Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics/Politics and Augustine’s City of God/On Christian Doctrine Discussions of Souls and Agency
Classical Greek philosophers and early Christian theologians contemplated how humans rightly order their souls. In the Republic, Plato described dualisms between physical bodies and tripartite souls that seek a permanent metaphysical realm, wherein superior otherworldly knowledge can be realized. Conversely, Aristotle described divine souls as the very essence of humans in the Nicomachean Ethics, and thus argued for worldly knowledge due to the entities’ interdependence. Like Plato, Augustine discussed in the City of God immortal souls that leave bodies, but recommended humans avoid “snares” of pursuing knowledge without God’s guidance so their deference results in admission to Heaven.
Ultimately, Plato thought humans lacked free will due to worldly appetites and upbringings; Aristotle emphasized cultivation of virtue and happiness with one’s “divine reason;” and Augustine promised an “eternal peace” for humans if they obeyed God’s will. Thus, they had distinguished ideas of agency.
Plato delineated a tripartite soul with “appetites, spirit, and reason,” of which, humans shall tame the first two and enrich the latter to cultivate knowledge and temperance. However, most lack agency to do so because of their worldliness. He advanced this argument in his criticism of the common man as a “drone” who supersedes his logic with “unnecessary pleasures and appetites,” such as choosing gluttony over good health. Such untamed appetites may lead to destructive behavior. His shining example, however, depicted a man “sound in body and mind” who “feeds on high thoughts and questioning,” in order to calm anger (spirit) and other arousals before sleep and thus can “grasp the truth of things.” Both examples exemplify Plato’s belief in the importance of good upbringings, since they instill “order and restraint,” and prevent the emergence of “an unmanly fool” who must grow old before his inner tumult subsides. They also strengthened Plato’s dualistic view of the body and soul. Since souls’ bodily elements of appetites and spirit often conflict with their pursuits of knowledge, Plato believed in the immortality of “just souls” that separate from bodies to reach an unchanging metaphysical realm wherein truth can be realized. He noted the unreliability of worldly knowledge when he wrote, “a sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused… by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light.” Arguably, Plato sought to annul agency, as it takes a true determinist to view choices as bound to appetites, upbringings, and ignorances caused by a trapped existence, and thus he wanted humans to embrace more metaphysical possibilities.
Aristotle emphasized the interdependence of bodies and divine souls, arguing humans should use their “divine reason” to cultivate virtuousness that “make[s] ourselves immortal.” Such virtue requires reason. He thought the soul embodied humans since they constantly perform other divine acts as well, such as helping neighbors and forming “virtuous friendships.” These acts have divinity because they exemplify virtue, viewing the rational cultivation of it as necessary to the “best and pleasantest [life], since reason more than anything else is man,” virtue as its end. Furthermore, he held that reason distinguishes humans from animals, providing them with the agency to pursue “pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness,” as opposed to temporary pleasures that do not cultivate “philosophic wisdom [which] is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities.” Additionally “self-sufficiency” enables the cultivation of reasonable actions that “aim at some good,” since the philosopher, who he believed exercises the highest level of contemplation, “by himself can contemplate truth… he is the most self-sufficient.” As for those who commit unreasonable crimes, Aristotle offered principles of justice to isolate them from the civil society. Unlike Plato, Aristotle argued for harmonization with this world, implying why he points forward and Plato upward in the majestic School of Athens painting. Ultimately, Aristotle concluded that humans should use reason to cultivate virtue and happiness; unlike Plato, he believed humans have agency, by virtue of their reason, to pursue good lives without mysterious metaphysical answers.
Unlike Aristotle, Augustine argued that humans must obey God’s will to enter the eternal “city of God” (Heaven) in the afterlife, and concern themselves with everything heavenly instead of “earthly.” This means repenting and avoiding sins, “preaching gospel,” and avoiding the “miserable fellowship” of idolatrous people who “worship devils.” Thus, he agreed with the Greek philosophers about the necessity of virtue for souls, along with Plato’s belief in their immortality, but differed on the technicalities. First, he agreed with Plato that immortal souls separate from their bodies after death, yet specified their destinations as the physical Heaven or Hell found in the Bible, whereas Plato obscurely described a metaphysical realm. Secondly, Augustine also agreed with Plato on the irrationality of untamed appetites and viewed rational people as harborers of “peaceful souls,” which sounded similar to Plato’s “harmonized soul.” Yet, he disagreed with Plato again when he wrote, “this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master.” After all, Plato did not believe in a supreme God. Perhaps Augustine believed in free will, but he emphasized serving God, who ultimately determines the fate of humans.
Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine discussed the necessity for humans to order their souls with different approaches to agency. Yet they all sought to teach common ends of truth, righteousness, and happiness, whether they require cultivation in metaphysical realms, the physical world, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Each described actions that humans must take to understand the good life and be sensible citizens, and all believed Western Civilizations required such strong contributors. Thus, Aristotle’s divine man, Plato’s otherworldly human, and Augustine’s citizen of God each exemplified unique standards of ideal citizenship with rightly ordered souls.
Augustine, “City of God,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 365.
 Plato, “The Republic,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 96-97.
Aristotle, “The Nicomachean Ethics,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 147.
Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 325.
Augustine, “City of God,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 364-365.