Plato’s Allegory of the Charioteer and the Care of the Soul

The Allegory of the Charioteer appears in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus from around 370 BC. The conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus ostensibly revolves around the subject of love, but is rather about the art of eloquence. One of the themes discussed is transmigration of souls or metempsychosis, the Ancient Greek concept of reincarnation. Plato had learned from Socrates that during the incarnation – birth on earth – the human soul had lost not only its wings, but also all the knowledge it had ever possessed. He saw it as the philosopher’s task to re-member that lost knowledge through the education of his soul. That was not easy, because in his condition here on earth man was the plaything of his own base lusts, which he first had to learn to control.

The allegory as a stylistic device

In literature, an allegory is a stylistic device in which a story as a sustained metaphor represents a complex idea. Plato uses it, among other things, in his well-known Allegory of the Cave about the distinction between apparent knowledge and the true knowledge of the World of Ideas. In the Allegory of the Charioteer, Plato compares the soul (Psyche) to a chariot. In this allegory he introduces a triple soul consisting of a charioteer and two horses. The charioteer is the symbol of the intellectual and logical part of the soul, and the two horses represent moral virtues and passionate instincts respectively.

Transmigration of souls in the dialogue Phaedrus

Plato and Socrates knew the concept of the immortal soul and its release from the earthly dungeon through purification from the mystery cults, especially that of Orphism. Followers of this religious movement believed in reward or punishment for the soul in the afterlife, depending on whether someone had lived good or bad in their last incarnation. The idea of transmigration of souls was also passed on by Pythagoras to his followers.

The triple soul

This allegory tells of a charioteer who drives a chariot drawn by two winged horses: one is white, noble and immortal, and the other is black, mortal and the exact opposite in origin and character. The evil horse represents the desiring part of the soul and is responsible for the soul losing its wings in the starry world. According to Plato, most people are controlled by that lowest part of the soul and fail to rise above their primitive needs during their lives. However, the white horse is not entirely reliable either, because as a symbol of the soul part of wrath it can side with both the driver and the black horse. In other words: the charioteer (reason) has his hands full leading the unwilling team.

The charioteer’s destination

The charioteer will especially have to ensure that the lowest part of the human soul, that of the physical desires, can suppress the best part of the soul and prevent it from flying upwards, back to the star world where the soul comes from. After all, the charioteer’s destination is the edge of heaven, beyond which he can behold the Forms ‘Truth’ and ‘Absolute knowledge’. If the charioteer is able to behold the Forms, he may make another revolution around the heavens. But if he cannot drive the chariot successfully, the horses’ wings wither from lack of nourishment, or break off when the horses attack each other, or collide with the chariots of others.

The fall from heaven

When the chariot falls from heaven, the horses lose their wings and the soul is embodied in a human, material form. How deep the soul falls and which higher or lower incarnation awaits it depends on the amount of Truth it beheld while in the heavens.

The extent of the fall also determines how long it takes before the horses can regrow their wings and fly again. In summary, the more Truth the charioteer saw on his journey, the shallower his fall, and the easier it is for him to get up and move on to a new enlightenment of his soul.

How the soul can return

Before the soul incarnated, it was therefore allowed to view the Ideas or Forms in the Idea World. Plato, like Socrates, regards incarnation (‘incarnation’, the body as an earthly dungeon) as the fall of the soul. The soul longs for that perfect existence again, and will therefore need to be nourished with knowledge and insight. The Allegory of the Cave describes the philosopher’s educational process: by focusing on the world of Ideas, he can leave behind the transitory make-believe world of everyday reality. The struggle and striving of the human soul to free itself from the earthly prison is depicted in the Allegory of the Charioteer. However, as long as the soul allows itself to be carried away by the lowest part and pursues a life of pleasure and desires, this will not succeed.

Plato’s classification of the ideal state based on the parts of the soul

Plato also takes the threefold division of the soul with the charioteer as reason (logos) as the basis for the division of his ideal state. Everyone is given a task that suits them best. Anyone who allowed himself to be carried away by pleasure in his last incarnation belongs to the lowest class. Control over their actions is in the hands of a middle class of ‘watchmen’, the better horse of the charioteer. The rationally gifted driver or philosopher-king presides over the ideal state.

Plato’s use of myths

The Phaedrus is not the only dialogue in which Plato uses myth to clarify his philosophical ideas and to convince his readers of their correctness. Myths appear in no fewer than fourteen of his dialogues. The myth of the winged soul in Phaedrus tells how the soul travels through the heavens before reincarnation, tries to behold true reality, and after incarnation tries to remember the eternal Forms.

,The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness; and by these the wings of the soul are nourished and grow quickly; but when they are nourished with evil and impurity and the opposite of good, they wither and fall away., – Phaedrus 246e.

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