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Executive Summary:

Plato’s speculations and assertions on the nature of human psyche have withstood the test of time and are a useful aid to modern managers. Plato defined the abstract and the rational as equivalent to the moral good. He equated self-knowledge with self-restraint, and proclaimed that knowledge is virtue. According to Plato, the psyche is not made of substance and it is immortal. Plato divided human psyche into three components – the rational, affective and appetitive. Plato understood that the human psyche is in constant exchange with the external social, cultural and political environment. The similarities between Plato’s and Freud’s conceptions of the psyche are relevant to modern business management because Freudian psychoanalysis is well entrenched in Human Resources Management practice. The continued utility of Plato’s theory of the psyche to modern managers is illustrated by its perusal in management seminars and workshops. Even the process of knowledge creation and transfer prevalent in management practice today has parallels to Plato’s ideas on knowledge. Plato’s theory of psyche remains an eminent source of wisdom and counsel to leaders in various fields today.

Introduction:

Plato is one of the most influential philosophers from the Hellenistic Age, whose ideas are still relevant to modern times. Business management as we know it today was not a preoccupation of Plato. For that matter, management of business enterprises under a capitalist framework is a modern phenomenon ushered in by the Industrial Revolution of late 18th century. But Plato was a polymath, who forwarded treatises on a range of subjects. Questions of what constitutes good governance under a monarch was a focus of his thought. When we look closely, there are many parallels between the structure of a kingdom and that of a business corporation. Both are more or less authoritarian institutions with a top-down power hierarchy. With the net worth of many Fortune 500 corporations is equivalent to the GDP of some nations, corporate houses are rightly referred to as ‘empires’ in management literature. Hence, although the thoughts of Plato and that of Peter Drucker are separated by two millennia, the former can be seen as a management guru in his own right. In particular, Plato’s speculations and assertions on the nature of human psyche have withstood the test of time and are a useful aid to modern managers. This essay will flesh out this thesis in detail.

Body of Essay:

It is fair to state that of all ancient Greek philosophers, it was Plato, who defined and characterized the nature of the psyche in great detail. Plato was the one who “defined the abstract and the rational as equivalent to the moral good. He equated self-knowledge with self-restraint, and proclaimed that knowledge is virtue…. Lack of knowledge and the irrational, were equated with moral evil, and then, with madness.” (Buckley, 2001, p. 452) For Plato, the ‘soma’ makes up the physical body, while the psyche is the what animates a body and gives it life. Psyche is what distinguishes a living creature from a dead one. The body, on the other hand, plays host to the psyche and can either restrict or extend the expression of psyche.

According to Plato, the psyche is not made of substance and it is immortal. Plato divided human psyche into three components – the rational, affective and appetitive. In simple terms, examples of appetites or desires are thirst, hunger, etc. The ability to overcome the appetites is the function of the rational. And the appetitive, also called the Spirit is the moral compass as attuned by social norms. He defined conflict as a “struggle between the rational and the appetitive portions with each trying to enlist the affective portion on its side.” (Buckley, 2001, p.453) For example, conflicts could arise in simple situation like these: I know it is wrong to lie, but can’t help myself in certain situations; I know it is morally corrupt to covet other men’s wives but I still end up looking at them lustfully; etc.

It is a testimony to the amazing imagination and intellect of the great ancient philosopher that an analogous tripartite view of the mind was formulated by Sigmund Freud two millennia later. Plato’s three divisions of the psyche is similar to Freud’s structural model of ego, id and superego.

“Thus we have an early tripartite view of the mind that echoes Freud’s later structural model of ego, id, and superego. Plato saw mental illness as a consequence of an imbalance whereby the unbridled instinctual part gains the upper hand. Treatment is through the Platonic dialogue, a precursor of the psychoanalytic dialogue that brings the conflicting parts of the mind into harmony and reasserts control over the irrational part of the psyche. The philosophical dialogue, however, differs radically from the psychoanalytic dialogue, by attempting to discard the emotions, whereas in the analytic dialogue emotions are at the center of the treatment.” (Buckley, 2001, p.454)

The similarities between Plato’s and Freud’s conceptions of the psyche are relevant to modern business management. This is so because Freudian psychoanalysis is well entrenched in Human Resources Management practice. Employee counseling, employee motivation, etc, draw heavily from modern psychology, especially Freud. And the Public Relations industry, in particular, is almost solely based on theory and practice of modern psychoanalysis. For example, contemporary consumer culture works by attracting customers with ego-stroking advertisement messages and by creating an illusory sense of security. This is nothing but adapting and exploiting theories of the psyche for commercial gain. (Russell, 2005, p.56)

Plato understood that the human psyche is in constant exchange with the external social, cultural and political environment and these are “fundamentally shaped by the movement of meanings from polis to psyche and back again”. (Plato, 1957, p.41) The ecosystem of the business corporation has its own social, cultural and political content, thus enabling an application of Plato’s theory of the psyche to it. Plato works out one of the most insightful accounts of psychosocial degeneration ever formulated. Contemporary object-relations theorists, if they revisit the works of Plato, will find concurrence with his account of psychopathology. For Plato, the influence of polis on psyche and vice versa is largely unconscious. (Stevenson, 1987) According to him, most of human experience is illusory. In the classic Parable of the Cave narrated by Plato,

“we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, strapped to a wall and forced to watch the projections of images onto the opposite wall which we mistake not only for reality, but for ourselves. We are, on this account, strangers to ourselves. But for Plato, there is therapeutic potential in pushing hard at contradictions inherent in the illusions themselves. Every image is a shadow, a distortion of something bearing more reality than it. In focusing on the distortion we can painfully and slowly work our way toward what the distortion is a distortion of. Once again Plato plants the hope of avoiding despair. (Buckley, 2001, p.459)

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