Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Phaedrus (Part II: Winged Horses and a Charioteer)

Socrates begins his palinode by insisting that the main assumption in both Lysias's speech and his first speech, that madness is always a bad thing, is certainly false, for "in reality the greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods" (244a). There is a kind of madness that has oracular power, being genuinely inspired, not lowering us below our ordinary human sanity, but above it. He gives three examples: oracles and sibyls, the mania by which cursed families manage to purify themselves of their curses, and the poetic inspiration given by the Muses which raises a poet above mere skill. Thus the point on which the question turns is not whether love is a kind of madness; it is whether love is heavenly madness or not. Thus Socrates sets out to prove that love, eros, can indeed be a gift of the gods. To do this requires that we learn about our souls, which we do by examining the ways in which they act or are acted on. ('Soul' or psyche means here what makes one a living thing, so that Plato will, for instance, go on to talk about the souls of the gods.) The first point to grasp is that the soul is immortal, because it is self-moved. What is self-moved, however, can be neither originated nor destroyed.

With this in hand, we can see that a rigorous account of the soul would be difficult and long, but we can get far if we describe the soul by a figure. This brings us to one of the two major myths in the dialogue, the Myth of the Chariot. Imagine the soul as a chariot pulled by two winged horses and driven by a charioteer.

Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and [246b] of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome. (246a-b)

We can imagine the entire cosmos as a great crowd of chariots led by the gods along the circuit of heaven; the wings of the chariots are for mounting up to the gods, thus living a life of beauty, wisdom, justice, and the like. However, not all chariots use their wings well, and some of them even lose their wings. When the gods go to feast, all the chariots follow as best they can, each in the train of some god, but in human beings the less noble steed has more difficulty rising, so that if the horse is not trained well it will drag the chariot down entirely. This can be a problem; to remain in use, the wings of the horses must be nourished, and they can only receive their proper nourishment by rising with the gods to the meadows of pure mind and truth, beyond the heavens. Sometimes souls fall to the earth, and this is how human beings have different souls, because they saw more or less in their ascension to the feast. The soul that has risen up to see the heavens most clearly, but failed to remain there, becomes the soul of a true philosopher or true lover; the next kind of soul becomes the soul of a lawful king or noble warrior; the third a politician or businessman; the fourth an athlete or doctor; the fifth a priest; the sixth a poet or talented imitator; the seventh a craftsman or husbandman; the eighth a sophist or demagogue; and the ninth, who saw least of the outer heavens, a tyrant. Each of these souls has a space of ten thousand years to rectify its weaknesses, except for the true philosophers and lovers, who only need three thousand. After each life, the souls are judged; having been judged, they are sent to whatever places of correction or reward the justice of their life deserves. Then, when a thousand years are up, they choose a new life:

Then a human soul may pass into the life of a beast, and a soul which was once human, may pass again from a beast into a man. For the soul which has never seen the truth can never pass into human form. For a human being must understand a general conception formed by collecting into a unity by means of reason the many perceptions of the senses; and this is a recollection of those things which our soul once beheld, when it journeyed with God and, lifting its vision above the things which we now say exist, rose up into real being. And therefore it is just that the mind of the philosopher only has wings, for he is always, so far as he is able, in communion through memory with those things the communion with which causes God to be divine. Now a man who employs such memories rightly is always being initiated into perfect mysteries and he alone becomes truly perfect; but since he separates himself from human interests and turns his attention toward the divine, he is rebuked by the vulgar, who consider him mad and do not know that he is inspired. (249b-d)

The true lover has this kind of madness. Seeing beauty on earth, he remembers something of the heavenly beauty he once saw. Nourished by this beauty, his wings begin growing, and he aches to stretch them out and soar to the heavens. But he cannot, and so comes across as strange to everyone else, since he neglects earthly things, so intent is he on the heavenly things to which he yearns to fly. He is like a bird with clipped wings, longing to soar.

We have difficulty recalling the perfect exemplars of justice, temperance, and the like; but if our souls have seen the beauty of the pure realm, we still retain something of it in our memories, and it shines brilliantly in the beautiful things around us. Those who cannot remember this beauty, as in the case of those who have corrupted their souls, do not easily recognize what they are seeing, but proceed immediately to lust and procreation, pursuing only pleasure. Those who are not completely corrupted, however, find themselves maddened with the sweet madness of desire. Exalted by this desire, each soul imitates the god in whose train its chariot followed; those who followed Zeus, for instance, become ennobled, being able to love greatly without being destroyed by it, whereas those who followed Ares will be in danger of jealousy that tends even to murderous rage. Likewise, those who follow Zeus, since they are made by love to revere the beloved as if the beloved were a god, will love Zeus-like beloveds, noble and philosophical, and will strive through their love to make them even more Zeus-like. And so it goes with all the gods.

In all this, there is a struggle of the charioteer to manage the chariot; the good horse is drawn to the beauty of the lover, but the bad horse must be trained so that it will do what the charioteer requires. When the lover's charioteer manages to get the bad horse under control, the beloved finds that friendship with the lover improves his life, making everything, including himself, better, until something of the lover's own love begins to overflow into him and flow back to the lover. This draws the two together, at which the bad horse begins demanding pleasure for the hard work of avoiding unruliness, while it is opposed by the charioteer and the good horse. If the better elements of the lover prevail, the two live a philosophical life of self-control and harmony, restraining evil and encouraging virtue. If the ignoble horse prevails, however, assuming that they still are partly governed by honor, they will not have such an excellent life, and will give in to weakness (perhaps, says Socrates, if they have been drinking too much) although their wings will still be nourished somewhat by the love. Only if one gives in to the non-lover will one find that there was no benefit whatsoever.

Thus Socrates ends his second speech with a prayer to the god Eros, asking that Phaedrus might be encouraged on the true path of "love and philosophical discourses" (257b).

Phaedrus is so impressed by this second speech that their conversation turns to whether there is any value in writing speeches, as Lysias does, at all.


* The Myth of the Chariot, or the Charioteer, has a number of important connections with other important dialogues -- Timaeus, Republic, Symposium (in which Phaedrus is also a character), Meno, and Phaedo all discuss ideas that are described in symbolic form here. In the Republic, Socrates describes the soul has having three parts, reason, thymos or spirit, and desire, which map quite well to the charioteer, the noble horse, and the ignoble horse. In the Symposium we find a description of how eros lifts the soul up toward true beauty. The discussion of immortality links the myth to Phaedo, the circuits of the chariots suggest the cosmos described in Timaeus, recollection is examined more closely in Meno. This myth, in short, is concentrated Platonism syrup.

to be continued


  1. Enbrethiliel12:27 PM


    When I started reading this part, I was excited by the mention of that divine madness over which we have no control, a fascinating idea which connects Phaedrus to Ion, currently my favourite of Plato's Dialogues. But then Socrates's speech went in a totally unexpected direction!

    I like the imagery of the winged souls and the chariot much better than the allegory of the cave. Do you suppose that the reason the former hasn't been the less popular of the two is that it is tied to the idea of reincarnation? And possibly also astrology or some other sort of mystical "typing" of people?

    But just for fun now, Brandon, whose god's train would you say your soul followed? (Mine trailed after Athena and I'm sticking to that story!)

  2. branemrys7:30 PM

    I think the Myth of the Chariot mostly suffers from being massively more complicated, and part of a dialogue that is somewhat difficult to follow, despite its importance.

    Apollo would be a possibility, but perhaps also Hades. We really need a Sorting Hat, though.


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