The allegory of the charioteer is one of many ancient Greek stories. The story goes that there was a time when humans roamed freely without any owners and were able to have anything they wanted, so their life consisted in eating what they needed, hunting for food, sleeping wherever and fighting with each other. A god called Zeus decides it’s about time someone owns everything since no one can be bothered doing it themselves anymore (no wonder why this myth is also known as “The Age Of Gold”). He then creates two gods: Athena who represents order or lawfulness and Ares who represents chaos or disorder.
The allegory of the chariot is a parable in which a man who has been blind from birth is given his sight by an old man. The old man tells him that if he wants to see, all he needs to do is follow his instructions and be patient.
The allegory of the chariot was written by Plato in 360 BC.
What does it mean to be a man? What kind of guy should I aspire to be? What exactly does it imply to live a decent life? What is the most effective way to live, and how can I achieve excellence? What should my goals be, and what training and activities should I undertake to reach them?
Thousands of years have passed since such questions were posed. Few persons have battled with them more, or offered greater insight into the solutions, than ancient Greek philosophers. Plato’s view of the tripartite nature of the soul, or psyche, as articulated via the metaphor of the chariot, is one I’ve returned to many times during my life. It serves as an unrivaled emblem of what a man is, may be, and must accomplish in order to achieve andreia (manliness), arête (excellence), and lastly eudaimonia (full human flourishing).
We’ll talk about that allegory and its implications today. While understanding and pondering the entire allegory can provide great insight, the ultimate goal of this article is to lay the groundwork for two more posts to come, in which we will uncover the nature of the one aspect of Plato’s vision of the soul that has been almost entirely lost to modern men: thumos.
The Chariot: An Allegory
Plato (via his mouthpiece, Socrates) uses the metaphor of the chariot in the Phaedrus to describe the human soul’s or psyche’s tripartite nature.
Two winged horses, one mortal and the other immortal, pull the chariot.
The mortal horse is twisted and stubborn. “A crooked lumbering beast, cobbled together anyhow…of a black tint, with grey eyes and blood-red skin; the partner of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, rarely yielding to lash and spur,” writes Plato.
The eternal horse, on the other hand, is noble and sporty, “upright and neatly made…his color is white, and his eyes black; he is a lover of honor, humility, and temperance, and the follower of genuine glory; he need no touch of the whip, but is lead only by word and advice.”
The charioteer sits in the driver’s seat, entrusted with bringing these different steeds together, leading and harnessing them so that the vehicle may move with strength and efficiency. What is the charioteer’s final destination? Beyond the ridge of sky, he can see the Forms, which are essences of things like Beauty, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Goodness — eternal Truth and ultimate Knowledge. These essences keep the chariot flying by nourishing the horses’ wings.
On this journey into the sky, the charioteer joins a parade of gods headed by Zeus. The gods, unlike human souls, have two eternal horses to draw their chariots and can easily fly beyond the clouds. Mortals, on the other hand, are in for a far bumpier trip. The white horse desires to ascend, while the black horse tries to drag the chariot back to the ground. His chariot bobs over the ridge of heaven then down again, and he gets views of the wide beyond before falling once more as the horses pull in opposite ways and the charioteer tries to keep them in rhythm.
If the charioteer can see the Forms, he will be granted another rotation around the skies. However, if he fails to effectively pilot the chariot, the horses’ wings wither due to a lack of nutrition, or break off when the horses clash and attack one another, or collide with other chariots. The chariot then crashes to the ground, the horses’ wings fall off, and the soul is encased in human flesh. The quantity of Truth the soul saw while in the heavens determines the degree to which it descends and the “rank” of the mortal person it must thereafter be embodied in. The concept of reincarnation appeals to me. The length of time it takes for the horses to regenerate their wings and achieve flight is also determined by the severity of the fall. The charioteer’s fall gets shorter the more Truth he sees on his ride, and the simpler it is for him to rise up and keep going again. The mortal soul’s regeneration of wings is accelerated by meeting individuals and events that carry traces of divinity and remind him of the Truth he saw in his previous life. Such times, according to Plato, are like “seeing through a slightly tinted window,” hastening the soul’s return to the skies.
The Allegory’s Interpretation
Plato’s chariot allegory may be understood in a variety of ways, including as a metaphor for the journey to godhood, spiritual transcendence, personal growth and achievement of “Superhuman” status, or psychological well-being. There’s a lot to think about here. We’ll go through a few of the important themes in more detail below.
The Three-Parted Soul
The soul and its three primary components are symbolized by the chariot, charioteer, and white and black horses.
The Charioteer symbolizes man’s Reason, while the black horse represents his desires and the white horse represents his thumos. Next week, we’ll go further into the meaning of thumos, but for now, just think of it as “spiritedness.” The three parts of soul are also known as the lover of knowledge (charioteer), the lover of wealth (dark horse), and the lover of triumph (dark horse) (white horse). The three components were defined by Aristotle as contemplative, hedonistic, and political, or knowledge, pleasure, and honor.
These aspects of soul were seen by the Greeks as corporeal, virtually separate beings, not so much with bodies as with genuine powers, such as electricity, that might drive a man to behave and think in certain ways. Reason wants truth and knowledge, the appetites seek food, drink, sex, and material prosperity, and thumos seeks glory, honor, and renown, and each element has its own motives and ambitions. Reason, according to Plato, has the greatest goals, followed by thumos, and last appetites. Each soul energy, however, may assist a man in becoming eudaimon if properly harnessed and used.
Reason’s task is to determine the best goals to pursue with the help of thumos, and then teach his “horses” to work together to achieve those goals. He must have vision and purpose as the charioteer – he must know where he is going – and he must understand the nature and wants of his two horses if he is to harness their energy appropriately. A charioteer may make a mistake by either forgetting to attach one of the horses to the chariot or neglecting to bridle the animal and allowing him to go free. “The best portion [Reason] is inherently weak in a man such that it cannot manage and control the brood of animals inside him but can only serve them and learn nothing but the methods of charming them,” Plato said in the later situation.
Obtaining Soul Harmony
The skilled charioteer is aware of his own impulses, as well as the demands of thumos and hunger, yet he does not allow his two horses to go wild. He surrenders to Reason, assesses all of his wants, selects the greatest and purest – those that lead to virtue and truth – and directs his horses toward them. He doesn’t ignore or indulge them; instead, he uses them to his advantage. Each horse has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the white horse, like the black horse, may lead a man down the wrong road, but when properly educated, thumos becomes the charioteer’s partner. Reason and thumos operate together to synchronize the appetites.
Rather of having a “civil war amongst them,” the adept charioteer recognizes each of the three powers of his soul’s roles and directs them in fulfilling them without completely usurping them or allowing them to conflict with one another. He establishes a balance between the factors. As a result, rather than expending his efforts in counterproductive and harmful ways, he directs them toward his objectives.
Plato claims that achieving this state of soul harmony is a prerequisite for undertaking any other task in life:
“Having first achieved self-mastery and beautiful order within himself, and having harmonized these three principles, the notes or intervals of three terms quite literally the lowest, the highest, and the mean, and all others there may be between them, and having linked and bound all three together and made of himself a unit, one man instead of many, self-controlled and in unison, he should then and only turn to practice if he find aught to do either in the getti or in the getti
Plato continues, “The underlying essence of achieving dominion over one’s soul”
“Is the chief reason why, neglecting all other studies, each of us should seek after and study this thing—if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and knowledge to distinguish the good life from the bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the circumstances allow.”
“Will happily take part in and enjoy those which he believes will make him a better man, but in public and private life he will reject those that may upset the established habit of his soul,” says a man who makes this quest his goal and enables it to govern all of his thoughts and activities.
Taking Off and Moving Forward on Our Journey
As you may recall, the chariot falls from the sky in the metaphor of the chariot when the horses do not get appropriate nutrition from the Forms, or when the horses revolt and the charioteer fails to guide them properly. They lose their wings and must remain on earth until they regenerate, which may be accelerated by recalling what they saw before the fall.
Plato felt that understanding all truth was a matter of recalling what one already knew, rather than learning anything new. His thought may be translated as “before this life, there was a preexistence.” However, it also has symbolic significance. When we submit to vice (being overcome by the dark horse), we go off track in becoming the men we want to be. We tend to succumb to vice when we forget who we are, who we want to be, and the insights into those two pieces of information we have previously obtained and experienced. Doing activities that remind us of the principles we cherish keeps us “on the move” and moving forward in our lives.
I strongly advise you to read the following articles for additional information on this vital topic: Hold Tight: How Forgetting Can Derail Your Journey to Becoming the Man You Want to Be, and How Remembrance Can Help
Recognizing the Dark Horse
A man must grasp the nature of his “horses” and how to use their strengths while reining in their shortcomings in order to train and harness the power inherent in the energies of his soul.
It’s not difficult to comprehend a man’s dark horse, or cravings; you’ve undoubtedly felt its primitive pull towards money, sex, food, and booze many times in your life.
But, despite, or maybe because of, our intimate knowledge of our desires, the dark horse is difficult to effectively train and deploy. To do so, you must practice moderation, or, as Aristotle put it, find the “golden middle” between two extremes.
The unashamed hedonist is a guy who lets his cravings run wild. He makes no attempt to restrain the black horse, instead allowing him to drag the chariot after whatever pleasure comes his way. This is the guy who just cares about eating delicious food, getting drunk, having sex, and making money. He is obsessed with effeminizing luxury and would go to any length to have it. Without a check on his conduct, the upshot may be a big belly, pickled brains, tremendous debt, and a corruption jail term.
A life devoted only to the fulfilment of one’s physiological and financial desires reduces man to the status of an animal. Aristotle referred to such a life as bovine, while Plato said that allowing one’s cravings to rule one’s life results in the “ruthless servitude of the divinest element of himself to the most contemptible and godless part.” Plato proposed that such a guy be “deemed miserable.”
The guy who regards his physical impulses as completely inappropriate or wicked stumbling hurdles on the way to spiritual purity or enlightenment is on the opposite extreme of the spectrum. This guy aspires to numb his skin and completely eliminate its need for pleasure. This is the guy who has spent so much of his life thinking of sex as wicked that he can’t turn it off and enjoy it, even after he’s married. He looks away from ladies as if they were live porn. Food is just a source of energy. He seems flat, antiseptic, and closed off to others on many occasions, however you can frequently feel the bottled urges seething under the surface that he’s worked so hard to conceal. Because there isn’t a healthy outlet for that simmering, it frequently turns into a poisonous stew that will eventually explode in a manner that is very harmful.
Plato felt that the dark horse of the soul was the lowest of the soul’s energies, and that allowing it to control and enslave you would lead to a base, unvirtuous existence distant from arête and eudaimonia. He also said that, if properly taught, the black horse could provide just as much energy to the chariot’s hauling as the white horse. Both horses are used side by side in the chariot that flies the highest. A would-be ace charioteer neither indulges nor completely ignores his dark horse. He captures the energy and directs it in a beneficial direction.
A medium ground exists between the two extremes of unbridled hedonism and the iron-fisted suffocation of physiological cravings. This is the guy who retains a feeling of sensuality and earthiness, who finds space for bodily and financial pleasures while keeping them in their correct context, and who, as Dr. Robin Meyers puts it, can “find the virtue in the vice.” He likes sex to the fullest, but only when it is done in the context of love and commitment. He likes nice food and drink without indulging in mindless consumption. He values money and the things it can buy, but he does not make earning it his primary goal.
When properly taught and guided, the black horse may take one closer to the happy life rather than farther away. Pleasures that are met in a discreet manner keep a guy happy and balanced, as well as healthy and inspired to pursue his greater ambitions. And those higher goals may be reached directly via appetites. When balanced, the desire for money may lead to success, recognition, and independence. When used correctly, lust leads to love, and Plato felt that gazing at one’s lover was a key to remembering the Beauty of the Forms and regrowing one’s wings for another journey into the sky.
That is the nature of the black horse — a power that, depending on the charioteer’s skill, may be employed for good or evil. It is very simple to comprehend, though not always to live. But, thumos, what about the white horse? That’s a different story. There is no current counterpart to this archaic idea in our language. We’ve called it “spiritedness” here, but it really contains a lot more. Next time, we’ll return to that issue.
Read Part 2: Do You Have Thumos?
The full Phaedrus may be read for free online here. In Book IX of the Republic, Plato/Socrates tackled the problem from a different perspective and metaphor — that of a reasonable man, lion, and hydra-like beast.
Ted Slampyak created the illustration.
The “allegory of the chariot explanation” is a short story written by an unknown author. It tells the story of how a person’s life can get better or worse depending on their actions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the chariot analogy Buddhism?
A: In Buddhism, the chariot is an important symbol of lifes journey. The Buddhist scriptures allude to passages in which a figure called Mara attempted to prevent Siddhartha from reaching enlightenment, sending his disciples after him with carts and cudgels (a reference to their weapons). When they were unable to stop Siddhartha on foot or by driving off with their carts and cudgels, this was considered proof that he had reached enlightenment.
What is the main message of the allegory of the cave?
What is Platos white horse?
A: Platos white horse is a symbol in which it indicates the journey of death, because it is meant to represent what an individual must go through on their final voyage.
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