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How to use Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul to enhance academic performance

By Mariana Rodrigues

Although he was only alive all the way back in 400-300 BCE, Plato’s contributions are still relevant to modern-day societies, or better yet, modern-day students. Plato was a Greek philosopher, taught by Socrates, and later teaching Aristotle. His philosophical pursuits touched on subjects including ethics, cosmology, metaphysics, and more. One of his more interesting intellectual contributions is his theory of the tripartite soul. He believed that the human soul was composed of three distinct parts, which complemented one another to form individuals of different compositions of each one. With this, comes the theory of the tripartite soul. These three parts can most simply be described as logical, spirited, and appetitive.

The logical part, logistikon, is characterised by its dependence on rational thinking, reasoning, and logic. It allows one to ground themselves, and keep sight of what is real and fantasy. More objective than otherwise, this part of the soul is also the most likely to make wise, fair decisions in light of the circumstances in question. Those in which this part of the soul is the most predominant find these traits to be more deeply rooted in their daily lives and consciousness.

Next, there is the spirited part, thymoeides, which is responsible for intense emotions. Anger and temper were thought to be included in these emotions, but Plato considered this part of the soul as also being tied to the desire to do good. Similarly to how the spirit encourages anger, it can also encourage passion and courage. Because of this, thymoeides was thought to be the predominant part of the soul in ancient soldiers, as they were believed to demonstrate utmost valour and bravery. Plato found that this part should be partnered with logic, as the two could, together, set one towards the path of justice.

Finally, we have the appetitive part, epithymetikon, which is representative of common desires and day-to-day necessities. It touches on human impulses, wishes, and general basic instincts of self-preservation as well as enjoyment. It is, however, often greedy in its pursuits, and less grounded in long-term concerns, which is not to say it is inherently bad.

Technically, any three parts can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the individual if dangerously balanced. Ideally, all three exist in harmony, with one or the other being in charge. The different combinations end up accounting for different personalities. Still, if any one part is not moderated by the presence of a counterpart, it can be risky to general well-being, and general success, as each one contains traits necessary for leading a healthy life.

Even if one chooses to perceive or describe the human soul differently, it is undeniable that such aspects are present in just about anyone. And so, in paying attention to them and working to preserve their relative balance, it is possible to become more well-rounded, and suited towards achieving goals.

One of the defining traits of a student is to apply oneself to gain knowledge in a designated subject area. Knowingly, this cannot be done without persistent effort and dedication. In a school setting, this effort will spread itself over the course of many years, but it is always possible to increase devotion to school without compromising personal well-being. The key is to maintain equilibrium. Picture the three parts of the soul as objects on a scale. If any one of them weighs too much, the whole thing tips over. Luckily, with this example, slight imbalances are perfectly normal, but still, maintaining them as healthily balanced as possible is recommended.

It may seem counterintuitive to advise someone to stray away from a 100% logical approach to learning. However, in the long run, teachings that are embedded with some form of deeper emotional connection are much more likely to stick. Because of this, beyond every rational lesson taught in school, it is important to search for personal connections. This may be harder in some situations than others, but primarily, creating a space in which your logical reasoning and deeper emotions can interact allows you to harbour greater passion for learning. Passion goes hand-in-hand with devotion, which can serve as a perfect source of motivation.

Motivation on its own, however, cannot get you very far without the aid of discipline. It is one thing to want to do something, or to see the benefit of learning, studying, etc. It is entirely something else to sit down and get done. Because of this, respecting the appetitive side of the soul is crucial. Time devoted to engaging in fun activities regularly, and honouring your inner desires, be it going out to a party, taking a day off, etc, is just as important as devoting time to regular studying. This part of the soul is often mistaken as being dangerous if taken out of proportionate. Nevertheless, controlling it lies in moderation, not abstinence.

Depriving yourself of doing things you enjoy will only result in anguish and irritation. Instead, organise your time. Again, the key is balance. Spending three hours of your day engaging in seemingly meaningless activities is just as impractical as three consecutive hours of non-stop studying. Although parts of daily routine related to logic, reasoning, and study are often more time-consuming, that does not mean they cannot coexist with the spirit and appetite. Logical thought can often help you make sense of emotions and desires, and understand their underlying causes and effects on you as a person. This emotional and personal awareness is just as important in the path towards improvement as knowing which subject areas you struggle most with.

As you move up your MYP and DP life, workloads will grow increasingly more demanding and challenging. Because of this, it is important to understand the balancing act of school. By learning to use Plato’s theory early on, you may set yourself up for success, and prevent unnecessary struggles. When you find yourself dealing with several deadlines piled up together, consider the following: Which assignments will logically take the most time? Which assignments cause the most stress or displeasure? What other activities would I rather engage in that are distracting me from this work?

Once you have briefly outlined the questions above, work towards understanding them, and dividing your time and energy. So, let’s say you have to do the following: write an essay on a topic you dislike, study for a difficult exam, and begin simple research on an interesting topic. Meanwhile, you wish to enjoy your weekend by watching your favourite movie. The essay will be daunting and time-consuming, but you will enjoy the quick research, whereas the exam is likely stressful AND time-consuming. With this, sectioning your time to ensure maximum comfort is key.

For instance, start with either of the time-consuming activities. While you could write the essay in one go, studying for the exam is better done if the studies are spread out. Once you have spent an adequate amount of time on this chosen activity, move on to the research. The research, which is more enjoyable, can serve as a small ‘break’ as you spend your day working. After some research has been done, resume the previous task, or start the other. Note that it is not always necessary to completely finish one task before moving on to the next. For some people, spending a little bit of time working on multiple tasks is more dynamic and beneficial than doing one task in its entirety before moving on to the next, but this is a matter of personal preference. At the end of the day (or when you feel satisfied with your productivity for the day), make sure to engage in the activity that would have distracted you previously! The secret is to understand the implications of different tasks and order them in ways that not only make sense to you, but that can create a dynamic routine.

Enhancing your academic performance is much more than attaining a higher grade on an exam. Instead, think of it as the prolonged journey towards a better mindset towards not just learning and school, but also how it can mesh with the rest of your life. Although anyone’s life and routine, let alone their soul, can accurately be split into only 3 categories, allow Plato’s theory to serve as a guide. Understanding the three parts of the soul, their importance, and how they appear most commonly in your daily life is the first step towards finding a perfect balance.


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