Plato gives many illustrations in his dialogues. Frequently Socrates gives a word picture to describe some phenomenon or some process. Most of the time they were obviously not meant to be taken literally, but rather they illustrate something of our human predicament.
The Charioteer is probably one of the most well-known of Socrates’ illustrations. There are many pictures and sculptures depicting it.
Socrates compares the soul to a charioteer. The charioteer drives a chariot with a team of two horses. The two horses are hardly a “pair”. One horse is white and noble. The other is dark and unruly. The charioteer has difficulty navigating, because the noble horse tends upwards towards heaven and the unruly one is base and pulls downwards to the earthbound.
Such is a person’s moral life. We wrestle with ourselves. We seem to be divided into two. Part of us strives towards what is noble and part of us strives towards what is base.
This dichotomy within us or moral war is depicted in various ways. One pop psychology talks of super-ego, ego and id. Super-ego or the “parent voice” tells us to be good. The id is the untamed human nature, which is base. We want to do what we know is not morally allowed. So, we feel the pull. On the other hand our “white horse” pulls us upwards.
In other places Plato speaks of how humans were formed. The mind is in a spherical container (the head). The mind needs a body to get around. Thus, the body is formed. The body has to have a heart, but the heart is full of passion. As a result, the lungs are placed near the heart to draw off its heat.
Emotion should not affect reason. So, the neck is narrow and keeps the heat of the heart from reaching the mind.
Far down in the loins are the dark desires. People must reproduce, but those bits of our equipment are placed as far as possible from the mind. We don’t want emotion or lust to control us.
The image of the charioteer and the two horses is a similar idea. The white horse is the part of us that is seeking what is right, true and honorable. The dark horse is lustful and uncontrollable.
In the longer section of this illustration, which is posted below, the charioteer sees his beloved (or the Beloved). The noble horse draws back and slows down. The base horse snorts and paws and rushes forwards.
The noble charioteer pulls back on the reins so hard that the pair of horses fall on their haunches. The unruly horse is angry and tries to go forward, but again the charioteer pulls back on the reins. In this way, the charioteer tames the unruly horse and develops a harmonious team of horses.
As we make our way through life we try to follow our “upwards” nature. We strive to be noble. Well, people used to.
These days our culture exalts in excess and allowing free rein to our baser desires. We are told that they are not base. However, experience shows that simply giving in to every urge does not lead to happiness or success.
We must struggle with our desires and our passions. We must use our minds to consider the consequences of our actions before we act. It is a difficult task and our “unruly horse” makes it all the more difficult.
Socrates makes clear with this illustration that we can succeed in doing what is morally good, but it will take a lot of effort. This picture reminds me to some extent of St. Paul’s comment, “but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Romans 7:14
Thankfully for those of us who are Christians we have the indwelling Holy Spirit who helps us in this struggle.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 7:24, 25, 8:5, 6
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite—a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him. [246a, 246b]
As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three—two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will now proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion (Or with grey and blood-shot eyes.); the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love. They at first indignantly oppose him and will not be urged on to do terrible and unlawful deeds; but at last, when he persists in plaguing them, they yield and agree to do as he bids them. And now they are at the spot and behold the flashing beauty of the beloved; which when the charioteer sees, his memory is carried to the true beauty, whom he beholds in company with Modesty like an image placed upon a holy pedestal. He sees her, but he is afraid and falls backwards in adoration, and by his fall is compelled to pull back the reins with such violence as to bring both the steeds on their haunches, the one willing and unresisting, the unruly one very unwilling; and when they have gone back a little, the one is overcome with shame and wonder, and his whole soul is bathed in perspiration; the other, when the pain is over which the bridle and the fall had given him, having with difficulty taken breath, is full of wrath and reproaches, which he heaps upon the charioteer and his fellow-steed, for want of courage and manhood, declaring that they have been false to their agreement and guilty of desertion. Again they refuse, and again he urges them on, and will scarce yield to their prayer that he would wait until another time. When the appointed hour comes, they make as if they had forgotten, and he reminds them, fighting and neighing and dragging them on, until at length he on the same thoughts intent, forces them to draw near again. And when they are near he stoops his head and puts up his tail, and takes the bit in his teeth and pulls shamelessly. Then the charioteer is worse off than ever; he falls back like a racer at the barrier, and with a still more violent wrench drags the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed and covers his abusive tongue and jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground and punishes him sorely. And when this has happened several times and the villain has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one he is ready to die of fear. And from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear. [253d – 254e]
Plato, Phaedrus. Trans. By Benjamin Jowett.
Release Date: October 30, 2008 [EBook #1636]
Last Updated: January 15, 2013
Last Updated: January 15, 2013
Accessed 26 November 2016