Since the dawn of humanity, men have pondered the fundamental questions of what it means to live a good life, achieve excellence, and become the best version of oneself. The ancient Greeks, particularly the philosophers, have offered some of the keenest insights into these timeless questions.
Plato’s allegory of the Chariot is one such example. It is a powerful symbol that depicts the tripartite nature of the human psyche and serves as a guide for attaining manliness, excellence, and full human flourishing.
In this article, we will delve into the meaning of Plato’s allegory of the chariot, which has endured for centuries as a testament to the human condition. Although the concept is complex and requires deep reflection, our aim is to lay a solid foundation for future discussions on thumos – an often-overlooked but critical component of Plato’s vision that remains relevant even in modern times.
The Allegory of the Chariot
Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, shares the allegory of the chariot in the Phaedrus to explain the tripartite nature of the human soul or psyche. The allegory describes a chariot pulled by two winged horses – one mortal and one immortal.
The mortal horse is described as “crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow…of a dark color, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” In contrast, the immortal horse is noble and game, “upright and cleanly made…his color is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honor 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.”
In the driver’s seat is the charioteer, tasked with reining in these disparate steeds, guiding and harnessing them to propel the vehicle with strength and efficiency. The charioteer’s destination is the ridge of heaven, beyond which he may behold the Forms – essences of things like Beauty, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Goodness – everlasting Truth and absolute Knowledge. These essences nourish the horses’ wings, keeping the chariot in flight.
The charioteer joins a procession of gods, led by Zeus, on this trip into the heavens. Unlike human souls, the gods have two immortal horses to pull their chariots and are able to easily soar above. Mortals, on the other hand, have a much more turbulent ride. The white horse wishes to rise, but the dark horse attempts to pull the chariot back towards the earth. As the horses pull in opposing directions, and the charioteer attempts to get them into sync, his chariot bobs above the ridge of heaven then down again, and he catches glimpses of the great beyond before sinking once more.
If the charioteer is able to behold the Forms, he gets to go on another revolution around the heavens. But if he cannot successfully pilot the chariot, the horses’ wings wither from lack of nourishment, or break off when the horses collide and attack each other, or crash into the chariots of others. The chariot then plummets to earth, the horses lose their wings, and the soul becomes embodied in human flesh. The degree to which the soul falls, and the “rank” of the mortal being it must then be embodied in is based on the amount of Truth it beheld while in the heavens.
The degree of the fall also determines how long it takes for the horses to regrow their wings and once again take flight. Basically, the more Truth the charioteer beheld on his journey, the shallower his fall, and the easier it is for him to get up and get going again. The regrowth of the wings is hastened by the mortal soul encountering people and experiences that contain touches of divinity, and recall to his memory the Truth he beheld in his preexistence. Plato describes such moments as looking “through the glass dimly” and they hasten the soul’s return to the heavens.
Interpreting Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot
Plato’s allegory of the chariot is a complex concept that can be interpreted on multiple levels, including spiritual transcendence, personal progress, attainment of “Superhuman” status, and psychological health. In this article, we’ll explore the different interpretations of the allegory and delve into the main points.
The Tripartite Soul
The allegory of the chariot is a metaphor for the soul, represented by the chariot, the charioteer, and the white and dark horses. The charioteer symbolizes man’s Reason, the dark horse represents his appetites, and the white horse represents his thumos or spiritedness.
The Greeks believed that these elements of the soul were physical, almost independent entities that could move a person to act and think in certain ways. Each element had its own motivations and desires, with reason seeking truth and knowledge, the appetites seeking food, drink, sex, and material wealth, and thumos seeking glory, honor, and recognition.
Plato believed that reason had the highest aims, followed by thumos and then the appetites. The charioteer’s job was to discern the best aims to pursue and train his horses to work together towards those aims. He must have vision and purpose and understand the nature and desires of his two horses to properly harness their energies.
Aristotle described the three elements of the soul as the contemplative, hedonistic, and political, or, knowledge, pleasure, and honor. By properly harnessing each element of the soul, a person can become eudaimon or “happy.”
The allegory of the chariot is a powerful metaphor for the soul, representing man’s Reason, appetites, and thumos. By harnessing each element of the soul, a person can achieve spiritual transcendence, personal progress, attainment of “Superhuman” status, or psychological health. Plato believed that reason had the highest aims and that the charioteer’s job was to train his horses to work together towards those aims. By doing so, a person can become eudaimon or “happy.”
Obtaining Harmony of Soul: A Guide to Mastering the Three Forces Within
If you’re seeking to live a life of virtue and truth, it’s essential to first attain self-mastery and beautiful order within yourself. According to Plato, this means harmonizing the three principles of your soul: Reason, thumos, and appetite.
The deft charioteer, as Plato describes, understands each role these three forces play in the soul and guides them in carrying out their roles without either entirely usurping them or allowing them to interfere with each other. By achieving harmony amongst these elements, the charioteer channels their energies towards his goals, rather than dissipating them in contradictory and detrimental directions.
To achieve this harmony, the charioteer identifies his best and truest desires and guides his horses towards them, rather than letting them run wild. Each horse has its strengths and weaknesses, and the white horse can lead a man into the wrong path just as the dark horse can. But when properly trained, thumos becomes the ally of the charioteer, working with Reason to pull the appetites into sync.
Once the three forces are in harmony, the charioteer becomes a unit, one man instead of many, self-controlled and in unison. Only then can he turn to practice, whether it’s in the getting of wealth, the tendance of the body, political action, or private business. In all such doings, he believes and names the just and honorable action to be that which preserves and helps to produce this condition of the soul.
In summary, to attain the harmony of the soul, one must understand the roles of Reason, thumos, and appetite and guide them towards their proper roles. By doing so, you can become a unified and self-controlled individual capable of achieving your goals in life.
The foundational nature of gaining mastery over one’s soul, Plato continues, highlights the importance of self-reflection and self-improvement in all aspects of life. By understanding one’s own motivations, desires, and weaknesses, an individual can take control of their life and make deliberate choices that align with their values.
This pursuit of self-mastery and knowledge is not only a personal journey but also has implications for society as a whole. Plato argues that a just society requires just individuals, and therefore, it is the duty of each person to strive towards virtuous and ethical behavior.
In the allegory of the chariot, the charioteer’s success in directing his horses depends on his knowledge of the Forms – the universal concepts that shape reality. Similarly, in our own lives, our ability to make informed decisions and progress towards our goals is enhanced by seeking knowledge and wisdom. This can come in many forms, such as reading books, seeking mentorship, or pursuing education.
Plato believed that discovering all truth was not simply a process of learning but of remembering what one once knew. This idea speaks to the notion that humans possess innate wisdom and understanding, and that our goal in life is to rediscover and reconnect with this knowledge. By doing so, we can avoid the pitfalls of vice and stay true to our authentic selves.
Ultimately, Plato’s philosophy of self-mastery and the pursuit of knowledge serves as a blueprint for living a fulfilling and purposeful life. By recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, understanding the universal principles that govern reality, and staying true to our values, we can achieve harmony within ourselves and make meaningful contributions to society.
Understanding the Dark Horse: Mastering Your Appetites
In order to train and harness the power latent in the forces of his soul, a man must understand the nature of his “horses” and how to utilize their strengths and rein in their weaknesses. This metaphorical understanding of the human soul comes from Plato’s “Phaedrus” dialogue, where he describes the soul as a charioteer riding in a chariot pulled by two horses: a noble white horse representing the rational and virtuous part of the soul, and a dark horse representing the appetitive and passionate part of the soul.
A man’s dark horse, or appetites, are not difficult to understand; you have probably felt its primal pull towards money, sex, food, and drink many times in your life. These basic desires are an intrinsic part of being human, and can’t simply be ignored or repressed.
But despite our intimate acquaintance with our appetites, or perhaps because of it, the dark horse is not easy to properly train and make use of. Doing so requires achieving moderation, or as Aristotle would put it, finding the “golden mean” between extremes.
A man who lets his appetites run completely wild is the unabashed hedonist. He does not seek to rein in the dark horse at all, letting him pull the chariot after whichever pleasure crosses its path. This is the man who lives for nothing higher than to eat good food, get drunk, have sex, and make money. He seeks after effeminizing luxury with abandon and will do anything to get it. With no check to his behavior, the result can be a giant gut, pickled brains, massive debt, and a prison sentence for corruption.
A life wholly dedicated to the satisfaction of one’s bodily and pecuniary pleasures make man no different than the animals. Aristotle called such a life bovine, and Plato argued that the result of letting oneself be dominated by his appetites “is the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part.” Such a man, Plato submitted, should be “deemed wretched.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the man who sees his physical desires as wholly wrong or sinful – troublesome or evil stumbling blocks on the path to spiritual purity or enlightenment. This man seeks to nullify his flesh, and cut off its cravings for pleasure entirely. This is the man who spends so much of his life thinking of sex as sinful, that he can’t turn off that association and enjoy it, even after he is married. He averts his eyes from women as living porn. Food is merely fuel. He often seems flat, sterile, and closed off to others, though often you can sense the bottled impulses bubbling beneath the surface that he’s tried so hard to deny. And because of the lack of a healthy outlet, that bubbling often becomes a toxic stew that will one day burst forth in a decidedly unhealthy way.
Plato believed that the appetites were the lowest of the forces of the soul, and that allowing the dark horse to dominate and enslave you would lead to a base, unvirtuous life far from arête and eudaimonia. Yet he also argued that the dark horse, if properly trained, imparted just as much energy to the pulling of the chariot as the white horse did. The chariot that soars highest makes use of both horses side by side. A would-be ace charioteer neither entirely indulges his dark horse nor wholly cuts him off. He harnesses and directs the energy in a positive way. Between the two extremes of unchecked hedonism and the iron-fisted squashing of bodily appetites lies a middle way.
In addition to Aristotle and Plato’s ideas, there are also various modern perspectives on the nature of the dark horse. Some psychologists believe that the dark horse represents the id, the unconscious part of the psyche that is responsible for our primitive desires and drives. According to this theory, the id operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification without regard for consequences or social norms. In contrast, the superego represents our conscience, enforcing morality and social norms. The ego, which mediates between the id and the superego, strives to balance our desires with social norms and personal ethics.
From a biological perspective, the dark horse may also be related to the reward system in the brain. The pleasure we derive from satisfying our physical appetites is mediated by the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This system can be hijacked by addiction, where the pursuit of pleasure becomes compulsive and destructive.
However, it is important to note that the dark horse is not necessarily a negative force. In fact, it can be a source of energy and motivation. The key is to harness its power in a balanced way, rather than allowing it to dominate our lives or suppressing it entirely.
Ultimately, understanding the dark horse is about achieving self-mastery and balance. It is about acknowledging and accepting our primal desires, while also directing them towards virtuous ends. By finding the golden mean between indulgence and repression, we can cultivate a life that is both fulfilling and meaningful.