Did Keirsey Understand Plato?

“Plato had written in The Republic of four kinds of character which clearly corresponded with the four temperaments.” – David Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, Prometheus 1998 ed., p. 23

In Please Understand Me II, David Keirsey posits that Plato had four personality types in his Republic, each corresponding to a ‘temperament’: Artisans (SP), Guardians (SJ), Idealists (NF), and Rationals (NT). Since then, this claim has found its way into countless books, videos, articles, and training pamphlets. But is it really true?

First of all, Plato’s  ‘Guardians’ have nothing to do with Keirsey’s ‘SJ-temperament.’ That is a grave misreading on Keirsey’s part. The ‘Guardians’ in Plato’s Republic are Plato’s Philosopher Kings along with their Auxiliary soldiers. The Philosopher Kings are bound by Reason and the Auxiliaries are bound by θυμός (Honor or Spirit).

However, both the Philosopher Kings and the Auxiliaries are ‘Guardians.’ The ‘Guardians’ of Plato’s Republic are not a separate temperament as Keirsey claims: The ‘Guardians’ are a joint class of two temperaments (Rational and Spirited). These two temperaments are called Guardians because they are the political guardians (i.e. rulers) of the state: The Philosopher Kings rule the state and determine the policy, and the Auxiliaries enforce their will by acting as military and police. In this way, Plato’s Guardians are really two temperaments, not one. And Plato’s Guardians have very little to do with Keirsey’s SJ temperament, the way he describes it. For example, Keirsey says that the SJ-Guardians and the NT-Rationals are completely opposite to one another in his system, but in Plato’s work, the Rationals are actually part of the Guardians.

Plato thus has three main types, not four:

  1. Philosopher Kings (bound by reason) – part of the Guardians
  2. Auxiliaries (bound by spirit/honor) – part of the Guardians
  3. Commoners (bound by appetite) – not part of the Guardians

(The three types may be found in the quite lengthy passage that is the Republic’s Book IV, 435d-end.)

The conclusion, then, can only be that Keirsey misread or misconstrued Plato’s main thesis when he said that (1) Plato had four types, (2) these types correspond to his own four temperaments, and (3) the Guardians were a distinct type of temperament. All of these claims are false.

The nearest we can come to making sense of Keirsey’s reading of Plato is to expand the Commoner class into several distinct classes. This would be something of a stretch, because Plato is very clear in postulating three (and not four) basic types (and temperaments are basic types, after all). However, it is true that Plato expands the Commoner class in those places of the Republic where it suits his discussion. But still, Plato’s expansion of the Commoner class tends to run as follows:

  1. Commoners bound by appetites that are unnecessary and lawless
  2. Commoners bound by appetites that are unnecessary but not lawless
  3. Commoners bound by appetites that are necessary

So taken together with the two Guardian types (spirited and rational) that still makes five types (not four). And at any rate, Plato still makes clear that, just as the Philosopher Kings are reason-types and the Auxiliaries are honor-types, all of the Commoners are appetite-types. So there are still three basic types in Plato’s Republic, and even the most generous reading of that work can’t be brought to make sense of Keirsey’s scheme of the ‘four temperaments’ on Plato’s own terms.

The reading is so unfounded that one might feel compelled to say that Keirsey should Please Understand Plato.


  1. To put it another way, Plato makes room for the NTs (philosopher kings), the SJs (auxiliaries), and the SPs (commoners). However, he leaves no room for his own temperament, the NFs. Perhaps they have no place in Plato’s rational city, since they can’t be Ts. Or perhaps the republic is incomplete. What would a collectivist utopia run according to typology look like, I wonder? Perhaps the NTJs would be rulers, the NTPs would be scientists, the STJs would be soldiers/Police, the SFJs would be child rearers, the NFJs would be priests/community leaders, the NFPs would be writers, the SFPs would be Artists, and the STPs would be craftsmen? What do you reckon?

  2. First we must state that we believe that any type can be intellectual and reflective, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll play along with the Platonic/Keirseyan scheme for now.


    Personally, we reckon that the NTs are not necessarily the ‘rationals’ in Plato’s Republic. Think of the INFJs you know (who don’t know typology) or think of Jung or Plato: As they see it, they are more rational than the NTs, because they are more holistic, take the world of the emotions into account and so on.

    Many of the people who exhibit a Nietzschean morality (e.g. Thrasymachus) are considered inferior by Plato because their striving is ego-driven or does not take into account “the whole of the good.” And on the other hand, Socrates is so ego-less that he refuses sex with prestigious partners and even lays down his life because of his own philosophy. So when Plato says that the Auxiliary, the second-best type of man, is the one who is ruled by spirit, it is possible that he means that spirit is this kind of egoistic approach to mental affairs.

    (Of course, this provokes the whole discussion about when something is truly egoistic: If a benevolent tyrant seizes power and brings about a series of changes of his own design that leave everyone better off, is he really ‘egoistic’?)

    Plato would probably think so; in his eyes, a man like Napoleon would be unfit to rule on account of having a large ego and not taking into account “the whole of the good” and so on. Yet, as Bertrand Russell has noted, Plato himself sets up his republic in such a way that later generations are hindered from disagreeing with him. This means that, objectively speaking, Plato is also one of these rulers who single-handedly instigates an entire societal reform out of his own ego, which would make him unfit to rule by his own criteria. However, the difference would be that Plato would argue that, though the wisdom came from him, it is not really his wisdom, but the wisdom that comes from knowing the Form of the Good as he believed he did.

    So certainly we may say that since the Philosopher Kings should reflect purely on truth and the good, they can meaningfully be said to correspond to N types in the rule, but not necessarily to NTs as Keirsey said.

    As for the Auxiliaries, we don’t really know who they would be. On the one hand, Plato appears to think that they are N types who have not freed themselves from their egoism. But on the other hand, an army made up of N types seems a rather haphazard affair.

    However, it is certainly true that Plato held the world of sensation in low regard and if we read his texts through Keirseyan spectacles, we will frequently find that the SP temperament is portrayed as well-meaning but idiotic in his texts (Phaedrus) while the SJ morality is hypocritical and self-serving (Pausanias). So maybe his meaning really is that the Philosopher Kings were the N-types who were free of ego striving; the Soldiers and Police the N-types who where not yet free of egoistic striving and the Commoners the S-types. There is probably a tendency amongst N-types to think this way, even to this day. However, in our opinion, a type-book that said that would be grossly unfair to the S types.


    So for what it’s worth, that is our understanding of how Plato’s three types map onto typology. No matter which interpretation is employed, however, there are still grave and glaring problems with Plato’s theory. Namely, that if the military class consists of ambitious people with large egos, they are not very likely to obey the dispassionate and will-less Philosopher Kings for long.

  3. If we suppose that both Plato and Keirsey had accurate insight into human beings, we may solve the ensuing discrepancy as follows. The key is that Plato was not an NF but an NT, like all philosophers. That he was typed as an NF by Keirsey is because he wrote exoterically. The exoteric Plato is an NF, but the real, esoteric Plato is an NT. Such dissembling was necessary because an NT can never appeal to SJs, yet the SJs were crucial to Plato’s order. What I suggest is that the SPs correspond to Plato’s Commoners, the SJs correspond to his Auxiliaries, and the NFs correspond to his Philosopher Kings. The NTs were to disguise themselves as NFs. For more on this see Laurence Lampert’s work, especially his _How Philosophy Became Socratic_, and Shadia Drury’s _The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss_.

  4. Whoever said that all philosophers were NT? Not any major writer in the field, that’s for sure. Also, you seem to be applying the typology as an epistemological tool, not a psychological one. Finally, we have a whole article on why Plato is INFJ.

  5. As an NT myself, I don’t really care if a writer is “major”, or “in the field”; all I care about is whether he has something sensible to say. I consider all actual philosophers to be Rationals because they are all abstract “utilitarians”. Of course, many of them may not _seem_ that way (and many so-called philosophers are not actually philosophers!), but this is because, at least until after early modernity, they had to dissemble in order to avoid persecution (consider Descartes, who wrote in the time of Giordano Bruno, and did certainly not believe in God, substance dualism, and the like). Epistemology cannot really be separated from psychology, for whether one tends to trust in reason or in revelation (or, as Keirsey puts it, in reason, intuition, authority, or impulse) depends on one’s temperament, one’s psychological type. I would like to check out your article on why Plato is an INFJ, but were you aware of the fact that Plato most certainly did not believe in the Ideas (Forms), gods, the afterlife, and all that malarkey? Were you aware of the esoteric Plato?

  6. But again, you can’t name any expert in the field who thought that all philosophers were NTs. It’s a typical beginner’s mistake, but like most other things in psychology, the proof is not readily available because psychology relies on a combination of a disposition for cognitive openness and the cultivation of a specific outlook. Epistemology and psychology are overlapping, but not identical, i.e. some types more easily and frequently end up believing in certain philosophies, but there is no 1:1 relation between them. As for the esoteric Plato, we also have a looong article on his unwritten doctrine. If you know enough to recommend Leo Strauss, you should also know enough to know that Strauss has been criticized from almost every angle because his Plato is unhistorical (which is not to say that it is not interesting, it just says more about Strauss than about Plato. This criticism rings true of many of his expositions, e.g. Machiavelli as well). Some of the newest research into Plato’s esoteric beliefs hold that he did have a period in middle life where he believed in the forms, yet gravitated away from this belief towards the end of his life, becoming more of a Parmenidean. Likewise, the Orphic influences of his private beliefs have been traced to make the case that he entertained the possibility of reincarnation (which is admittedly not the same as an afterlife, but still).

  7. That Descartes didn’t believe in God is uncontroversial. But what are your sources for the claim that he was not a dualist?

  8. As I said, “experts in the field” are not necessarily important to me. I haven’t been able to find sensible definitions of the cognitive functions, for example, even though I really tried my best. There’s still an outstanding challenge regarding that here: http://personalitycafe.com/intp-forum-thinkers/262753-help-me-define-cognitive-functions-symmetrically.html

    My fellow INTP Keirsey was a godsend because he rejected the cognitive functions altogether and thereby was able to make a lot of sense. If there are functions in Keirsey, they are T, F, P, and J, not T, F, N, and S. Just like in Myers-Briggs, J means the T or F in the type code predominates over the N or S in the code whereas P means the converse, so in Keirsey N means the T or F in the type code predominates over the P or J in the code whereas S means the converse. (This is only implied, however.) Perhaps Keirsey’s N and S correspond to Myers-Briggs’ I and E, respectively: N designates a preference for focusing on the intangible world of thoughts and feelings, whereas S designates a preference for focusing on the tangible world of the senses. P is then the preference to engage with that world as dictated by one’s impulses, whereas J is then the preference to engage with it as dictated by authority. I and E in Keirsey are essentially Eysenck’s: they follow from high and low conditionability and inhibitability, respectively.

    I contend that all philosophers have been NTs for the following reason. NT designates a preference for T above F, let alone S. Without that preference, one can hardly develop such a proficiency at systemizing as is required for composing such extremely intricate texts as the philosophers’, and even if one does–e.g., under coercion–, one would still not willingly engage in composing such texts. (For T as systemizing as opposed to F as empathizing, see Baron Cohen’s _The Essential Difference_.) The works of the philosophers, especially of those who wrote exoterically–which is most of them–, are really extremely intricate. Thus I had studied Nietzsche, who did not even write exoterically, for ten years when I discovered that I had completely missed the _plan_ of his works; it was Laurence Lampert, a student of Strauss–but luckily not an exoteric writer himself–who made me see that. And especially after reading his last work, _The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss_, I’m completely convinced that Strauss did not invent, but _discovered_ the pre-modern and early modern philosophers’ esotericism.

    Strauss may have been criticized from every angle, but all that tell us is that he has been criticized from every angle, not that he was wrong or a fraud. Having read Lampert’s book on Plato, which consists mostly of meticulous readings of some of Plato’s key works, I’ve seen how he was a most rational atheist and amoralist who successfully sought to dupe more mystically and morally inclined types to believe in edifying fictions so as to channel their θυμός in the interests of philosophy, of rationality. And in any case, how are we to determine what Plato believed when all he wrote were his dialogues and letters? In his dialogues, he is mentioned in passing at most (e.g., “Plato was not present, for he was ill”); and as for his letters, the most important, by far the longest, and the one most widely recognized as authentic is his Seventh Letter, was addressed to the followers of a tyrant… Do you really think he would have spoken his heart to them? By the way, on Wikipedia it says:

    “[T]he _Seventh Letter_ has recently been argued to be spurious by prominent scholars such as […] Julia Annas. According to Annas, the _Seventh Letter_ is ‘such an unconvincing production that its acceptance by many scholars is best seen as indicating the strength of their desire to find, behind the detachment of the dialogues, something, no matter what, to which Plato is straightforwardly committed.'” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seventh_Letter_%28Plato%29#Authenticity

    Lastly, as for Descartes, I base that on Lampert’s _Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche_:

    “[I]f Descartes is to take an honorable place in a Nietzschean history of philosophy as one of the laughers [i.e., as opposed to one who is laughed at], complete revaluation of his famous dualism is necessary: the dualism constructed with the theological and ontological sophistries once necessary to make his reputation now threatens to ruin it. What was required at the bottom of the mine shaft that he shared with Montaigne and Bacon has become an embarrassment in the world formed by the physics he fathered, a world whose history of philosophy neglects the memory of the mine shaft.
    Descartes’s famous ontological dualism of mind and body dissolves with the recognition of his virtuous dissimulation. […] In _The Passions of the Soul_ Descartes passes up every opportunity, of which there are many, to mention a dualism of substances regarding body and soul. The soul remains ‘distinct’ from the body but hardly separable, for it is the consciousness ‘joined’ to the whole body which arises in its earliest prenatal experiences and ‘departs’ the body at death into oblivion.” (Lampert, op.cit., pp. 260-61.)

    I’m aware that this does not constitute proof, but there is no proof; I cannot prove the negative that Descartes did not believe this or that. However, it becomes most probable from a close esoteric reading of him like the one Lampert offers.

    “La Mettrie, his own argument that humans are machines freed by a century of successful struggle against the political necessities governing Descartes’s argument, simply took it for granted that Descartes held the same view. La Mettrie took up the apologetic task that needs to be repeated on Descartes’s behalf: defending the great Descartes against all those who have taken to laughing at him for his silly errors. La Mettrie’s defense places Descartes in a century he had to enlighten and makes enlightenment require a ruse. Descartes got the theologians to swallow a poison hidden in an analogy whose point everyone but the theologians could see: distinguishing humans from animals in the way Descartes appears to, succeeds best in exemplifying the vain pride that most distinguishes this animal from others.” (op.cit., page 259.)

  9. Your first paragraph addresses three different questions:
    (1) Are there any experts who agree that all philosophers are NT?
    (2) Are the cognitive functions valid?
    (3) Why are there no good function definitions?

    Re: 1: So we agree that there are no experts who agree that all philosophers are NT while practically every expert has said the opposite. Now, we have criticized every expert in the field on one point or another on the site, so we don’t simply follow them blindly. However, we point out that they all thought that philosophers could be of other temperaments than NT because that is our assessment as well.

    Re: 2: Keirsey rejected the functions, but sort of kicked in an open door as Myers had already made a construct that could function whether one believed in the functions or not. In our opinion, Keirsey did more harm than good when he supplanted what was essentially his own behavioral system onto Jung. His four-temperament model inflated the preexisting bias against sensation, and his identification of NTs with “reason” and INTJs with “Masterminds” fostered thousands of people who go through life with a cartoonish understanding of Jung’s typology, even if they’ve never heard of Keirsey. “I’m a rational superman too!”

    Keirsey Sr. (not Jr.) did however make a genuine contribution to the field in his many well-researched type assessments, which ironically go against his own theoretical constructs and seem to hark back to Myers. Unfortunately, the type assessments of the father and the son have become impossible to separate, which is really a loss for scholarship.

    Re: 3: Writing good function definitions is hard. In our own humble opinion, we have provided a good one in our article Jung in Plain Language, Part 1: Te and Ti. But it takes time and research and it simply isn’t profitable compared to other stuff we could be doing with our time. Maybe we should do a Kickstarter, or maybe you should call your rich uncle, because while we share the goal of having good function definitions out there, we just don’t want to spend weeks writing them, only to see them pirated or plagiarized.

    Then we get two arguments for why (true) philosophers must be NT: “Without that preference, one can hardly develop such a proficiency at systematizing as is required for composing such extremely intricate texts as the philosophers’, and even if one does–e.g., under coercion–, one would still not willingly engage in composing such texts. (For T as systematizing as opposed to F as empathizing, see Baron Cohen’s _The Essential Difference_.)”

    1: The first argument confuses preference with ability. From a Jung, Myers, von Franz, and van der Hoop perspective, intelligence says nothing about the type; it says something about *how well* you function, but nothing about what you function *as*. Keirsey, for his part, seemed to buy into the idea of multiple intelligences, i.e. each temperament is intrinsically endowed with intelligence in its own right. However, even Keirsey admitted that there is no 1:1 correlation between preference and ability. So you may very well think that there is, and we can only respectfully disagree, citing (besides our own observations) every other expert who has written on the topic. Like we say, as this is psychology, the proof is not readily forthcoming.

    2: Then there is Baron-Cohen, whose research we’ve also referred to before on the site. First, the title that you mentioned has again been severely criticized regarding everything from lack of proper scientific controls to failure to reproduce results. Likewise, according to the main argument in the book, autists should then be the best philosophers. There are certainly people with autistic elements who made significant contributions to philosophy, but at the same time the reverse is also true. Actually, with regards to whatever correlation there is between Jungian typology and philosophical output, we think the relevant criteria for system building is not so much T/F in itself. For example, Plotinus was clearly quite the systematizer, yet not very hard-headed. Nietzsche was pretty hard-headed but according to his own testimony, as well as the common evaluation of his work, he was not systematic at all (though the Straussian scholars disagree, we know).

    For simplicity’s sake, let’s break the criticisms of Strauss into two:

    (1) First there is his general interpretation that the philosophers whom he likes are not just saying what they seem to be saying, but that they are speaking “in codes” as well.

    (2) Then there are his historical assertions that alternatively spring from his readings or serve to build the credibility of his readings.

    Now with (1) we have no problem. Really, what is philosophy if it’s only about sticking to the generally accepted. I don’t know that we are different in method, although we certainly differ in conclusion. We don’t agree with his readings, but by all means, more power to Strauss and his followers.

    But with regards to (2) Strauss has been widely criticized for producing or twisting facts to make them fit his schemes. All philosophers twist facts, of course, but Strauss seemingly did so to licentious degrees. Even the quote that you provide by Lambert bears witness to the characteristic Straussian method: “If we are going to arrive at [desired conclusion X] we will have to radically reinterpret [well-known fact Y].” It’s not that we have any special praise for Popper, but it should be obvious that this isn’t an unbiased approach.

    As you mention, multiple interpretations of Plato’s life are possible, and we haven’t denied that at all. Still, we find Strauss’ expositions extremely unlikely, both of the Symposium and the Republic. That’s not to say that they are impossible, though, just that they’re kind of a fringe position, which requires a whole range of interdependent assumptions before it starts making sense. Again, it seemed like the conclusion was decided in advance and the facts were then reverse-engineered in order to make the conclusion make sense.

    Even so, that doesn’t bar us from posting such interpretations on the site; we sometimes commission material from people whom we disagree with. We might even do so in this case if it weren’t for the fact that your position that every true philosopher is NT by definition coincides with a very coarse type of reasoning that is unfortunately very prevalent in this field.

    As we, said, numerous interpretations of Plato are possible, yet we have already written several long articles arguing why he is INFJ. These articles also make use of research that was not available to Strauss. We agree that Plato tried to goad his fellow men into using their thymos in service of philosophy, but we disagree with the connotations the latter has been imbued with in the Straussian manner (e.g. atheism, rationality, etc.). Far from being a conflict between reason and emotion as we understand it today, it was rather a conflict between thymos and gnosis, or thymos and sophrosyne, in our view. There are passages supporting this view in the dialogues proper; one need not rely on the Seventh Letter.

    With Nietzsche we are on firmer ground than with Plato. There is some research that suggests that Nietzsche followed a very loose, primarily aesthetic, plan for his works. But there is ample evidence that Nietzsche deviated from it and that his temperament was simply such that he could never have followed his plan, even if he wanted to. This evidence includes statements and letters from himself, as well as the people who knew him intimately. Once again, for the Straussian reading to make sense, one would have to assume a very advanced conspiracy and plan of misdirection to be in place from Nietzsche’s earliest years. Not only that, but this pattern of the esoteric philosopher’s life can seemingly be copy-pasted without modification all the way from Nietzsche to Plato. Once the pattern has been deployed by Strauss enough times over, one eventually begins to wonder whether this suspicion is not more fruitfully directed at Strauss than at the various great philosophers of history.

  10. Sauwelios, I’m no expert on Myers Briggs and I should be open here and say that I am an INFJ so I have a biased interest here, but I do see INFJ qualities in Strauss and Plato (Leo was originally classified on this site as an INFJ on the celebrity list for a while as well).

    Easily you can say the analysts here misread Strauss and Plato’s “exoteric” writing for their actual view, that is view their comments on justice as being merely a cover ‘amorality’, but I think you’re missing the actual truth of justice in Socratic philosophy. The justice is in the dialectic spirit itself. It is isn’t simple knowledge of the sovereignty of becoming. Any idiot can state everything is flux and become an amoral hedonist. I think your view of Strauss has been skewered by Shadia Drury and perhaps to an extent by Strauss’s exoteric writing himself. The philosopher isn’t secretly a hidden utilitarian, although personal pleasure is at the heart of things. At least not at the beginning. This abstract and ‘sober’ view of philosophy is purposefully misleading.

    The philosophical spirit isn’t marked by a calculative mind set, but by the internal conflict between acknowledgement of ‘a’ nature and the necessity of justice. It’s a tragic attitude, similar to that of the INFJ.

    Political philosophy, that is the examination of the opinions of those around us while keeping track of one’s own feelings/biases is the INFJ art par excellence.

    It should be remembered that Plato himself originally wanted to do two things 1)become a poet, 2)become a politician. Plato’s inherent nature was always socially directed.

Comments are closed.