Plato’s Tripartite Theory of Soul vs the Stoic Monistic Soul with Varying Tension

Plato had the conception that the soul was composed of three parts:  reason, emotion, and desire/appetite.  This is somewhat useful because it explains some of our ideas about how our conception of the self works.  The rational area of the soul, which was the pinnacle, loves truth and wisdom.  The emotional area of the soul loves honor and victory.  Finally, the appetite area of the soul loves pleasure and money.  When reason was operating correctly it had the virtue wisdom, emotions operating correctly had the virtue courage, and the appetites working correctly had the virtue temperance.  As a result of three parts of the soul working correctly by achieving wisdom, courage, and temperance, the virtue justice would arise.  Justice was a result of a healthy soul with each of its three parts working properly.

The Stoic conception of the soul is much more unified.  The Stoics believed the soul or pneuma (breath) is an active material that was present throughout your passive material body, present in other organisms, in inanimate objects, and throughout the whole universe itself.  The Stoics classified the pneuma as having four different types of tensile strengths.  The most rarefied of pneuma was reason itself present only in humans.  The least rarefied pneuma was present throughout the whole universe including humans.

The Stoics weren’t exactly panpsychists but they were “panpneumists.”  They believe that an active airy/fiery breath was present throughout the cosmos and the most rarefied in the body of humans, specifically in the area of the brain (although they were once mistaken and thought reason was in the heart).

Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, as intuitive as it sounds, isn’t psychologically helpful.  Plato had the idea that reason is a charioteer that steers two horses, a white horse which is emotion and a black horse which is desire.  Unfortunately reason doesn’t exactly operate that way in my humble opinion.  Reason doesn’t command emotions and desires, reason persuades emotions and desires by using therapy.  The Stoics invented several techniques we can rationally use to persuade our emotions/desires and not have to compel them like a tyrant.  If we try to compel our emotions/desires like a tyrant, they’ll push back.

In fact, the source of our negative emotions has a lot do with our reason itself making false judgments about externals.  If we fix this issue by forming the correct judgments about externals our negative desires/sentiments will dissipate.  Reason cannot remove negative passions until reason has fixed itself.  Once you remove incorrect judgments from your rational faculty, your emotions will calm down and you’ll even feel some joy from this experience.

Paolo Monti - Servizio fotografico (Napoli, 1969) - BEIC 6353768.jpg



The Ontology of the Stoics and Epicureans

The Stoics borrowed their arche of the universe from Heraclitus.  Heraclitus believed that the universal element of all things was ultimately fire.  It’s not clear whether he believed this metaphorically or literally.  Heraclitus believed the universe always in a state of becoming, never any substantial being to anything.  Everything was in a state of flux.

One can suppose that Heraclitus believed fire was the primary element of the universe because he saw everything always in a state of process or transience, things going in and out of existence.  A fire starts, burns, and then extinguishes itself.  Similarly things are born, sustain for a little while, and then die.

The Logos, which is the word, law, or order of everything is itself fire and manifestly orders the world.  Heraclitus saw the Logos as containing contradiction: day/night, birth/death, winter/summer, love/strife, war/peace, etc, etc.  The Logos was the unifying principle of opposites and it explained why people had contradictory opinions.  But the Logos was the ultimate truth because it contained all things and all opposites.

The Epicureans borrowed their arche of the universe from Democritus.  Democritus believed that all change in the universe was a result of changeless atoms that moved through the void.  Democritus had the idea that if you kept cutting things into pieces, you’d eventually yield indivisible pieces that could no longer be cut any further:  atoms.

Democritus actually had a pretty good idea about how atoms and the void were real but our impression of sweetness, bitter, cold, hot, color were all in our heads.  Democritus believed that only atoms and the void were real but everything else built from atoms was an illusion.  This is particularly interesting because it seems almost like a time travelling physicist went back in time and told Democritus that this was really how the universe was ordered.

The Stoics basically took the idea of the Logos and made it into a deterministic driving force of the universe not too dissimilar to Heraclitus.  The Epicureans took the idea of the atoms and void and made it into a system of randomness with coincidental order.  The Epicureans believed that everything was pretty much randomly produced from atoms and then dispersed back into atoms.

Because of the Stoic’s notion of the universe as deterministic and orderly, they essentially had to believe free will was somehow compatible with determinism.  Because of the Epicurean’s notion of the universe as indeterministic and chaotic, they essentially believed free will was totally enabled by atoms being able to randomly swerve and thus people were able to freely do things without being dictated by prior causes.

It’s interesting to think that the Stoic notion of determinism and the Epicurean notion of indeterminism basically foretold 20th century physics.  On the macroscopic level, the universe appears to be deterministic.  On the quantum level, the universe appears to be indeterministic.  It really makes you think that physicists from the 20th century told the Epicureans and Stoics incomplete information about the cosmos and told them that was how things actually were.

A drawing of a Lithium atom. In the middle is the nucleus, which in this case has four neutrons (blue) and three protons (red). Orbiting it are its three electrons.pexels-photo-207353.jpeg

Who was right about the Cosmos? Epicureans or Stoics?

Out of the Epicureans and Stoics, who was right about the Cosmos?  Both!  Marcus Aurelius said he’d follow Stoic ethics whether or not the universe was random or providential (specifically deterministic).  Well, it turns out they were both right.

The Epicureans believed that the universe was composed of atoms that swerve randomly/chaotically.  We were just an assortment of atoms and the void.  Well, they were basically right.  Only atoms as we now know them are actually divisible (as opposed to what atom actually means in the Greek “indivisible).  The real “atoms” of today are like quarks and leptons.  On the quantum level, quarks and leptons and even atoms behave randomly.  We can only probabilistically determine what their momentum or position will be.  Quantum mechanics agrees very strongly with Epicureans.

What about the Stoics and their notion of the Logos?  Well, Logos is just a law of the universe.  It turns out that today there are many laws.  Physicists hope to unify all the laws of the universe into one fundamental laws that we can derive all the lawlike equations from.  The Stoics were definitely right to believe there was something lawlike to how matter proceeded through time.  There are lots of patterns in nature that science has now revealed to us.  There’s a rhyme and reason to almost everything today.  We just need sophisticated computers to spit out equations that let us know the rhyme and reason.

What’s more?  The idea of Logos as a fiery animate matter organizing inanimate matter may seem far fetched.  But what if we replaced fiery animate matter with energy?  Energy is the ability of matter to do work on other matter.  It’s not clear exactly what the Stoics had in mind but it sounds kind of like energy when they talk about the fiery Logos.  Not just the lawlike behavior of it but its input of energy.



Stoics: there is only the fiery Logos and its providence
Epicureans: there is only the atoms and the void
Aristotle: there is exactly five elements and earth is at the center of all the elements
Plato: there is only abstract entities and matter is an illusion
Skeptics: it is impossible to know what is
Diogenes the Cynic: there is only this barrel. It’s a really nice urn, it keeps me sheltered at night. It’s made of the finest ceramic.

12 Reasons Jordan Peterson is Not a Stoic

12 Reasons Why Jordan B. Peterson is not a Stoic

1. He believes the universe is balanced between chaos and order. Stoics believed in an orderly universe.

2. He doesn’t believe that reason is what makes humans significant or important. The Stoics believed that reason was the most important human faculty. Instead, JB Peterson believes creativity is the most important.

3. He believes there are strong differences between men and women. Stoics believed that women and men were more or the less the same due to sharing reason as their faculty.

4. He makes a false dichotomy between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. The Stoics believed in some form of wealth redistribution or even radical material equality like in Zeno’s Republic.

5. JB Peterson is radically individualist. The Stoics were moderately collectivist.

6. Peterson believes responsibility is the answer to nihilism. The Stoics believe virtue is the answer to nihilism.

7. Peterson believes in a collective unconsciousness of archetypes. The Stoics believed in a material universe full of Logos.

8. Peterson is a Judeo-Christian in orientation. The Stoics were Greco-Roman in orientation.

9. Peterson is more Aristotelian than Stoic. Peterson believes you need certain externals to live a fruitful life.

10. Peterson believes in libertarian free will. The Stoics are compatibilist.

11. Peterson uses anger as a way to create change. The Stoics don’t believe in using anger.

12. Peterson’s concept of the Logos is Christian. Logos is Christ. The Stoics use the old Heraclitian concept of the Logos.