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The Tripartite Soul in the "Timaeus" Author(s): James V. Robinson Source: Phronesis, Vol. 35, No.

The Tripartite Soul in the "Timaeus" Author(s): James V. Robinson Source: Phronesis, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1990), pp. 103-110 Published by: BRILL Stable URL:

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The TripartiteSoul in the Timaeus


Although the question of whether the soul in its true nature is simple or composite has been extensively debated, the position of the Timaeuson this issue is generally regarded as uncontroversial.The Timaeus,which is Plato's only sustainedeffort at providinga cosmology and a cosmogony, discussesthe formation(by the Demiurge) of the WorldSoul andnous, the divinepartof the human soul.' The other partsof the humansoul were fashioned by the lesser

gods and, unlike nous, only immortal part of

escape the cycle of rebirth.2 I shall challenge the accepted view by contending that the tripartitesoul is everlasting (albeit not immortal) and that there is no escaping the cycle of rebirth.This is not offered as the definitive interpretationof the Timaeus;my goal is to cast doubt on the accepted view, thereby provoking discussion and encouragingnew lines of investigation. The first step will be to deal with the assertionthat only nous is immortal(e.g. 41c-d, 69c-d and 90a). The Timaeus'explicitclaimthatnous is the only immortalpartof the soul is a major obstacle to my interpretation,since the assertion appearsto contradict explicitlythe notion of an everlastingtripartitesoul. However, referringto the appetitiveand spiritedpartsof the soul as mortaldoes not entail that they will perish, given that they are united with what is divine. Timaeus, repeating the speech of the Demiurge, states:

Gods, of gods whereof I am the makerandof worksthe father, those whichare my own handiworkare indissoluble,save withmyconsent. Now, althoughwhatsoever bond3has been fastened may be unloosed, yet only an evil will could consent to

are mortal. Since we are explicitly told that nous is the the soul, scholars have assumed that nous alone will

1 The arguments in this paper do not depend on the Timaeuseither antedating or postdatingthe Parmenides.

2 Forexample:W.K.C. Guthrie,"Plato'sViewson the Natureof the Soul", reprintedin

Vlastos, (Garden City, 1971), 2:233-4; R. Hackforth, Plato's Phaedrus,

(Cambridge, 1972), 75-6; T.M. Robinson, Plato's Psychology, (Toronto, 1970), 124; C.J. Rowe, Plato, (Brighton, 1984), 171;and R. Bett, "Phaedrus",in Phronesis, 1986, vol. 31,no. 1, 22-3.

3 As Cornfordstates, these bonds arethe ones thathold togetherthe souls andbodies of

Plato, ed. G.

Phronesis1990. Vol. XXXVII (AcceptedJuly 1989)


dissolve what has been well fitted together and is in a good state; therefore, althoughyou, havingcome into being, are not immortalnor indissolublealtogeth- er, neverthelessyou shallnot be dissolvednortasteof death, findingmywilla bond yet stronger and more sovereign than those wherewithyou were bound together when you came to be.4

Here the gods are referredto, not as souls, butas compositesof soul andbody.5 The claim is that althoughthese composites are neitherimmortalnor indissol- uble, they will be maintainedforever by the Demiurgebecause he is good and they are well ordered.6Immortalityis not a necessaryconditionfor everlasting existence. Since for Plato something can last forever without being immortal, the concept of an everlasting tripartitesoul is at least possible. Moreover, the willingness of the Demiurge to care for what is ordered makes clear the

implausibilityof maintainingthat, according to Plato, the

destroyed as a consequence of becomingordered.7The claimthat only nous is immortalestablishesthatthe humansoul containssomethingdivine,something that gives it kinshipwith the gods andwhichenables the soul to improveitself. The claimdoes not establishthatthe tripartitesoul musteventuallycease to be. Indeed, Plato may have held that the soul is everlasting so that it has the

opportunityto become virtuous(i.e. ordered).8

tripartitesoul is

Havingarguedthatthe mortalityof two of the soul's threepartsdoes not imply the soul'seventualdestruction,I mustnowprovidepositivereasonsforthe view that, accordingto the Timaeuss,the tripartitesoul never perishes. At Timaeus41e-42d we are told that before the souls firstentered a human body, the Demiurge placed them in a star, "mounting them as it were in chariots".After orderingitself, each soul returnsto its star, whichis described as the site of its first and best condition. As in the Phaedrus,the image of a chariotis used in connectionwith the soul.9Although Plato does not state that

the heavenlygods. See Timaeus38e andPlato's Cosmology,(Indianapolis,1957), 140n.






Thisview, whichappearsindiscussionsof the natureof the soulinthe Republic(bk X),

Timaeus41b, trans. by Cornford(1957).

Cornford(1957), 140.

See A.E. Taylor, A Commentaryon Plato's Timaeus,(Oxford, 1928), 251.

thatjust asinthe Phaedothe soul mustescapethe body, so inthe Republicto logistikon


mustescape the other two parts.The greaterthe orderof the tripartitesoul, the neareris

the destructionof this soul due to the escape of the rationalpart.

Jane Harrison provides support for this view (Prolegomenato the Study of Greek Religion[London, 1962], 477). Speakingof the Orphics,she writesthat"Theydidnot so much seek puritythat they mightbecome divinely immortal,they needed immortality that they might become divinely pure." 9 The mythsof the charioteerandthe consortstarare linkedby the mythof Helios and Phaethon.


the star becomes the body of the soul, we shall see that this possibilityshould not be rejected out of hand. The idea that the soul ends up in a body is significantfor three reasons. First, if nous inhabitsa body, even a heavenly body, the claim that it must separate from the other psychic parts because of their corporeal associations is over- thrown. Second, if the soul does return to a star's body, the soul may be tripartitesimplybecause, in orderto govern a body, nous needs the other parts of the soul.10Thirdandfinally,the soul's returnto a starwill resolve a dilemma that has faced Plato since the Republic, where he argues that the soul is tripartite. As early as the Gorgias (503d-504d)we learn that if something is ordered, it is good, andif it is not ordered, it is bad. In the Republicthe goal of the individual is to order his soul. By so doing, he becomes virtuous (4:443c-444a,444d, 431d-e and 442c-d). By orderingthe disparatepartsof his soul,1 the individualunifies and harmonizesthem: he becomes one instead of many(4:443d). Havingsaidthis, it wouldbe verydifficultfor Platoto claimthat the soul which is ordered, and hence unified, somehow loses its spirited and appetitive parts. If corruption and strife cannot break up and destroy the tripartitesoul, how can order and unity? Plato'sclaimthatorderbothimprovesandunifiesindicatesthatthe best soul, whichhas escaped the cycle of rebirth,is tripartite;however, his claimthat the spiritedandappetitivepartsaretied to the corporealrealm(e.g. Rep. 7:510d-e) requiresthatthe truesoul consistsonly of the rationalpart. If the tripartitesoul is always embodied, then Plato has escaped the dilemma: he can assert that

10 Does governing a body require a tripartitesoul? Hackforth (1972), 76 states that Plato's"scientificconception"of the soul as a sourceof motion is suchthat the soul can

move bodies only if it possesses motions in addition to those of nous. But Hackforth provideslittle supportfor this interestingclaim, citingonly Aristotle's assertionthat the intellect (diaoia) itself moves nothing (NicomacheanEthics, 1139a36). The dialogues providelittle help with this question (but see Laws 10:898e-899a). 11 Some commentatorsquestionwhetherthe partsof the soul are real (in some sense) or merely the way the incompositesoul appearswhen embodied. L. Gerson contends that the soul is a locus of activitieswhich manifestsitself as tripartitewhen embodied ("A Note on Tripartitionand Immortalityin Plato",Apeiron, 1987,vol. XX, no. 1, 96). My mainobjection to his interestinginterpretationis thatif tripartitionis mere appearance, then so too is psychicorderand, hence, the distinctionbetween just and unjustsouls. If we areto take seriouslyPlato'sclaimsconcerningorder,justice andharmonyin the soul, we must take seriously his claim that the soul has distinct parts. The fact that the Phaedrusand the Timaeusdiscussthe tripartitesouyl withoutindicatingthat any of the partsis merely apparentsupportsmy view. Nor can I follow Guthrie(A Historyof GreekPhilosophy, [Cambridge,1975],4:425),

the threepartsof the soul, when they reachthe divine level, are

." How do the partspass

froma state of harmony(whichpresupposesplurality)to a unityconsistingof only one of

who contendsthat

not merely in harmony,but merge into one, namelynous

the parts?


orderunifiesthe soul, makingit strongerandbetter, withouthavingto respond to problems arisingfrom the soul's disembodiment.

There are several ratherobvious objections to the idea that the humansoul is always embodied. Some commentators question the wisdom of taking the Timaeusseriously since, as Sayre puts it, the dialogue is "only a diversionor pastime".'2Sayre's extreme opinion is not widely held, but even those who accept that the Timaeusis an importantphilosophicalwork may doubt that Plato was serious when he spoke of human souls returningto their consort star.'3Cornford, for example, refers to the veil of myth that obscures the passage and which makes literal interpretationsdangerous.'4Nonetheless, given thatthe soul is a creatureof the worldof Becomingaswell as of the world of Being, it would not be unnaturalif, afterit escapes the cycle of rebirthinto humanbodies, the soul entersa godlike body. Sincethe Sun, the Moon andthe planets are embodied gods, this interpretationcannot be dismissed on the groundsthatPlatothoughtembodimentwas, perse, demeaning.Infact, sinceit appearsthat all the createdgods- apartfromthe Homericgods (40d-41a),who are a special case - have bodies, it may be more likely than not that the souls whichreachtheirmost godlike state are embodied. After all, if embodimentis good enough for the WorldSoul, whichis in every way better than the human soul, then it is good enough for the humansoul. In addition,sincethe humansoul is presentedas a lesserversionof the World Soul, and the WorldSoul governsa body, one would expect the humansoul to have this responsibilityalso. This expectation is strengthenedby the fact that the Demiurge createdthe WorldSoul so thatthe orderof the universecouldbe maintained.For Plato nous has a uniqueandvitalfunction:it alone cancreate, maintainandperceiverationalorder.Nous is able to produceorderbecause, in additionto being a powerfulsourceof motion, it is able to perceivethe Forms, which serve as models. Nous is willing to produce order because by natureit desires knowledge and, as part of the tripartitesoul, it can satisfy this desire only when the soul is ordered. Furthermore,nous valuesgoodness and beauty which, in the Gorgias and in subsequent dialogues, are seen to depend upon

order. '5

12 K.M. Sayre, Plato'sLate Ontology:A RiddleResolved,(Princeton, 1983),240. Fora sensible comment on Sayre'sclaim, see W.J. Prior, Unityand Developmentin Plato's Metaphysics,(London, 1985), 123-4n. 3. J.B. Skemp contends that "we must not idly ignore Plato's words about the Demiurge, the Best Soul and the World Soul, simply regardingthem as 'myth'.The physicsof the Timaeusis mythosandcanneverbe logos: it must aspire to the eikos mythos." (The Theoryof Motion in Plato's LaterDialogues, [Amsterdam, 19671,xv).

13 Indeed, Taylor (1928), 18-9 doubts that the cosmologicalviews of the Timaeusare Plato's. Taylor'sclaimdoes not surviveComford'scritique(1957), vi-ix.


Comford (1957), 143.

An obvious exception is in the Phaedo, where we are told that a vase is beautiful


As we aretold in the Republicandin the Phaedrus,it is the soul's functionto rule the corporeal.16The universewas fashioned so that there would be order instead of disorder and the souls were created so that the order would be maintained.To say that the soul whichis best has no partin the orderingof the universe seems wrong, especially in the context of a dialogue that gives the impressionthat everythingin the universehas a function. If the soul that is best does not govern a body, then what does it do?17

In light of these considerations,it is best to treat the consort-starpassage more as thoughtfulspeculationthan as aimlessfancy or impenetrablemyth. Plato is speculatingwhen he speaks of man's origin, but then, all such discussionsare speculative. What can be accepted as non-speculativeare those beliefs which Plato triesto satisfywhen constructinghis cosmology/cosmogony- beliefs such as that the soul is placed in a body (and in a situation) suitable to the soul's degree of virtuousness. If one accepts that for Plato the human soul will, if sufficientlycorrupt,end up in the bodyof a reptileor a fish, then one shouldnot reject as fantasticthe notion that the soul, if sufficientlypure, could pass to a heavenly(god-like) body. The notionof the soul passingfroma humanbody to thatof a staris no less plausiblethanthe idea of the soul passingto the body of a fish. Not only is the passingof souls to heavenly bodies plausible, given Plato's generalview of souls, but it avoids the inconsistencyinherentin the three-part assertionthat i) there is a finite numberof souls, ii) the humanrace (soul-body composites) will never perish, andiii) the best souls escape foreverthe cycle of rebirth.

The idea that the soul never escapes the cycle of rebirth,which is indicatedin the Phaedrus, is also present in the Timaeus. Plato held that there is a fixed numberof immortalsouls (Timaeus41d) and believed that the species consist- ing of humansouls in humanbodies mustcontinue (41b-c). Fromthis it follows thatthe soul's returnis temporary,for if the soul can escape incarnationor if its returnto the staris permanent,then therewouldbe a gradualdepletion of souls availablefor human (and other) bodies.

because it participatesin the Form of Beauty. I have arguedelsewhere that these two explanationsof why a particularis beautifulare reconciledin the Timaeus.

16 Republic 1:353dand Phaedrus246b. See Robinson (1970) 115-6 and Irwin Rohde, Psyche: The cult of Souls & Belief in Immortalityamong the Greeks, trans. by W.B. Hilllis, (New York, 1966), 2:466.

17 This question shouldbe consideredby anywho would argue that the starshave their own souls and hence do not need the rule of humansouls. For the claim that starshave their own souls see Taylor (1928), 257.

18 See also Republic10:611a.

9 E.N. Ostenfeldalsosees thatthe limitednumberof soulsimpliesthatescapecannotbe permanent(Forms,MatterandMind:ThreeStrandsin Plato'sMetaphysics,[TheHague, 1982],254). He does not question Plato's awarenessof this inference.


Although it is impossibleto determinethe extent to whichPlatowasawareof this implication, other dialogues show his interest in the general topic. At Phaedo 72a-d and 77c-d Plato uses the Argumentfrom Opposites to establish the immortalityof the soul. Unless soulsareimmortalandarecontinuallybeing reincarnated, there would eventually be no living (corporeal) thing. As has been mentioned, this reasoningis inconsistentwith the claimthat the philoso- pher permanentlyescapes the cycle of rebirth(even if one holds that only a limited numberof souls will ever escape). Plato'sconcernwith the numberof souls is also displayedin the Republic.At 10:611ahe statesthatthe numberof soulscannotvary:it cannotdecrease,since souls are immortal;it cannot increase, since this would eventuallylead to all mortal things becoming immortal. If mortal things become immortal, then eventuallynothingwould be mortal.As in the Phaedo, Platohere believes that the naturalorderof things, includingthe existence of humanbeings (soul-body composites), mustbe preserved.The point is repeatedat Laws 10:904a,where we aretold thatgeneratedbody andsoul mustbe imperishable,for if one or the other were destroyed, there could be no living creatures. Given both Plato's interestin this topic and the fact that, in the Timaeus,he explicitly discusses the number of souls (as well as their distributionin the universeandtheirpartin the Worldorder), it is verylikelythathe wouldrealize that if every soul were permanentlyto escape rebirthinto a humanbody, then the humanrace would perish. Since he states that this racemustnot perish,he probably believed that the soul's escape from rebirth into earthly bodies is temporary. If thiswas indeed Plato'sview, it lends considerablesupportto the claimthat the best soul is composite. In the Timaeus(as well as in the Republicandin the Phaedrus) vice is expressed in terms of psychicdisorder, and the soul whose disorder increases will be given a comparatively inferior incarnation. It is difficultto see how nous alone could become corrupt,especiallysince Timaeus 69c-dspecifies that the disruptivedesires andemotions belong to the so-called mortalsouls.Y0On the other hand, if the soul thatreturnsto its staris tripartite, then there is alwaysthe chance that it will become disorderedand once again enter a humanbody. The image of a disordered soul, falling from its star, matches nicely the Phaedrus'accountof chariotsthat travel acrossthe sky andwhich, because of disorder, fall to earth. The Phaedrusdiscusses the disembodiedsoul without once suggestingthat the rationalpart (i.e. the charioteer)has a destiny inde- pendent of the non-rationalpartsof the soul. We are insteadgiven an explana- tion of why soulsenterbodies andof how theycanavoidthisfate. As one would expect, the souls which keep from falling are those that are properlyordered and, thus, are able to contemplatethe Forms (248a-c).


The disorderedstate of nous could be describedin termsof irregularmotions:whatis needed is an explanationof how the disorderingcan come about.


Psychicorder and knowledge will enable earth-boundsouls to escape to the heavens and will enable souls that are in the heavens to remainthere. Contin- ued existencewiththe gods dependson the charioteer'sabilityto trainhis team. Nothing is said of his leavingthe team behind. The charioteerwho successfully trainshis horsesalreadysharesthe companyof the gods. Thiswould, for Plato, be the best thathumanscouldhope for. By placingthe gods in the heavens Plato effectively identifies the best location for humansouls, and these souls are said to be tripartite. In addition, the Phaedrusmakes no mention of an existence beyond the heavens, suchaswouldindicatethatpermanentescape fromthe cycle of rebirth is possible. Indeed, the mechanismof the mythmaybe seen as conflictingwith this idea. As souls become more orderly, their level of existence improves: a soul incarnatedin a horsemaynext enter a humanbody, a craftsman'ssoul may enter the body of a philosopher, and a philosopher'ssoul may escape earthly incarnationsand exist in the heavens. But just as souls can move to a better existence, so can they, throughloss of psychicorder, move to a worse. If this applies to all souls, includingthose in the heavens,21then it seems that human souls never trulyescape the cycle of rebirth.The best that souls can hope for is existencewiththe gods, anexistencewhichis conditionalon the souls maintain- ing their psychicorder. There is no eternal reward,only everlastingeffort, the effort requiredto maintainpsychicorder.22 If this interpretationof the Phaedrusmyth is correct, then the claim that, in the Timaeus,the returnof the soul to its consortstaris only temporarycannot be viewed as a radicalchange in Plato's thinking. To accept that the returnis temporary, one must reject that there is a cycle of rebirth which can be permanentlyescaped. One can instead argue, as Ostenfeld does (253-4), that returningto the staris just anotherpartof the continuingcycle of rebirth - the best souls are incarnatedin heavenly bodies, the worst in bodies of snakes or fish. If so, then the destinyof the soul is better expressedby the metaphorof a ladder, whichthe soul moves up anddown, andfromwhichthere is no escape. Nor need there be an escape. This point, whichis the final one, is important because it suggeststhatpermittingthe tripartitesoul to remainin the corporeal realmis not simplya responseto the previouslymentioneddilemmaconcerning the soul, butis partof a changein Plato'sthinkingaboutthe worldof Becoming. In the Phaedo the corporealrealmis disparaginglycontrastedwith the Forms, while in the Timaeuisthis contrastis greatlyreduced. Accordingto the Timaeus the universe was modelled after the Form of the Living Creature and is de- scribed as a triumphof Reason over Necessity. Constructingthe World Body out of mathematicalentities gave it an order and hence a legitimacythat is at

21 Phaedrus249a speaks of those souls which are lifted by justice to a special place in

heaven. This implies that these souls are superior, not that they are either partlessor

permanentlyfree of incarnation.

On this, see Phaedrus248c.


odds with the view of the universeimplicitin the Phaedo.3 While maintaining the Phaedo's view that the objects of sight and sound are disorderly and


heavens andinsiststhat thisordermustbe studied.The antipathybetweensoul and body which is so evident in the Phaedo is greatlyreducedin the Timaeus. By making the realm of Becoming approximatethe realm of Being, the Timaeusunderminesthe notion that the soul mustforsakeone realmif it is to embrace the other. Moreover, by stating that the soul is the only source of order, the dialogue provides a reason why the souls should not, one by one, escape the realm of Becoming. In the Republicthe philosopheris requiredto help those still inside the cave; it may be that in the Timaeusthis concern for others is extended. The souls which, in the Phaedo, are free to escape to the realmof the Formsare, in the Timaeus,requiredto remainbehind;they must do theirpartto help othersoulsandto otherwiseaidthe WorldSoulto maintain order and harmonyin the realm of Becoming. This view of the role of the humansoul is expressedin the Laws. At 10:903c the Athenian, speakingto the man who fails to show gods the properrespect, tells the manthathis soul is only one fragmentof the universe"andso, for allits littleness, all its striving is ever directed toward the whole, but thou hast forgotten in the business that the purpose of all that happensis what we have said, to win blissfor the life of the whole; it was not madefor thee, but thou for

it."24Justas it is not the purposeof the ideal city-stateto makethe Philosopher- Kinghappy(Rep. 7:519e-520a),so it is not the purposeof the universeto make mankindhappy.The partmustserve the needs of the whole. The ultimategoal formankindis to improve,not to escape, the realmof Becoming. Self-improve- ment is the most importantstep towardthis goal. Sinceeven the best of souls is destined to remain part of the universe, there is no need to suppose that it is other than tripartite.'

the soul, the Timaeus also emphasizes the orderliness of the


23 Prior(1985), 92-3 discussesthis change in Plato's thinking. 2' Laws 10:903c, trans. by A.E. Taylor in The CollectedDialogues of Plato, ed. E.

Hamilton and H. Cairns,(Princeton, 1963).

' I am gratefulto MalcolmSchofield for severalhelpfulsuggestions.