The mind of Plato, Jefferson and Hume. Who is right?

…one of the greatest truths in psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. To be human is to feel pulled in different directions, and to marvel—sometimes in horror—at your inability to control your own actions. The Roman poet Ovid lived at a time when people thought diseases were caused by imbalances of bile, but he knew enough psychology to have one of his characters lament: “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong”.

Ancient thinkers gave us many metaphors to understand this conflict, but few are more colorful than the one in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. The narrator, Timaeus, explains how the gods created the universe, including us. Timaeus says that a creator god who was perfect and created only perfect things was filling his new universe with souls—and what could be more perfect in a soul than perfect rationality? So after making a large number of perfect, rational souls, the creator god decided to take a break, delegating the last bits of creation to some lesser deities, who did their best to design vessels for these souls.

The deities began by encasing the souls in that most perfect of shapes, the sphere, which explains why our heads are more or less round. But they quickly realized that these spherical heads would face difficulties and indignities as they rolled around the uneven surface of the Earth. So the gods created bodies to carry the heads, and they animated each body with a second soul—vastly inferior because it was neither rational nor immortal. This second soul contained

“…those dreadful but necessary disturbances: pleasure, first of all, evil’s most powerful lure; then pains, that make us run away from what is good; besides these, boldness also and fear, foolish counselors both; then also the spirit of anger hard to assuage, and expectation easily led astray. These they fused with unreasoning sense perception and all-venturing lust, and so, as was necessary, they constructed the mortal type of soul.”

Pleasures, emotions, senses … all were necessary evils. To give the divine head a bit of distance from the seething body and its “foolish counsel,” the gods invented the neck.

Most creation myths situate a tribe or ancestor at the center of creation, so it seems odd to give the honor to a mental faculty—at least until you realize that this philosopher’s myth makes philosophers look pretty darn good. It justifies their perpetual employment as the high priests of reason, or as dispassionate philosopher-kings. It’s the ultimate rationalist fantasy—the passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume’s formulation. And just in case there was any doubt about Plato’s contempt for the passions, Timaeus adds that a man who masters his emotions will live a life of reason and justice, and will be reborn into a celestial heaven of eternal happiness. A man who is mastered by his passions, however, will be reincarnated as a woman.

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions.

Thomas Jefferson offered a more balanced model of the relationship between reason and emotion. In 1786, while serving as the American minister to France, Jefferson fell in love. Maria Cosway was a beautiful twenty-seven-year-old English artist who was introduced to Jefferson by a mutual friend. Jefferson and Cosway then spent the next few hours doing exactly what people should do to fall madly in love. They strolled around Paris on a perfect sunny day, two foreigners sharing each other’s aesthetic appreciations of a grand city. Jefferson sent messengers bearing lies to cancel his evening meetings so that he could extend the day into night. Cosway was married, although the marriage seems to have been an open marriage of convenience, and historians do not know how far the romance progressed in the weeks that followed. But Cosway’s husband soon insisted on taking his wife back to England, leaving Jefferson in pain.

To ease that pain, Jefferson wrote Cosway a love letter using a literary trick to cloak the impropriety of writing about love to a married woman. Jefferson wrote the letter as a dialogue between his head and his heart debating the wisdom of having pursued a “friendship” even while he knew it would have to end. Jefferson’s head is the Platonic ideal of reason, scolding the heart for having dragged them both into yet another fine mess. The heart asks the head for pity, but the head responds with a stern lecture:

…Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, and see which preponderates.

After taking round after round of abuse rather passively, the heart finally rises to defend itself, and to put the head in its proper place—which is to handle problems that don’t involve people:

…when nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it. In like manner, in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their control. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.

So now we have three models of the mind. Plato said that reason ought to be the master, even if philosophers are the only ones who can reach a high level of mastery. Hume said that reason is and ought to be the servant of the passions. And Jefferson gives us a third option, in which reason and sentiment are (and ought to be) independent co-rulers, like the emperors of Rome, who divided the empire into eastern and western halves.

…who is right? 


Haidt, Jonathan. “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

The mind of Plato, Jefferson and Hume. Who is right? by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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