The Philosophy of the Human Psyche

Plato believes that the nature of human beings is to have three main parts to their psyche; appetite, will and reason. In each individual person, one of these traits will dominate their personality, and primary motives. Those dominated by appetite are driven by physical desires such as hunger, sex and financial gain – things that can be seen and felt. Plato’s example of such a human is a financier, whose sole ambition in life is to make as much money as possible. People driven by will are motivated by honour, tending to gravitate towards the military and jobs where they protect their city. Finally, the reason dominated psyche, who Plato deems to be the best kind of personality, loves ‘the delight of knowing the truth and reality ‘ most of all.

Plato’s utopian ideal of the separation of classes must be taken into account when analysing his opinion on what constitutes a person’s identity. The so-called lover of gain would be placed in the ‘bronze’ class. This is the poorest sector of Athenian society, and usually uneducated. With very physical jobs farming and the like, they would have little time to think on philosophical matters, and necessarily think mainly of what they immediately need to survive. ‘The pleasures of honour or learning’ would literally hold no value to such a man, as these traits would be useless in his social position, not because of a dominant aspect of his psyche. As there was little social mobility in Ancient Athens, they would’ve had no incentive to pursue honour, or wisdom. However, it is highly possible that they would come to love wisdom if given the opportunity to study.

Of course, in retort to this Plato would claim that each citizen belongs to their respective class because they are inherently gold (learning driven), silver (lovers of honour), or bronze (desire motivated), as an ingrained part of who they are. He believes that as a general rule, people are born into the class which they naturally belong to, which will line up with what the main part of their psyche is. He believes it is in the benefit of ‘the common good’ to have such a class separation, as keeping the lower class in check and ruled by the educated will result in a fair government. Plato thinks democracy is essentially mob rule, and the desire driven men will overthrow the wise aristocracy, resulting in chaos. I feel like Plato’s view regarding human nature is a little too convenient to his theory of how society should be structured, and may have been affected by a wish to justify his idea that an elite should rule society, instead of the common people, in a democracy.

This ideology also excludes any other characteristics a person or group may strongly exhibit over the three Plato mentions. Modern psychology has now proven that there are many more personality types than these three, which lie on a spectrum much wider than Plato claims. A possible point that Plato may raise if he saw modern society, is that people’s careers reflect the ruling area of their mind. He’d say those working in the army are clearly honour driven, while those who devote their life to academia as researchers or lecturers are obviously reason motivated. On the other hand, chefs and restaurant reviewers are following what they find to be most pleasurable in life – fulfilment of bodily desires.

However, the now frequent changing of careers and ease of re-training in another field refutes this. For example, I know a person who changed professions from a clinical psychologist to a baker. This sort of drastic transition between jobs proves that we ourselves are responsible for which part of our mind we focus on. Although natural tendencies undeniably play a part in occupation choices, it is not merely inborn personality traits that form who we are. A big part of it is which characteristics a person encourages or represses in their individual life. Their environment, relationships and wider social structures can all affect someone’s outlook on life. For example, parents can have a big influence on whether they encourage or discourage their child from going to university, and even what course they study.

Another problem I have with Plato’s perspective is the single-mindedness he frames people as having. A holistically healthy and happy person does not find pleasure in only one aspect of life; even the rich indulge in activities of ‘desire’, like feasting and lovemaking as it is only human to enjoy such things. Plato claims the philosopher would have no use for other pleasures, if necessity were not laid upon him. I disagree with this, as the body works in sync with the mind and both must be satisfied for the human to, as a whole feel content. Being obsessed with one thing, such as honour will inevitably lead to an unbalanced person. The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud even goes so far as to say that having one ‘master passion’ will actually lead to madness.

A balanced temperament allows empathy for others, and it is not true as Plato states, that a lover of honour ‘regards the pleasure that comes from money as vulgar and low. ‘ Apparently, the philosopher considers the other pleasures as ‘far removed from true pleasure,’ but even the most avid pursuer of knowledge would not turn down a delicious meal in favour of a book, if he were hungry. Each main part that Plato lists, although it may be the dominant part of someone would be useless without the others. Without reason, emotions mean we live in a fantasy world. Contrastingly, without feeling, life is meaningless . We need harmony within ourselves for a ‘meaningful and effective life.’

Plato was not the only famous philosopher to believe that the psyche has three main parts. Sigmund Freud a 20th Century psychologist has a theory that runs along very similar lines to Plato, claiming that the ‘super-ego’ is the will, ‘ego’ is reason, and ‘id’ is desire. The fact that another very well known and respected academic concurs with Plato’s view, does make it more likely to be true. However, many aspects of Freudian theory since have been contested or refuted as a diminishing of humanity and human behaviour. Freud’s theory also disagrees with Plato on quite a significant note. While Plato feels that reason and spirit must control desires by inhibiting, even eliminating them, Freud claims that ‘too much control’ over natural aspirations will lead to mental illness.

To conclude, although Plato’s view is plausible in some respects as a very basic summation of what commonly motivates people, ultimately, I think it is an oversimplification of human nature. To an extent it is true that people do have strengths and natural tendencies, however they lie on a very broad spectrum, and it is impossible to say a personality is predominantly inclined towards one thing. The social structures people live within play a large part in the direction their life takes, and despite all these influences, jobs are increasingly fluid, with people not usually stuck in one role their entire life. All three parts of reason, spirit and desire are necessary for a democratic character structure that constitutes a mentally healthy person. I believe the nature of human beings is so much more than merely having three main parts to their psyche, as we are such incredibly complex entities.


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