A tiny minority

In The Republic and elsewhere, Plato famously divides human nature into three parts: appetite, will, and reason. If you picture an isosceles triangle divided by two horizontal lines, the biggest of the three sections that result is appetite, at the base of the triangle. The middle portion is will. The smallest part, at the tip of the triangle, is reason. Appetite and reason are self-explanatory. Will (sometimes translated as “spirit”) is that part of us that determines to do something, just because. Think of the dog who insists on jumping up onto dad’s favourite chair, which has been forbidden to him, even though there are plenty of other comfortable spots available.

Plato thought that we share the lower two parts of our nature, appetite and will, with the other animals. Reason, exclusive to humans, was the part that made us different from other animals, and better. Christian theologians adopted Plato’s scheme. In Dante’s Inferno, Hell is imagined as a giant cone with its point at the centre of the earth. Look at it in cross-section, and it is Plato’s triangle, upside-down. In the upper sections are the sins of the appetite—lust, gluttony, greed, etc. Lower down, in the middle section, are sins of the will—violence, most notably. At the very bottom are the worst sins, those resulting from perversion and misuse of our reason—fraud, deceit, and treason. Those sins are the worst because they take the highest, best, and most god-like part of our nature—reason—and use it for evil purposes.

As Dante makes his way through Hell, he continually exclaims at how many damned souls he sees—multitudes, crowds, hordes, and so on. I have been thinking about Plato’s triangle and Dante’s Inferno more and more often. How many people do you know who live mostly to gratify their appetites and their will? How many cultivate their intellects? And of those who cultivate their intellect, how many of them use that faculty of reason for good purposes? In Dante, the damned are described as those who have “lost the good of intellect” (Canto III), and the souls of the damned are countless.

Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are, of course, mirror images of the living world. Those who are not consumed by appetite and will, who use their reason, and use it to do good . . . are a tiny, tiny minority.

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