Two weeks ago, the Tiger Woods scandal was returned to the news by reports that Woods was receiving treatment for sex addiction. While many may have welcomed this sordid story’s earlier disappearance, it in fact deserves serious consideration because of what it says about our culture and, in fact, about our very humanity. So far, commentary on possible deeper meanings of the Woods scandal has focused on matters such as our preoccupation with celebrity and the possibility, in a modern media age, of crafting a public personality wholly at odds with one’s real character. As a student and teacher of political philosophy, however, Woods’s sad fall from respectability reminded me of Plato’s account of the human soul. What we have learned about Tiger Woods, combined with what we already knew about him, may not confirm the truth of Plato’s psychology, but it at least confirms its relevance to the human situation even today. Paradoxically, from this most contemporary downfall we learn that our civilization’s most ancient wisdom is still worthy of our careful consideration.
According to Plato’s Republic, the human soul, or psyche, can be understood as made up of three distinct parts: desire, spiritedness, and reason. The Republic is famous for, among other things, its comparison of the city or political community and the soul. In the soul as in the city, when we have one thing made up of different elements, the question arises: who should be in charge, who should rule? According to Plato, in a properly ordered soul reason rules over the desires with the assistance of spiritedness, the seat of our capacity for shame and anger. One might halt the discussion here and conclude with the obvious point that Tiger Woods got into trouble precisely because his reason was not ruling his passions but vice versa, that, on Plato’s view, he has a disordered soul and suffered the misfortunes that tend to befall such souls. This is true so far as it goes, but there is yet more to Plato’s account, and more to what we can learn about Woods and ourselves from it.
As Plato develops his account of the soul, he reveals that, despite the simplicity of his initial formulation (according to which one part was characterized by desire), each of the three parts of the soul in fact possesses its own proper desire. The “desiring part,” it turns out, longs specifically for the satisfaction of the pleasures of the body, especially those associated with food, drink, and sex. Spiritedness he presents as the victory- and honor-loving part of the soul. Finally, reason desires wisdom, understood as knowledge of what is truly good. According to Plato, moreover, the rule of reason in the soul is appropriate because reason’s desire is the most authoritative of all the desires experienced by the soul. Reason, after all, is what makes us distinctively human. All animals experience the passions of the body, and some animals—such as dogs or horses—can be said to be spirited, to show a kind of love of self-assertion and status. Only human beings, however, manifest a desire for knowledge of the good. Reason, therefore, more than any other part of us, is our true self, the core of our humanity; and when its desire is unmet the soul as a whole is frustrated and unhappy.
To this high standard of human goodness Plato adds a sober realism about what is in fact usually achieved by human beings. While he holds that reason will rule in a properly ordered soul, he is not so naïve as to think that this is what usually happens. For, as Plato concedes, while reason is the best part of us, it is not ordinarily the biggest or strongest part. His account of the soul, accordingly, is useful not only as a guide to the best human type but to the various imperfect human types that we normally encounter. The different human types arise because different parts of the soul tend to dominate in different people. The few for whom reason rules as it should are lovers of wisdom or philosophers. In some spiritedness rules, and they spend their lives in the pursuit of victory and honor. In most, however, the desiring element dominates, and the majority of human beings accordingly seem to live their lives around a pursuit of materialistic pleasures.
Returning now to the present, we may ask: what light does all this shed on Tiger Woods, our culture, and our humanity?
The case of Tiger Woods is so striking because he seems to have pushed two of the three parts of the soul to their most extreme limits, with damaging but instructive consequences. Prior to the revelations about his numerous marital infidelities, one would almost certainly have defined Tiger Woods as a spirited type—indeed, as the best public example of the spirited type since the retirement of Michael Jordan. His life was, to all outward appearances, organized around an unremitting quest for victory and honor. He made his living in a competitive endeavor to which he brought an unmatched dedication to practice in the pursuit of perfection. Moreover, Woods stands out not only as a spirited lover of honor but as a remarkably successful one. As was the case with Michael Jordan, he is better at his sport than any living person, may be better at it than any person so far, and will certainly be known to history as one of the best ever to play it.
It would seem—as Plato would have predicted, but as too few of us suspected—that not even the nearly perfect satisfaction of his spirited desires that Tiger Woods achieved was enough to answer his soul’s deepest longings. He was the best at what he did and the object of almost universal admiration for it. Yet his soul still hungered for something more. For Plato, such hunger is potentially instructive regarding our true nature: it should be taken as a sign that our deepest happiness is not to be found in the satisfaction of spirited desire, and that we should accordingly turn to the quest for knowledge of the good. Tiger Woods was probably unaware of such an alternative (perhaps because Stanford University, which he attended for two years, dropped its western civilization requirement prior to his arrival). His quest for satisfaction therefore turned to the most obvious, though not the best, objects, which were presented to him by the most powerful, though not the loftiest, part of the soul. He sought to fill up his inner emptiness through the pursuit of bodily pleasures.
Plato, however, would warn us that such a turn must prove to be as futile and unsatisfying as a life organized around the pursuit of spirited satisfactions. The pleasures of the body, he suggests in the Republic, are “impure”—not in the sense of being dirty or immoral, but in the sense of being only imperfectly pleasant. They are experienced not simply as positive pleasures but are always to some extent mixed with pains, because they arise only in relation to certain uncomfortable urges—hunger, for example, or thirst—that they seek to quiet. These urges, however, are recurring, and they seem to recur all the more frequently and insistently the more they are indulged beyond what nature requires. The more they are given the more they demand. Hence Plato’s characterization, in the Gorgias, of the pleasures of the body as a kind of leaky jar that requires constant replenishment. A soul dedicated to the pleasures of the body, like a leaky jar, can never be filled up, can never be satisfied. Here again, however, Woods’s behavior seems to confirm Plato’s wisdom. After all, if the satisfaction of sexual desire were a source of a secure happiness for human beings, then why did Woods have to pursue it to such an extreme degree with such a large number of women?
Considering Woods’s actions in light of Plato’s philosophy, we must ask ourselves: is this the behavior of a happy man? The answer is obviously “no.” It is instead the behavior of a man constantly seeking to satisfy longings that turn out to be insatiable and that are not, in fact, quite what his soul really wanted in the first place. This lesson needs to be emphasized, moreover, because the dominant public culture tends to obscure it. In much of American entertainment, advertising, and commentary—in so much of the cultural air we breathe, so to speak—we find the suggestion that human happiness is to be won through “success,” understood as the attainment of high status conventionally understood, and pleasure, understood as bodily satisfactions. Tiger Woods, however, achieved more status, and experienced more bodily pleasures, than probably any other living person. If extreme pursuit of, and extreme success in winning, these kinds of pleasures could not make him happy, why should we think they will make any of us happy? Woods’s fall should rather prompt us, as individuals and as a people, to reconsider the quest for what is truly good, lest we continue to mislead ourselves and others down the same sad path that Tiger Woods has followed.
Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author most recently of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).