In Plato’s Republic, the author posits that an ideal society should be tiered in a similar way to how the soul comes in three parts (according to him):
-At the top is the Intellect. In the human body, this is represented by the head. In a society, this means that the intelligent people are the ones who govern, much as the brain controls the body. This is symbolized by the mind.
-In the middle is the Spirited. In the human body, this is represented by the heart. In a society, these are the courageous people who are the guardians of the city, much as the heart is the defender of the body and keeps it healthy. This is symbolized by the soul.
-At the bottom is the Appetitive. In the human body, this is represented by the stomach. In a society, these are the common workers who are ruled by their passions or appetites—they are people of physicality who respond to instinct and desire and thus need to be governed. This is symbolized by the body.
To simplify it, Plato’s tripartite soul consists of the head, heart, hands—in that order of importance. Societally, that’s how an ideal Republic should function too, according to Plato. In a way, it’s a Western equivalent of an Indian caste system: everyone knows their place and all will work well if they don’t deviate from their assigned roles. Is this different from the Apostle Paul’s assigning of roles in 1 Cor. 12 in the analogy of one body with many members of different functions?
Regardless, this Platonic idea of the tripartite soul has seeped into our literature and modern way of thinking, particularly after the Enlightenment.
Here’s a sampling of literature where Plato rears his head disguised:
-Augustine’s Confessions: St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian in the Church after the Bible, based his biographical magnum opus after Plato, except he reorders the tripartite soul. In his biography, he recounts how he lived for sex as a youngster, then as he grew older he got duped by pagan philosophies, and finally he found God. So instead of Plato which orders them from best to worst as ISA (Intellect, Spirited, Appetitive), Augustine flips the top two and orders them SIA. Essentially, Platonic philosophy has made its way down through history to the Western church via Augustine, but in modified form. We see it expressed detrimentally in our missionary work, for example, because for years we regarded “soul-winning” as more important than social justice: essentially, we were putting the Spirited as the best and the Appetitive as the lowest, as Augustine does—the soul is more important than the body. In fact, Augustine was so ashamed of his sexual sins from childhood that the Western church now has this unhealthy fear of sex due to Augustine via Plato (rather, it’s not sex we should fear, it’s improper use of sex).
-Dante’s Divine Comedy: Though Dante was a Catholic and thus would have been heavily indebted to Augustine’s theology, he in fact reordered Plato’s tripartite soul once again. Instead of Augustine’s SIA, Dante saw it as SAI. Through his three-part epic poem (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise), he had three guides leading him onward and upward: the secular poet Virgil (representing the best of the secular Intellect), followed by his true love Beatrice (representing romantic love, thus Dante’s Appetitive nature), and finally the mystic saint Bernard of Clairveaux (representing the Spirited because he revealed the divine mysteries of the Godhead to Dante). It’s interesting that Dante did not see the Appetitive as the worst, despite both Plato and Augustine relegating it to the bottom.
-Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: Like Augustine and Dante, Dostoevsky was a Christian. Like his two Christian predecessors, he put Spirited at the top. However, he followed Dante and not Augustine in ordering the tripartite soul as SAI. The three eponymous brothers are Ivan (the Intellect), Dmitri (the Appetitive), and Alyosha (the Spirited). Dostoevky paints Ivan as equivalent to the Devil (especially in the famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”). In the novel, the father of the three sons is murdered, and it is eventually revealed that a fourth brother, the bastard Smerdyakov, was the perpetrator because he admires Ivan and wants to imitate him. So Dostoevsky puts the Intellect at the bottom: it is equivalent to Satanism and murder in his estimation. The father is more like Dmitri, in that both are sex-obsessed and in fact have relations with the same woman. Alyosha is the saint who emerges at the top, holy and pure. In some sense, it is quite surprising, given our current Western Christian obsession against the body, that neither Dante nor Dostoevsky put the Appetitive as the worst sin.
-Modern storylines: whether Christian or secular, most modern literature seems to follow Augustine’s pattern (SIA) rather than Dante/Dostoevsky’s (SAI) or even Plato’s (ISA). It seems the grandest virtue in our postmodern societal metanarrative is Spirited, or courage/heart. It is more valued and cherished than the mind, and the mind is more valued than the body. Here are some examples:
-The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn (Spirited) is the courageous Christ-figure of the trio (The Return of the King is a thinly-veiled reference to Jesus’s second coming), Legolas (Intellect) is the calm and rational Elf, and Gimli (Appetitive) is the rough and curmudgeonly Dwarf. Even if Elves have better qualities (stronger, immortal, beautiful), the Human is still made out to be the best despite our flaws.
-Star Trek: brave Captain Kirk (Spirited) is the leader, Mr. Spock (Intellect) is the First Officer, and last comes irascible Dr. McCoy (Appetitive) who is gruff and ruled by his temper. Even though Spock is far more gifted than Kirk, his reserved rationality is not seen as great a virtue as Kirk’s “to boldly go where no man has gone before” frontier valor.
-Harry Potter: Harry (Spirited) is the hero, Hermione (Intellect) is the next-most important, and bumbling Ron (Appetitive) brings up the rear. Notice that J.K. Rowling doesn’t deem Hermione’s brains to be the best, but rather Harry’s courage and love.
-Divergent: In this recent book-turned-movie which has many parallels with The Hunger Games, this post-apocalyptic future is one where all people are divided into five factions: Candor (honesty), Erudite (intellect), Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peace), and Dauntless (courage). The main character Tris chooses as her faction (you guessed it)… Dauntless. She could be intelligent, she could be peaceful, she could be honest, she could be selfless, but she chooses to be brave. Though there are five factions, they could easily be reduced to Plato’s tripartite soul: Dauntless, the courageous, are the guardians of the city (sound familiar?). Amity, the peaceful, are the farmers (read: tree-huggers/hippies) who hardly figure into the story, they are so beneath notice because they work with their hands and are people of the body, the peasants of the land. Abnegation are the government rulers because they are not self-interested, but Erudite want to be the rulers because they think that the intelligent people, not the selfless, are the best rulers (which is exactly what Plato posited). Candor is kind of a halfway between Erudite and Abnegation because they are honest (thus appealing to Erudite who seek truth and knowledge) but they also tell the truth no matter whether it helps or hurts (thus they are similar to Abnegation who want to remain neutral and impartial—as seen in the fact that Abnegation are the government rulers but Candor are the judges and lawyers). But in Divergent, Erudite are the great evil: they are the smart-but-megalomaniac ones, much as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes is a professor, the evil mastermind (though to be fair, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also makes Holmes the Intellect). This is also echoed in Hogwarts’ four Houses, where the students are placed according to the characteristic they most embody: Hufflepuff are the hard workers who are loyal (like Amity). Ravenclaw are the wise and impartial (like Candor and Abnegation). And of course Gryffindor is the best because they are the courageous (like Dauntless), and Slytherin is the worst because they are the intelligent and clever (like Erudite). The Houses/Factions also correspond to the four Greek elements: Fire is Gryffindor/Dauntless, Earth is Hufflepuff/Amity, Water is Slytherin/Erudite, and Air is Ravenclaw though Glass is Candor—because both represent clarity. Abnegation is gray stone because it represents passionless neutrality.
The author of Divergent, Veronica Roth, is a Christian, and some people have thus chosen to read Christian themes into her book (which are probably there, but are not overt). Could it be that she, by painting Erudite as the bad guys, is following Augustine, or even more so Dante and Dostoevsky, who distrust the intellect as the most important piece, especially if given free reign without a moral framework? It makes me think of C.S. Lewis who famously said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” In fact the main character Tris gives up Abnegation (selflessness) in favor of Dauntless (courage). Is this how our Christianity is moving: from a self-sacrificial lifestyle to one where we have to play the hero? Are we supposed to be warriors instead of martyrs? Regardless, it seems like courage/heart is the defining characteristic of what it means to be a Christian today, but I would argue that selflessness is a more Christian virtue—if I were to write Divergent as a Christian, I’d put Tris in Abnegation instead of Dauntless (but of course that would make for a less “sexy” storyline—courage looks better on the big screen than altruism). And also, is the heart to be pitted against the mind? After all, the Great Commandment is an injunction to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Have we Christians vilified the mind because now it is held in thrall by the (secular/liberal) academy and we are being reactionary by pitting faith against reason? If we do this, we are playing their game. Can we not reclaim the life of the mind as something created by God for our good? After all, Christians were the ones who invented universities. The famous twentieth-century British missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote in his most well-known text, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
The great thinkers whose work heralded the dawn of the modern world were Christian believers and took it for granted that theology belonged no less than physics or mathematics to the one seamless robe of truth. A large amount of Isaac Newton’s intellectual energies were devoted to questions of theology, and there was no mental barrier for him between this and his work in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Yet, as we have seen, there was a tension in which the humanist tradition proved the stronger of the two. The Bible had more and more to justify itself at the bar of reason and conscience. Insofar as it appeared that it could not do so, the tension grew into a separation. The Bible became the book through which the life of the soul, the interior life, the spiritual life was interpreted—at least for those who were content to remain under its influence. It could not hold its own in the public sphere. Scientists and philosophers were no longer theologians and biblical scholars.
Perhaps the greatest disservice that Plato gave to Western society, and by correlation the Western church, is not only the ordering of the tripartite soul (as if some parts were more important than others) but even more the division of the soul into three parts. Because everything belongs to God: both natural revelation and special revelation, both science and theology. We need to recover a holistic way of viewing the world, as all under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And all parts are equally important. This is what is meant by true Christian integration. So maybe Veronica Roth was right in the end: the hero is actually Divergent, meaning embodying the characteristics of all the Factions. We were created to be whole beings, giving all our heart, soul, strength, and mind as offerings unto the Lord—and this, more than just peace, is what the word shalom truly means: wholeness.