Plato and the Spirit:


Plato’s tri-partite division of the soul is far from convincing when it comes down to the distinction drawn between Reason, Desire and Spirit. As Julia Annas points out in her Introduction to Plato’s Republic: ‘there is no satisfactory argument to show that spirit is really distinct from reason, and so a distinct part of the soul.’ Every new student to Plato’s approach to Philosophy soon learns about his idiosyncratic interpretation of the soul as an immortal, ethereal entity, which once resided in the vicinity of the Form of the Good before being tested through repeated incarnations in human bodies. So much for the metaphysical origin of the human soul, but what of the actual characteristics of the soul when it has acquired a worldly form? Here, Plato is faced with a quasi insurmountable problem as he has to demonstrate the possible philosophical salvation of the soul, tearing itself away from the temptations of the flesh through the sheer intellectual energy of Reason. The image of the charioteer highlights the conflict between a restive horse representing untamed Desire and its more docile companion amenable to the power of the charioteer’s Reason. Plato strongly believes that the Spirit animating the latter horse can be channelled in a positive way and eventually serve the best interest of Reason itself. If the philosopher does not justify his belief in the beneficial influence of the spirit, it is for very good reasons which he does not wish to invoke in his argument on the division of the soul.

Plato’s views on the education of the future Philosopher-Kings or Guardians are very hostile to central aspects of Greek culture and particularly the place of poetry and epic literature. He warns, long before Rousseau, about the possible dangers of poetry when it puts into the mind of the listener or the reader inordinate feelings, some of them so impassioned or ‘spirited’ that they are most likely to have long-term corrupting effect on the temperate character of the young philosopher. For Plato, Greek tragedies and their inner moral conflicts only expose the fragility of human nature in its struggle against the forces of destiny. Only Reason can resolve the most dramatic moral dilemmas and for this reason, Plato is prepared to reject the very literary tradition of Homer, despite its fundamental role in the shaping of the Greek mind, including, of course, the great Plato’s himself. The great Homeric heroes are not driven by some philosophical reason but by their ‘Spirit’ or thumos, which distinguishes them from other mortals. It is this very ‘Spirit’ which Plato introduces as an intermediary agent between two irreconcilable forces, without paying due homage to the legacy of his former literary master. Yet, beyond its philosophical message, The Republic remains, above all, the work of an incomparable writer who, paradoxically, restrains his literary genius in the name of eternal truths only accessible to the eye of Reason.  

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