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The Metaphysics of Indo-European Tripartition, Part 2
Tripartition in Human Society, Psychology, & Physiology

The Judgment of Paris by the Master of the Argonaut Panels, c. 1480, [1]

The Judgment of Paris by the Master of the Argonaut Panels, c. 1480,

2,802 words

Part 2 of 6

1. The Tripartite Human Soul

To begin, the Indo-Europeans traditionally believed that society must be structured in three parts or “functions” because people themselves exhibit three basic soul-types. 

Students of Greek philosophy will realize that this is exactly Plato’s view. In the Republic, Plato divides his ideal city into three classes: the philosophers, the guardians or warriors, and the producers. This corresponds precisely to Indo-European tripartition, with philosopher-kings taking the place of priest-jurists. But in the Republic Plato makes this political point only in order to make a psychological point. He argues that each human soul exhibits this tripartite structure.

In our souls there is a guiding element — an element that controls, that says yea or nay, that talks “sense” into us when emotions go astray. This element is both concerned with rules, with order, with logic, and with what we call spirituality. It thus corresponds to the juridical-sacerdotal function of Indo-European society. We also have what Plato calls a “spirited” (not to be confused with “spiritual”) element which beats wildly in the breast whenever one’s body or one’s honor is threatened. It pushes us to fight, sometimes foolishly. This obviously corresponds to the guardian or warrior (second function) element. Finally, we have what Plato calls the “appetitive” or “desiring” part of the soul. This is the part of us that hungers after physical goods: food, sex, sensual pleasures of all kinds, money, treasure, real estate, etc. Virtue, for Plato, is present in a soul when these three elements exist harmoniously, with the harmony largely imposed by the control of the first, or rational function.

2. The Three Human Types 

Plato’s other psychological point is that people differ in terms of the proportions of these elements in their individual souls. To put it simply, some people naturally tend toward being intellectual or spiritual. Others are predominantly spirited, aggressive, concerned with things such as competition, honor, and glory. Still others are predominantly appetitive, with concerns that typically do not rise above the level of physical, sensual satisfaction, or material gain.

In short, for Plato and for the Indo-Europeans, there are natural rulers and priests, natural warriors, and natural producers and businessmen. Society, for the Indo-Europeans must exhibit a tripartite structure because human beings themselves fall into such a grouping. Incidentally, Plato considered most of humanity as falling within the third, appetitive class, and this is why he opposed democracy. Rule by “the majority” inevitably means rule by those who are not primarily reasonable, spiritual, or honorable, but rather those primarily concerned with personal gain, and with the moment.

3. The Somatotypes and Temperamental Types 

William_Herbert_Sheldon [2]

William Herbert Sheldon

So, what we have seen so far is that Indo-European tripartition provides us with a psychology in terms of which we can understand the dynamics of our individual soul, and in terms of which we can categorize and understand ourselves and others. However, tripartition is not just present in the soul but in the body as well. In what follows I will be drawing on the work of the psychologist W. H. Sheldon, whose work has been declared “discredited” today (all of his books are out of print), because it commits the unpardonable sin of suggesting that biology shapes our destiny.[1]

Sheldon distinguishes between three physical types or “morphs,” and three types of temperament, or “tonias.” The morphs will be familiar to many of you: they are the ectomorph, the mesomorph, and the endomorph.[2] (The literal meaning of these names will discussed in section four, below.)

The ectomorph is typically thin, perhaps somewhat fragile and delicate. Linearity predominates. There is little body fat and little muscularity. The temperament typically exhibited by the ecotomorph is cerebrotonic. He is often introverted, often completely absorbed in his own thought processes. Most schizophrenics exhibit an ectomorphic build. The cerebretonic tends toward nervous, obsessive behavior, and is often highly gifted in theoretical pursuits. I need not point out what we have all observed in our lives: that “brainiacs” and “science geeks” tend to be thin, lanky, and nervous. But this type, attracted as he is to the abstract and to the rational, may also be attracted to the spiritual and to the mystical.

bodytypes [3]

The mesomorph is typically broad-shouldered, with a narrow waist, giving him a triangular appearance. He is naturally well-proportioned. Like the ectomorph, he tends to have little body fat, but unlike the ectomorph his musculature is pronounced. He is a natural athlete, with a body built for conflict and competition. Temperamentally, Sheldon calls him somatotonic. This is an action-oriented temperament. The somatotonic is a warrior, seeking competition, striving, victory, and glory of all kinds. Such individuals tend toward extroversion. They want to do things, rather than sit and think about them. They tend toward insensitivity, and even sometimes brutality. They want to lead, but they also make fanatical followers if they encounter someone they esteem more highly than themselves.

The endomorph is oval-shaped, often tending toward obesity. He is the diametrical opposite of the ectomorph. In geometric terms, he is round rather than straight. What muscularity he may have is very often hidden under fat. The endomorph is viscerotonic or “gut dominant.” One proponent of Sheldon’s theories notes that for viscerotonics “love of physical comfort, eating, polite ceremony, company, and sleep are prominent characteristics.” He is characterized by “softness of body and of mind.”[3] This “softness of mind” manifests itself in a tendency toward passivity, complacency, indiscriminate amiability, joviality, and an unwillingness or inability to make firm judgments or draw firm distinctions.

It should be obvious that these three body and temperamental types correspond to the three Indo-European functions. The ectomorph and cerebretonic is the intellect, the abstract reasoner, the judge, as well as the mystic. The mesomorph and somatotonic is the natural warrior. The endomorph and viscerotonic is naturally inclined toward production, consumption, and sensual satisfaction. Sheldon’s description of the three temperaments can be considered as a supplement to Plato’s discussion of the rational, spirited, and appetitive types. In the distinction of the three “morphs” associated with these types we find a physical expression of tripartition, which is particularly remarkable.

4. The Significance of the Mesomorph

What is especially interesting here is the “middle position,” on both physical and spiritual levels, occupied by the mesomorph-somatotonic. Like the ecotomorph, he is lean. Like the endomorph he is bulky. But his bulky leanness is a muscular one. He lacks the fat of the endomorph, but unlike the ecotomorph his musculature is tends to be visible.

In Plato’s esoteric teaching — reported in fragmentary fashion by Aristotle and others — the great philosopher distinguishes between two ultimate, metaphysical principles which he calls the One and the Indefinite Dyad. The One is conceived as measure, order, proportion. The Dyad is conceived as the twin principles of the Great and the Small. One can easily map the three morphs onto these categories, with the mesomorph representing a mean between extremes. He is the perfectly measured, ordered, proportional type. It is in the hopes of approximating to his form that millions of dollars are spent every year on gym memberships. The endomorph and the ecotomorph are, respectively, the Great and the Small. It is as if the endomorph has too much of something and the ectomorph too little.

There is another, more important way in which the mesomorph-somatotonic is a “mean” between the other two. The ecotomorph tends toward the abstract, the cerebral, and the intellectual. The endomorph-viscerotonic is the opposite: inclining toward sensuality, physicality, and mindless oblivion. In Platonic-Aristotelian terms, one is closer to the Formal, Ideal realm, the other to the material. Arguably, both lead problematic existences. The mesomorph, on the other hand, is a happy mean between the two. He is unquestionably physical, and delights in his physicality. But unlike the endomorph his physicality is not that of self-indulgence and sensuality. The mesomorph uses his physicality to pursue ideals. These range from trivial goals, like winning a game, or making a score, to more weighty matters, like defending honor, vanquishing a threat to oneself or one’s people, or defending the defenseless.

The mesomorph-somatotonic thus possesses the idealism of the ectomorph, but without his tendency toward otherworldliness and self-obsession. He possesses the physicality of the endomorph, but without his tendency toward pleasure-seeking and passivity. It is essentially for this reason that ancient peoples, especially the Indo-Europeans regarded this type as the ideal human being. They erected statues to him, wrote epic poems and sagas about him, and in general worshipped him as the closest a human being could come to the divine. (I shall return to this point when I discuss tripartition in Tantrism.)

The triangular torso of the mesomorph (often called the “V-shape”) is also interesting. Isn’t it fascinating that this type, which is a kind of balance of the other two, approximates to a “triangular” form, and that this form is found so appealing?

5. The Bodily Organs

If we look at the arrangement of the human body, we find four primary systems aligned along its central axis, the spine. These are the brain, the heart, the guts, and the genitals. In Traditional thought, these are the physical expression of the three functions: the brain representing, of course, the first function. The spiritedness of the second function has long been associated with the region of the heart. The term in Plato that is translated “spirit” is thumos, which was conceived as a physical part of the body, located in the region of the heart. The guts and genitals clearly represent the third function. It is interesting, furthermore, that the heart occupies roughly a middle position between brain and genitals, just as the mesomorph-somatotonic is the mean between the other two types.

A hard “yang quality” characterizes the organs associated with the first and second functions. A soft “yin quality” is typical of organs associated with the third function. Specifically, the organs of the abdominal cavity are not only soft themselves, they are also the least protected by bone. Any hardening of these organs signifies disease. The head, on the other hand, an area associated with the first function, is one of the hardest parts of the body. Hard, crystalline structures are also to be found within the brain itself, in the pineal gland.[4] With the second function are associated the body’s largest and most visibly apparent muscles, in which “hardness” is a sign of power. We use the term “getting hard” to describe the process of perfecting these muscles, which are so necessary to attack and defense. Though the sex organs are associated with the third function, in the male they have, at least part of the time, the hard, yang quality. This is thanks to the male sexual anatomy’s interaction with the circulatory system, which is a second function system, as I shall shortly discuss.

6. Ayurvedic Doshas and Sexual Types 

The foregoing physical and temperamental typology was developed extensively by ancient Indo-European peoples, utilizing a very different vocabulary, of course. The best example of this is to be found in the ancient Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine. This material has been popularized in recent years in a number of best-selling books, particularly those by Deepak Chopra (about whom we should otherwise adopt a healthy skepticism). The system depends upon a division of human beings into three types, called doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. These are conceived as forces operating in the body.

Just as in Plato’s tripartitite image of the soul, we have all three types in us, but in most people one dosha predominates. A Vata type is thin and lanky, with a tendency toward worry and self-obsession. He is also imaginative, introspective, and often intellectual. In other words, ecotomorphic-cerebretonic. What is particularly fascinating here is that Ayurveda conceives Vata dosha as “leading” the other doshas. Deepak Chopra actually refers to Vata as “king” of the doshas.[5] The Pitta type is muscular and well-proportioned, aggressive, commanding, and determined. In other words, the “warrior” type; the mesomorph-somatotonic. The Kapha type has a tendency toward obesity, good humor, complacency, and mental laziness. Obviously, the endomorph-viscerotonic.

This tripartition was noticed by the Indians even in the area of sex. The Ananga Ranga, an Indian sex manual of uncertain date (though definitely composed in the last millenium) divides men into three sexual types: the Shasha or Hare-man, the Vrishabha or Bull-man, and the Ashwa or Stallion-man. I will begin with the Bull-man. He is known, the Anaga Ranga claims, by a phallus or lingam nine finger widths in length. So far as I can figure out, this corresponds approximately to the Kinsey average. According to the text, this man’s body is “robust, like that of a tortoise; his chest is fleshy, his belly hard, and the frogs [i.e., triceps] of his upper arms are turned so as to be brought in front.” In short, he is a classic mesomorph. The text informs us that his disposition is “cruel and violent, restless and irascible, and his Kama-salila [i.e., semen] is ever ready.”[6] The Stallion-man has a lingam approximately twelve finger widths long. He is large-framed. The text tells us that he is “reckless in spirit, passionate and covetous, gluttonous, volatile, lazy, and full of sleep.”[7] Clearly this is the endomorph-viscerotonic type, corresponding to the Indo-European third function.

I have saved the Hare-man for last, because here the correspondence is not as precise. The text tells us that his lingam is about sixth finger widths long. “His figure is short and spare, but well-proportioned in shape and make . . . his face is round . . . He is of a quiet disposition; he does good for virtue’s sake; he looks forward to making a name; he is humble in demeanor . . .”[8] Nothing here about being thin, lanky, and introspective. But the adjective “spare” suggests leanness. Also his doing good “for virtue’s sake” suggests the classic cerebretonic focus on principle. Note, by the way, how the Bull-man or mesomorph is the precise mathematical mean between the the Hare-man and the Stallion-man. The Hare-man is six fingers long, the Bull-man nine, and the Stallion man twelve. Nine is a very significant number in the Indo-European traditions, particularly the Germanic tradition.

7. Paracelsus 

Paracelsus [4]


We find something strikingly similar to these tripartitite Indian physiological distinctions in the works of the sixteenth-century German physician and alchemist Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus. There is a kind of Indo-European spirit at work in this thinker, for he insists on moving from the quadripartite system of elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water — which is, arguably, originally a Near-Eastern and non-Indo-European conception) to the tripartite system of Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. But it is not the sheer threeness of this system that is intriguing, but rather its exact correspondence to the triple Indo-European functions.

In his Opus Paramirum (1530-1), Paracelsus writes, “The first thing the physician should know is that man is composed of three substances.”[9] It is Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt, he says, which combine to make a body. “In order to make things visible, Nature must be compelled to show itself . . . Take a piece of wood. It is body. Now burn it. The flammable part is the Sulphur, the smoke is the Mercury, and the ash the Salt.”[10] As one commentator notes, “He used these terms to denote principles of constitution, representing organization (Sulphur), mass (Salt), and activity (Mercury), all varieties of the specific forms achieved by the immanent intelligences and semina of matter.”[11] The correspondence to the Indo-European system is thus as follows: Sulphur, the organizing principle = First Function; Mercury, the active, volatile principle = Second Function; and Salt, the principle of sheer mass or matter = Third Function.


[1] Even libraries are tossing out Sheldon’s books. Copies are still floating around, but often for a hefty price. See especially the following works: The Varieties of Human Physique (New York: Harper, 1940); The Varieties of Temperament (New York: Harper, 1942); Atlas of Men: Guide for Somatotyping the Adult Male at All Ages (New York: Gramercy Publishing, 1954).

[2] Sheldon’s terminology lives on in health and fitness circles – especially in bodybuilding.

[3] Robert S. De Ropp, The Master Game (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968), 116.

[4] These points are to be found in Wolfang Schad, Man and Mammals: Toward a Biology of Form, trans. Carroll Scherer (Garden City, New York: Waldorf Press, 1977), 17.

[5] Deepak Chopra, Perfect Health (New York: Harmony Books, 1991), 36.

[6] Kalayana Malla, Ananga Ranga, trans. F.F. Arbuthnot and Richard F. Burton (New York: Medical Press, 1964), 16

[7] Ibid., 16. It is interesting to note that Shiva, the embodiment of the third function Tamas principle in the Indian theory of gunas, is called “lord of sleep.” More on this later.

[8] Ibid, 15.

[9] Paracelsus, Essential Readings, ed. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books), 76.

[10] Ibid., 78.

[11] Ibid., 28.