Unity and Disunity of the Self : Is a unified self a suppressed self?

In the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle the idea that humans could, and should, become unified selves is strongly defended, yet how plausible is this idea? It seems that while there are some reasons to question whether unity is valuable goal, unity gives us the best possible chance to live rich, fully developed lives.

The idea of a unified self posits that all parts of one’s being are integrated in a harmonious way such that one is not conflicted and being driven in one direction by one element of oneself and in one direction by another element of oneself. The Platonic tripartite division of the soul is the classic statement of the idea of the unified self. For Plato, there are three parts of the soul. There is the rational part of the soul, the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul. The rational part of the soul must be in control of the other two parts of the soul, so that one is not driven apart by the different desires associated with the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. This notion of unity is so attractive, because disunity would mean that one was enslaved to particular parts of one’s soul. Whereas, unity would correspond with self-mastery in that one is ordering one’s own soul through reason. Here, it should be noted that when Plato spoke of a soul he merely was referring to animacy, rather than something like the Christian conception of the soul, so soul is not being opposed to body in this context.

Contrastingly, the ideal of unity is seen to be problematic by many for a couple of reasons. Firstly, very few of us if any seem to be able to achieve unity. It seems likely that we all remain slaves to some degree to particular desires and we are driven willy-nilly by them. Consequently, this unity of the self may be an unachievable ideal. Secondly, unity is seen as problematic because any unity may come at the cost of suppressing something fundamental about being human. On this view, there are various fundamental part of the self, and any unity we achieve will come at the expense of something else. For example, if we unify ourselves through reason we will be suppressing the vitality of our emotional life, and if we put our emotions in control we may be suppressing the rational part of our nature. This is powerful critique of the ideal of unity as it seems intuitive to think that if we put one part of our self in control this would suppress other elements of the self that are vitally important to who we are.

The first criticism of the ideal of unity can quite easily be countered by pointing to the fact that even though most of us fail to achieve unity, we tend to know at least one person who has approached this ideal or met it. It may not be an ideal that all can achieve, but it does not seem to be out of reach of all human beings by any stretch of the imagination.

The second criticism poses a deeper challenge but it can be rebutted. While it may be true that there are a variety of elements of the self that are vitally important our humanity, there is really no attractive way of living that does not involve developing the self into some kind of unity. The alternative to unity would be merely to follow whatever drive catches you at that given moment, and to live in this way is to merely be a slave of whatever drive you happen to be beholden to at a particular time. In this case you are not truly self-directing, or in control of the direction of your life. Consequently, the alternative to unity hardly seems attractive.

Even though the alternative to unity presented above seems unattractive I have still not shown why unity might be more attractive. It is that task that I will handle for the rest of this entry. The danger with unity is that we will suppress something fundamental about ourselves and because of that live a life that is impoverished in a certain regard. However, this danger is an inescapable part of living itself, rather than a danger that is associated with the ideal of unity. No matter how we live we will have to make choices that guide us down certain paths and draw us away from others. For example if I choose to live my life as a political activist, this means foregoing the life of a solitary monk. In some sense by making this choice I am in danger of impoverishing myself, as I may fail to develop a tranquil spirit because of the choice that I have made, but if I had chosen the path of the monk I would equally be in danger of impoverishing my life by missing the opportunity to develop the social virtues necessary to be a good activist. So too with unity, the development of unity of the self may come with the suppression of certain elements of the self. Likewise, if I live my live without any direction towards a unified self than I will equally be in danger of impoverishing myself as there is no reason to think that my drives will direct me towards a fulfilling life. Therefore, it seems that ideal of the unity of the self is defensible, and to some extent the only choice we have, for if we do not try to achieve unity we are putting our fate into the hands of whatever our drives happen to do at any particular time, and there is little reason to think that this will lead us to lead rich, fully developed lives.

It should be noted that my defense of unity above is very different from Plato’s, as Plato thought that any person with a unified soul would live the same kind of life and have the same values, whereas I see unity of the self as consistent with individual leading a plurality of different lives and holding a variety of values. However, my defense of unity like Plato’s seeks to defend unity and show that unity gives us the best chance of living a fully developed life.


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