Plato’s Theory of Soul


The intellectual world is teleological. That is to say nothing is written without purpose and each intellectual responds to; reflects upon; provides intellectual explanation and justification or critique and alternative to the issues and circumstances prevailing in his contemporary time-space. Plato’s Republic is not an utopia addressed to no-one but a passionate appeal to fellow Athenians to overthrow the existing democratic governance that is in his opinion, the government of fools, which he “vows” to overthrow and replace it with the ideal state. Though he could not overthrow it, Roman aggressors did, couple of centuries later. As the state is the institution of managing the common affairs of humans, Plato, like the modern liber political theorists, begins with the dissection of human psychology with tripartite assumption of human soul.  Plato’s assumptions and views regarding the soul constitute the foundation and basis of his theory of Justice and thereby of Ideal State, which shall be elaborated in subsequent sections. Like the Idea of the Good, Plato avoids defining soul in terms of empirically verifiable facts but explores the world of desirable philosophical abstractions in the search of perfection. Plato’s theory of Soul not only lays the foundation of his theory of justice to be attained in Ideal State ruled by the philosopher king/queen but is intimately related to his theory of Idea or Form. In fact soul is the means for the acquisition and comprehension of the Idea or the Form of good.  Plato considers soul to be above and beyond the visible, bodily person, just the appearance, the essence lies in the its immortal, eternal, infinite in the soul, not part of the visible phenomenal world but of invisible world of Ideas or Form, which Plato uses interchangeably, in an acknowledgment of the spiritualism and the super-naturalism.  Soul and conscience, as human attributes do not exist outside but inside human person and dies with the death of person.

Plato, like Pythagoras believed in the eternity and transcendence of soul, that is also one of the key messages of Gita[1]According to him the soul is divine and eternal that roams in the world of Ideas and not in the visible phenomenal world. Theorists of the eternity of soul and its transcendence from one to another body do not explain the source surplus souls required for the bodies of the increased population! To quote him from Phaedo, “The soul is infinitely like unchangeable; even the most stupid person would not deny that.”[2]  He further adds, “What is the definition of that which is named soul? Can we imagine any other definition than …….. . The motion that moves by itself”. The motion of soul is first in origin and power that moves by itself.” He reaffirms in his last work, the Laws, “Motion of the soul is the first in origin and power.” And, “the soul is most ancient and divine of all things whose motion is an ever flowing source of real existence.”[3]  A detailed discussion on the theory of soul is beyond the scope of our present needs. Plato uses his tripartite assumption of the soul as consisting of the reason; spirit and appetite and their respective as philosophical tool for his division of society into 3 classes.

The Elements of Soul

Plato divides the soul into 3, hierarchical faculties – reason, spirit and appetite, in descending order. In fact this trilogy of the soul provides the philosophical foundation of his hierarchal order of the Ideal State, the abode of justice, his central concern in the Republic. The abode of the lowest faculty, the appetite is stomach and those of spirit and the reason are chest and the mind respectively. The appetite is identified in both theRepublic as well as Phaedo with desires; greed; economic gains; physical comforts and sensuous pleasure. The spirit is identified with fearlessness, valor and warrior like qualities. The highest faculty of the soul is the reason – simple and indivisible, eternal and immortal. The reason is beyond the time and space, whereas spirit and appetite are within the time and space. The reason is, according to him, immortal and divine whereas spirit and appetite are mortal and mundane.

The Virtues of Soul

After defining the soul in terms of its constituent elements, delves into their respective virtues and thence derives the virtue of soul by integrating them together. Every particular object has its particular nature and realizing that nature is its virtue. The nature of teacher is to induce students into critical thinking and help them in molding themselves into fearless, responsible citizen and in his/her attempts to invent newer knowledge. If a teacher satisfactorily does that he is a virtuous teacher. Virtue of a student is to study and discourse to acquires knowledge and expand in the same way as the virtue of the eyes is clear vision  and of mind is clear thinking and reasoning. A soul is virtuous if its elements realize their nature, i.e. be virtuous. He first discusses the particular virtues of particular elements and combines them to construct a new virtue, superior to them and their coordinating force – the justice, Plato’s central concern in the Republic. The virtue of reason is wisdom, that of spirit and appetite are courage and temperance respectively. A soul is just or virtuous that has the virtuous faculties and the inferior elements are regulated and directed by the superior ones. In other words, the spirit and appetite must take directions from, and obey the dictates of, the reason.

  • Wisdom or Knowledge

There corresponds a particular virtue to each faculty. The virtue corresponding to the faculty of reason is knowledge or wisdom. Plato conceptualizes wisdom or knowledge in specific terms. The knowledge of mundane affairs or the knowledge of particular skill falls outside its ambit. Knowledge of varieties of soil fit for cultivation of particular crops or knowledge of medicine for particular disease is not wisdom. Plato calls them the opinions or technical knowledge. Even the knowledge of mathematics (arithmetic), geometry, astronomy or any other science disciplines, which Plato places in the realm of intelligible world, too is not knowledge, as they too use assumptions based on the objects of the visible world. He explains it through his, oft-quoted, line diagram. Wisdom does not come from the study of the objects of the visible world, as if the ideas come from some vacuum, in opposition to the fact that ideas are abstractions from the objects and have been historically emanating from them. According to him wisdom comes from ability to reason and analyze; discus and debate; deliberate and discourse. Plato’s pessimism does not allow him to accord these potentialities to anyone but to ‘gifted’ few ‘endowed’ with immanently innate qualities of excellence in the realm of reason. Plato’s theory of knowledge shall be discussed below as an independent subtitle.

     The Courage

Courage is the cardinal virtue of the spirit. It finds frequent mentions in Republic. Traditionally, the courage meant manliness. For early Greeks, courage meant fearlessness, even of the death; patience in difficult situation; velour etc. For Plato courage is not just warrior like bravery but also firmly defend correct stand.


The third particular virtue is temperance of restrain that has been elaborately described in books III & IV of the Republic. It simply means control of the desires. “To be stronger than one-self”; “To be master of oneself”; doing not as one wishes but what one ought to.


Apart from the above 3 particular virtue there is 4thvirtue, a superior virtue that harmoniously coordinates them and is the central concern of the Republic, as is evident from its subtitle, Concerning Justice. 

[1]  Note

[2] Phaedo

[3] Phaedrus

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi


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