LESSONS LEARNED from Plato: A Model For Self-mastery

Nowadays, more than ever, everyone fights for our attention. Consider the fact that the market determines the value of tech-companies by how many clicks we give them—how much of our attention they occupy. Self-mastery is essential so that we can avoid getting sucked in and put time into things that we value most. Especially, since there are only 24 hours in a day, and we spend about two-thirds of them working or sleeping. Do we spend the time we do have power over with people and activities we care most about? In Book 9 of The Republic of Plato, Socrates shares an excellent allegory suitable for anyone who wants to gain self-mastery.

The Republic, like many of Plato’s writings, contains dialogues between Socrates and other people philosophizing about various topics. In this work, Plato focuses on the concept of justice as it applies to cities and within individuals. In Book 4, he demonstrates how the soul has three parts: calculating, spirited, and desiring (436a-441c). The calculating part is in charge of making decisions, reasoning and thinking. The spirited part energizes the body to take action; it houses emotions and convictions. The desiring part has to do with bodily needs, such as hunger or fatigue. Plato describes Socrates as using the soul-city analogy to compare different governments throughout The Republic (e.g. 441d-442d).  This article is not meant to go into how Plato compares the soul to governing types, so the information provided will suffice.

The Allegory of the Many-headed Beast, paraphrased:
Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a colorful beast with many heads. Some of the heads are of tame animals and others of savage ones. Then, there is also an image of a lion and man. They are all molded together in one, and put into a human body; so that, from the outside, no one knows which creature is being feed—which is the strongest of all. Socrates says unjust people are those who feed all the different beasts and starves the man. He says, we do justice to our lives when the human being takes charge and, like a farmer, nourishes the tame animals and uses the lion to hinder the growth of the savage beasts. (Original text below.)

The many-colored, many-headed beast are the many desires within human beings. The lion symbolizes the spirited part of the soul. The man represents the calculating, decision-making mind. According to Socrates, one is just if the “man” is the dominate force within us; that means, we put knowledge and reason over our personal ambitions, desires, or biases. If we were to reflect on injustices we have witnessed in our life, we would see that they were the result of partial information or not being able to understand all the possible perspectives. That concept, in and of itself, is a lesson to be slow to judge and quick to try to understand.

Returning to our intent to gain self-mastery, I will propose some steps to put the human being in charge of the little beasts within us:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Assess values
  3. Create plans for adjustments
  4. Implement
  5. Reassess regularly

Self-awareness — Many times we are unaware of our behavior or our use of time. Try keeping track of how much time you spend on activities for a c0uple of days; this may reveal where you tend to lose time. One way to become aware of imperfect behavior is to humbly ask a loved one about them. It is important to keep an open mind and not get defensive. If you do not know how to react or are having a negative emotional reaction, it is better so say: ‘Thank you for your honesty. I will think about what you have suggested.’ Humility is the key to self-improvement. We should be able to pinpoint our shortcoming or there can be no improvement.

Assess values — After we are aware of how we spend our time and are more conscious of our behavior, we need to assess if they align with what we value. You may need to take inventory of what you value most. Do you value time with family, a hobby, or some other activity? Jesus said: Where your treasure is, there will be your heart be also (Matt 6:21). I would add: Where your time is spent, there will be your treasure. Of course, we should all sleep the recommended 7-8 hours, get the chores done and “make a living.” The question is: how much are you actually living? Maybe you found that you spend too much time wandering the internet or watching TV, but you value family time or have always wanted to get active in the community; your actions do not agree with your values and it may (consciously or unconsciously) cause internal turmoil. With sincere introspection, you will meet at the crossroads of the self and cultural practices. There could be values you inherited from family, society, or religion that have been deeply ingrained but are not really a part of your core values. We need to harmonize our true values with our action because it can be a source of satisfaction in our lives. If we put reason in charge, we are no longer feeding the beasts of compulsive living.

Create plans for adjustments — “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” (Benjamin Franklin) When are you going to take action? New habits and skills are developed through repetition. It is best to couple a desired behavior with a practice already a part of our daily routine, otherwise it will never become a new habit. For example: ‘Everyday after dinner, I will give my undivided attention to a family member for 15 minutes.’ Or, ‘An hour before I go to bed, I will make time to study and read.’ Do not over schedule yourself. Leave time for flexibility and spontaneity. But do not uncouple the new behavior, it should become automatic—it will become a part of you.

Implement — If we are talking about a physical action, we have already covered it. Now do it!  However, if we are talking about a character trait, Plato might suggest really contemplating the idea until you get to the essence of it. In The Republic, Socrates takes the audience through an exploration of the meaning of justice. In the end, Socrates arrives to an eternal, spiritual concept for the individual rather than a societal application. We can find the truth about anything by reading about it in books and taking time to ponder it. Your new understanding should fuel new actions and, like I said before, become a part of you. 

Reassess — For better or worse, we are creatures of habit. If we do not practice a life of contemplation on a regular basis, we will be prone to fall into old habits. Maybe you will need to schedule in your calendar or phone a reminder to reasses your progress. Also, reassessments could be an opportunity go through steps 1-4 again. The process of gaining self-mastery should be freeing, not a burden. Human beings naturally find it rewarding to put our heart, body, and mind in harmony; so don’t give up, it is worth it.

Most cultures and religions speak of a soul or a spirit that gives life to the body; although, those who do not believe can still use this analogy symbolically to their benefit. However, because that is what I am familiar with, I will take the liberty to draw connections between LDS doctrine and Plato’s belief of the soul.

The Bible teaches that “the body without spirit is dead” (James 2:26, KJV). The body (or the flesh) has its own tendencies. In a letter to the early Christians in Galata from Paul, he wrote:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: o the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)

The manifestations of the flesh, as listed by Paul, could easily be desires of a “many-colored, many-headed beast.”

LDS doctrine holds that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15). Therefore, in terms of vocabulary, the tri-part nature of the soul can be soul described by Plato can be reaffirmed by modern revelation. The Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of prophetic revelations), speaks of two parts of the spirit, one intelligent and the other material (D&C 131:7-8); both are eternal (D&C 93:33). The intelligent part of the spirit is responsible for making decisions (D&C 93:30).

The Allegory of the Many-headed Beast, original English text:

Socrates: “By molding an image of the soul in speech so that the man who says these things will see just what he has been saying.”
Glaucon: “What sort of image?”
“One of those natures such as the tales say used to come into being in olden times—the Chimæra,Scylla, and certain others, a throng of them, which are said to have many ideas grown naturally together in one.”
“Yes,” he said, “they do tell such things.”
“Well then, mold a single idea for a many-colored, many-headed beast that has a ring of heads of tame and savage beasts and can change them and make all of them grow from itself.”
“That’s a job for a clevar molder,” he said. “But, nevertheless, since speech is more easily molded than wax and the like, consider it as molded.”
“Now, then, mold another single idea for lion, and a single one for a human being. Let the first be by far the greatest, and the second, second in size.”
“That’s easier,” he said, “and the molding is done.”
“Well, then, join them—they are three—in one, so that in some way they grow naturally together with each other.”
“They are joined,” he said.
“Then mold about them on the outside an image of one—that of the human being—so that to the man who’s not able to see what’s inside, but sees only the outer shell, it looks like one animal, a human being.”
“The outer mold is in place,” he said.
“Then let’s say to the one who says that it’s profitable for this human being to do injustice, and that it’s not advantageous for him to do just things, that he’s affirming nothing other than that it is profitable for him to feast and make strong thr manifold beast and the lion and what’s connected to the lion, while starving th human being and making him weak so that he can be drawn wherever either of the others leads and doesn’t habituate them to one another or make them friends but lets them bite and fight and devour each other.”
“That,” he said, “is exactly what would be meant by the man who praises doing injustice.”
“On the other hand, wouldn’t the one who says the just things are profitable affirm that it is necessary to do and say those things from the human being within must be in control of the human being and take charge of the many-headed beast — like the farmer, nourshing and cultivating the tame heads, while hindering the growth of the savage ones — making them friends with each other and himself, and so rear them?”
“That is exactly what in turn is meant by the just man who praises the just.”
“In every respect, surely, the man who lauds the just things would speak the truth and the man who lauds the unjust ones would lie. For, considering pleasure, good reputation, and benefit, the praiser of the just tells the truth, while the blamer says nothing healthy and blames without knowing who he blames.”

(588b-589c, translated by Allan Bloom)

I, originally, had no intention to write a self-help article, but that is what it turned out to be. I felt that the insight I learned from the allegory, left in the abstract, would be of little use to anyone, so I added some personal advise as to how it could be applied. I hope it was helpful and you enjoyed reading it. Best wishes, TH


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