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Popes and the Soul

January 26, 2017


For the past eight years I have taught Plato’s Republic to the freshmen at Borromeo Seminary, the college seminary in Cleveland. To help my students understand and remember Plato’s teaching on the tripartite soul, I assign an article that appeared in the April 1997 issue of First Things entitled, “Tobacco and the Soul,” by Michael P. Foley. In it, Foley assigns three different types of tobacco to the three different parts of Plato’s soul: cigarettes to the appetitive part, cigars to the spirited part, and pipes to the rational part. My seminarians love the piece, and, without fail, a few of them begin to enjoy smoking a pipe for the very first time just as the leaves begin to turn in mid-October.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read Plato’s Republic, here’s a little review.  Socrates makes his way down to the Piraeus and gets caught up in a conversation about the nature of justice first with Cephalus, then Polymarchus, and finally with Thrasymachus. All three characters offer a definition of justice, and, one by one, Socrates exposes the errors of their positions through a delightful and brilliant dialogue. It could be argued that the rest of book is Socrates’ argument for the true nature of justice. 

Socrates begins by examining what justice looks like in the city and insists that the city is made up of three parts, the producers (merchants, artisans, farmers, etc.), the guardians, and the rulers. He then shows that the individual soul is just like the city, except smaller. It too is made of three parts, the appetitive (gut: desire for food, drink and sex), the spirited (heart), and the rational (head). Each part of the city and each part of the soul is to be ruled by a particular virtue: temperance for the producers and the appetitive part, courage for the guardians and the spirited part, and prudence for the rulers and the rational part. When all three parts are doing what they are meant to do, being guided by their particular virtue, justice appears. A just soul, then, whether in the city or in the individual, is a rightly ordered soul. 

As I was writing the questions for my oral exam at the end of the semester, I needed to design a question that would force my students to present the material from the two previous paragraphs of this essay. A straightforward question is always appreciated, but who doesn’t enjoy a little creativity now and then? After all, an appreciation of creativity is what makes my seminarians light up every year when we read Foley’s “Tobacco and the Soul” aloud in class. 

Now the way that I administer my final exam is as follows. I write six questions and give them to my seminarians a week before the exam. Most of my students study both on their own and in a group and then come to my office, dressed in their Sunday best, and have a seat.  I pray a short prayer and then ask the seminarian to roll the six-sided die on the ground between us.  The number that turns up corresponds to the number of the exam question.  For the students who rolled a one, this was the question they had to answer: Apply the tripartite soul to the last three popes of the Catholic Church (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) and offer an argument for identifying each pope with each part. I had my own idea of how each pope aligned with each particular part of the soul, but I was curious to see what my seminarians would have to say. 

Without fail each one of my men assigned each pope to each part of the soul in the exact same manner.  Benedict XVI, the theologian, the consummate professor, and one of the brightest intellectual lights who has ever sat in the chair of Peter aligns with the rational part of the soul. To some Benedict comes off as ‘ivory tower’, which is a critique of philosophers in general, even though his science is theology, not philosophy. His writings are exceptionally clear, he is a master of making distinctions, and he never seems to lose his cool, especially when he’s in a debate.  Read any one of his books and you’ll know you’re dealing with a real genius in Benedict.    

John Paul II, on the other hand, was trained in philosophy but aligns with the spirited part of the soul for a variety of reasons. When John Paul was elected pope, the Church was still working to settle itself after the Second Vatican Council. Being one of the council fathers, he knew the difference between the documents of the Council and the Spirit of Vatican II, and he had to exercise some serious courage in calling back those who had fallen adrift.  He made strong and courageous moves against liberation theology, consumerism, and materialism and equally strong moves for the male celibate priesthood. He was also the pope who courageously fought communism. Some critiqued John Paul for his strong and confident personality, but it was that very charism that drew millions of young people to encounter Christ and the church universal at World Youth Days. Finally, the spirited part of the soul is where the heart resides, and perhaps John Paul’s greatest contribution to the Church was his treatise on incarnate love, his Theology of the Body.

And then there is Francis, the people’s pope. He aligns with the appetitive part of the soul, which is the part concerned with the most basic needs of the human being. Francis said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Francis is also known as the pope of the poor, the one who is constantly calling us to be a church for and with the poor, meeting their most basic needs through the corporal works or mercy. From the moment he first stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in fancy clothes or what he considered to be papal trappings. Some critique Francis for his lack of clarity and for “careless” off-the-cuff remarks, especially in interviews and daily sermons, but very few critique his willingness to smell like the sheep, or like Plato’s craftsmen. 

Most of us have a favorite pope and a favorite part of the soul. But part of the genius of Plato is that for the soul or the state to be just, all three parts need to do what they do best; the rulers need to rule, the guardians need to guard, and the producers need to produce. A soul falls into disorder when a part fails to do what is does best, or when one part attempts to do the work of another part rather than its own, e.g. the ruler tries to weave a basket or the potter tries to defend the city. So too, then, when it comes to popes, we shouldn’t expect one to be like the other. We shouldn’t expect Francis to write with the theological clarity and precision of Benedict, just as we shouldn’t have expected Benedict to work crowds and embrace disfigured and disabled people with the pastoral compassion of Francis, but we should expect some consistency, harmony, and agreement between them. And I think it’s there, but it takes a just soul to see it.