to divide the soul three ways simply at random, for just earlier, he referenced what seems to have by then become a commonplace among the Greeks -- what you might call a "Goldilocks" theory about geography, ethnicity and dispositions.  The peoples to the south -- Egyptians and Phoenicians in particular -- are dominated by the part of the soul corresponding to commercial, agricultural, and craftsmaking activities, a love of money and possessions.  The peoples to the north -- Thracians and Scythians -- are spirited and hotblooded, given to warfare, feuding, seeking honor and glory.  It is among the Greeks that one finds people who are genuinely dedicated to philosophy, motivated by love of knowledge.  This is, of course, an idealization -- Plato in fact thinks most of the Greeks are of poor character, and that even many of those who pass for philosophers are not genuinely so!  -- but it does indicate that the psychology advanced in the Republic is one which Greeks of Plato's time could easily find reasonable.

So, the question then is whether these three parts, corresponding to three kinds of love or desire fundamentally motivating and orienting human beings and their lives, are really distinct parts of the soul.  What would support such a contention?  If one can point out cases where they are doing, or desiring, different, even opposed things.  When one can discern oppositions arising within the mind, the motivations, the actions, the feelings of a person, then there are different forces or faculties in play, at work.  The existence of conflict, rather than concord, within the soul or the personality allows us to definitively mark out the otherwise unclear or invisible boundaries within the soul.

Conflicts Between Desires, Actions, and Attitudes

If we follow along Plato's course, it is not just in thinking about the soul, or the human personality, in a detached, contemplative way, that we learn what we need to know about it.  Nor is it simply through action, passion, and experience.  We have to reflect upon these practical matters -- and that means observing our own experiences and those of others -- and one of the best ways to do this is alongside others, through dialogue, or in Plato's terms, the dialectic of question and answer.

What are the components of intention and action?  What modes do these adopt?  Or, put in another way, what are the basic building block concepts of practical reasoning?  Plato brings up an entire list of opposed pairs:
  • assenting and dissenting
  • striving-towards and refusing
  • embracing and rejecting
  • choosing for or against
  • wanting or not wanting
The goal here is not to attempt to set out in its full detail and with perfectly consistent terminology a systematic Platonic theory of action -- I don't think that's actually possible to derive from the dialogues -- but to stress that what is being brought into the discussion is the variety and scope of human orientations -- in affectivity and attitude as well as simply action -- towards perceived goods and evils.

Given this basis, we can distinguish different desires apart from each other.  And this introduces a very important point.  While Plato does speak of three parts of the soul -- a rational part, a spirited part, and an appetitive part -- the class of desires he calls appetites are multiple, and oriented towards very different objects.  Hunger and thirst already comprise two different drives.  Sexual desire adds a third, and if we run through the rest of the Republic, let alone the much larger remainder of the Platonic oeuvre, many more desires will set themselves before us (most of which we readily recognize within ourselves).  The desire to look at shameful things, desires for money and possessions, enjoyment of spectacles, of horses, of music. . .  the list could go on and on.

These different desires can, of course, conflict or coincide with each other, drawing the desirous human being in multiple directions, producing anguish in a soul pulled by multiple incompatible objects.  But, more importantly, these multifarious desires, all of them seated in the portion of the soul:
by which it loves, and hungers, and thirsts, and feels the stirring of other desires, the irrational and appetitive [part], the companion of certain satisfactions and pleasures.
Such desires -- and the part itself -- urge us towards or away from objects, motivating our action.  They can also possess, or better put, activate cognitive aspects as well -- when we do desire something in this way, and someone puts it before us, it is not merely a blind stimulus response loop.  A part of us voices, even if not entirely articulately, the conception, the claim that this is something good for us presented to us, and that we ought to pursue and enjoy it.

What then keeps us from indulging in each, or even any, of the objects of our desires?  It can't simply be another desire -- that does occur, but then the answer we give is simply to point to the other desire:  he didn't pursue the opportunity for engaging in sex offered to him by the prostitute, because he preferred to keep his money -- the appetite for wealth was then stronger than the appetite for sexual activity.  What about cases where you can't just point to another, stronger desire -- where something within the person says:  "No, this desire should not be satisfied, at least not at this time."

There, we glimpse a fundamentally different type of conflict, and in this another part of the soul reveals itself, the rational, reasoning, reckoning part -- this part does have its own distinctive pleasures (and even desires), but carries out its work differently.  Rather than impelling or driving, it calculates, compares, reasons, infers.  When functioning well, it considers what is best or better for the person, what ought to be done rather than just what one wants to do.

Feelings Arising from Conflicts

The experience of conflict between reason -- and the commands or counsels by which it expresses it's desire, what a person's desires ought to be -- and the appetites varies from situation to situation.  Sometimes, more often than not in a good person, reason maintains the upper hand, and the appetites are not only checked, but drawn back, humbled. In other cases, the appetites may overcome reason, or even harness it into their own service.  The person who wavers between these -- even the person in whom reason  typically wins, as well as the person who finds him or herself unhappily in the thrall of their own appetites -- experiences this conflict occurring within the soul, a lack of integration in the personality.

This experience can assume the additional form of arousing another kind or set of emotions -- anger with oneself, a sense of shame, a tangible sense of wrong irreducible to the feeling of unsatisfied desire or to the judgement on reason's part.  What this reveals, Plato thinks, is the existence of a third part of the soul, neither reason nor appetite, but something in between, susceptible of allying with either one of them, or of pressing its own demands at the expense of either -- Thumos, the "spirited" portion of the soul.

This is the part through which we feel -- rightly or wrongly -- the emotion of anger.  It can be aroused by the perception of something wrong having been done to one or to another.  It is also the part of us which desires honor, respect, glory, reputation -- which compares itself against and with others.  It also for that reason would appear to be the part with which we feel a sense of shame.

When aligning itself with the rational part -- or even driving on its own after its determinate objects of value and desire -- this spirited part is powerful enough to hold back or even overwhelm the appetites, and it is not surprising that in certain later psychologies it might be identified with the faculty of the will, situated in between reason and the appetites, given that the will is often depicted as possessing such a decisive capacity for determination of the human being.

Plato holds that children possess this part early on -- and the appetites as well -- but not reason, which must develop.  If that is the case, and if thumos is concerned not only with comparison of the self against others (or the view of the self in the eyes of others), but also with a sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of what ought to be and what ought not be -- this means that whether reason is functioning in the person or not, they have some, perhaps inchoate or inarticulate, sense and set of desires concerned with moral values.  There's something which can be experienced as in conflict with the appetitive desires.

What is needed for a person to be able not only to distinguish these different parts of their soul, the distinctive dimensions of their personality, apart from each other, but to understand their right functioning and what their present condition actually is?  Only reason or intellect -- the rational part of the soul functioning at least to some degree as it ought to -- will allow the person to conceptualize what goes on within him or herself, let alone to contemplate it, or to deliberately and consciously change its patterns.  One can experience conflicts within one's soul in ongoing problematic situations of practical life through other modalities, since those conflicts do occur -- and one can even be troubled in deeper ways by the lack of integration within one's personality, one's patterns of intentions and actions, one's words and one's actual desires, involved or implied in such conflicts.  But, without reason's guidance, no adequate understanding -- and therefore no genuine solution -- can be found.  Desire, even if spirited, honor-driven, noble, rather than merely appetitive, cannot lead -- because it cannot find -- the way towards an integration of the self.

And so, we find ourselves driven back towards the matter of justice.  The proper arrangement of parts within the soul which Plato calls justice inside of the person -- the condition responsible for externalized just behaviors of all different sorts --is a goal towards which we can progress only if we already desire it and to some degree understand it (or at least listen to another who does understand it).  We do, in fact, desire that condition of justice, because we do, in the depths of our being, long for wholeness, integration, being one self rather than a many competing and contesting with each other -- but we also experience, indeed struggle with, the other desires, following which may lead us in directions contrary to that goal.  So, desire must be informed and guided by knowledge, the appetites and the spirited part by the rational portion, all of them by degrees more and more conformed to the configuration of justice within, a pattern whose outlines and interior structures gradually become clearer and clearer to the well-reasoning, practically rational human being

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