In The Republic and the Phaedrus, Plato describes the soul as divided into three parts, labeled appetitive, spirited, and rational. He offers this division partly as a way of explaining our psychological complexity and partly to provide a justification for philosophy as the highest of all pursuits, because it corresponds to the highest part of the soul—the rational part. We might feel the pull of these three parts when presented with a bowl of ice cream, a roast we accidentally overcooked ourselves, and a healthy salad. The appetitive part of our soul will crave the sensual pleasures it will derive from the ice cream, the spirited part of our soul will want to eat the charred roast out of a sense of pride in our own work, and the rational part of our soul will want to eat the salad as the healthiest of the three options.

In proposing a tripartite soul, Plato acknowledges and seeks to explain the fact that we all experience inner conflict from time to time. We would be justified in seeing this theory as the starting point for psychology. However, Plato’s theory seeks not only to explain inner conflict but also to present the rational part of the soul as superior. Philosophy is essentially the practice of refining and foregrounding our rationality.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Plato