Sometimes Plato’s division of the psyche into its three main elements can be easily misunderstood. Some who read about it for the first time think it is the same as Freud’s division of the psyche into the ego (das Ich), id (das Es), and superego (das Über-Ich), but it isn’t the same as Freud’s division. Others think it’s the same as the old adult-parent-child division, but it’s not that either. Nor is it the same as the conscious-subconscious-supraconscious division.
Plato’s identification of these three distinct elements of a person’s inner life is unique, and can be validated by directly turning inward to one’s own experience of the self.
Plato’s three elements of the psyche are
I’ve put together the following little chart of metaphors to help Plato articulate what each of those three elements is. For example, if we had to pick some body part to symbolize what each of those elements is, Plato says that the rational part of the soul is like the body’s head, the spirited part is like the hot blood in the heart, and the appetitive part would be best represented by the belly and genitals. (These are Plato’s metaphors.) If we had to pick one of the classical psychologists to represent each of these three parts (this is my metaphor, obviously, not Plato’s), Carl Jung could represent the mind, the part that loves rationality and ultimate wisdom; Alfred Adler (with his emphasis on how the drive for power shapes human behavior) could represent the spirited part; and Sigmund Freud (with his claim that the pleasure principle drives all human behavior) could represent the appetitive part. Some parts of this chart are Plato’s and only a few are my own. For example, the notion of somatotypes didn’t arise until the 19th century, so I added that, but Plato discovered the characteristic virtues and vices common to each of the psyche’s elements.
So I offer this little chart only as one more small aid in trying to make sense of what Plato meant by the three distinct elements of the soul that he delineated.
One other common misconception: Some think that Plato believes these three elements of the psyche should be in balance with each other, i.e., should each have its equal “say” in a person’s life. But that isn’t the way Plato sees it. He thinks the charioteer should be in charge of the whole system, should make the determining decisions about when to give each horse its rein and when to hold it back. The whole system should not be governed by the wishes of the horses (nor by the inertia of the chariot itself, the body) but by the rational decisions of the charioteer.
Finally, in Plato’s vision, neither of the horses are good or bad in themselves. The appetites, for example, make great servants, but make very bad masters.
Parts of the Soul
Class in Republic