Plato’s “Phaedrus”: The Cosmic Drama of the Soul

Plato was a master story-teller, perhaps that is why Christians took so fondly to him as Jesus was also a master story-teller. While most of Plato’s famous allegories are contained in The Republic, one of the most famous of Plato’s allegories that escaped the confines of The Republic is the Allegory of the Chariot (or soul) in Phaedrus. There Plato paints a grand portrait of the human odyssey likened to a charioteer with two horses.

“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.” The charioteer, the noble horse, and the wayward horse constitute the tripartite nature of man according to Plato. The charioteer is, of course, the human. The two horses represent the two contrasting motivating impulses in the human: the rational impulse (the noble horse) and the carnal impulse (the wayward horse).

The noble horse, the rational appetite of the soul, is directed to transcendent things: The Good, The True, and the Beautiful. This horse, though noble, is in contest with the wayward horse, the ignoble horse, the horse of carnal appetite or non-rational desire. The wayward horse is captive to the passions and has its sights directed to purely material things to satiate its bodily organs. The charioteer is caught up in this contest between justification and concupiscence.

The noble horse is symbolically colored white. The wayward horse is symbolically colored black. Unlike pathetic Marxist and anti-racist deconstructionists who read into modern prejudices of racism and racial oppression, the colors symbolize purity and nobility (white) and death and destruction (black). Only an idiot could read racism into the colors of the horses and proves they have no knowledge of the Greek symbolic tradition of art and colors. To follow the wayward horse, the black horse, is the highway to hell. To be led by the noble horse is the ascent up Mount Purgatory to the celestial realm to understand and see the world in all its splendor and glory.

It is important to remember that Plato maintained that the soul was the seat of the rational intellect, directed to the Forms to understand and actualize. Plato’s soul, then, is the same burning soul of St. Augustine which longs after the consuming fire which grants eternal rest and felicity, and the energized soul of St. Thomas Aquinas which is directed to the goodness and beauty of God to become a divine instantiation of divinity in its actualized potentiality. The chariot is potential, after all.

The chariot sits in the intermediate state of the celestial divine above and the dark hell below. The charioteer, the human soul, burns with passions—the noble passion after Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and the irrational passion of the appetites. Thus, we either go up or down. There is no third road.

To steer with the noble horse is difficult. It takes much effort and is extremely tiresome. However, the reward of this tiresome effort is far greater than taking the easy road to hell. G.K. Chesterton wrote that the Christian life isn’t tried because it is hard. Thus, most people choose the path of hell because it is wide with many easy roads to walk on. The same notion is being communicated by Plato. To steer the noble horse is the most difficult path to take in life. It demands constant fighting against the carnal appetites which lust after the things easy to consume in the world—but which, while temporarily satiated in that moment, rears itself back to “life” against shortly thereafter. The easier path, the easier road, the easier life, is give up the reins and allow the wayward horse to control you because you’re just along for the ride.

It is important to recognize that the wayward horse of carnal appetites also has a relationship of objectification in the world. The wayward horse sees everything as an object to consume or gain pleasure from. It doesn’t see the world through the lens of subjectivity, intelligibility, or beauty. Everything is mere instrumental objects for fuel and self-pleasure. The noble horse, however, along with the rational soul, is directed to higher goods, higher things, transcendent things; ultimately, the noble horse and rational soul are directed to subjectivity, diversity, and beauty—the enlightenment of the noble soul is not an object orient ontology but a subject-subject world of encounter and revelation.

Among other famous chariot stories in ancient Greek history and lore, it is also the case that Plato is combating the story of the Fall of Phaeton. Phaeton was moved by his desires, his appetite, his lust to show himself worthy of seizing his father’s chariot and claim his divinity. He acted irrationally and fell to his death which awaits all of us, like the charioteer who allows himself to be driven by the wayward horse. However, if we run the race, struggle to the bitter end, the reward is that which eluded Phaeton and eludes most people who take the easy path to death.

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As is common with Plato’s dialogues, his famous myth has many layers to it. Since Plato was an ethicist and political philosopher, one should also see how this myth is related to the drama of the political. How a polis, in being steered by the noble or wayward horse, will suffer the same fate as the individual rider as portrayed in the myth.

A political society, a political body, that is overcome by its carnal appetites is a political body that is controlled by the wayward horse. As such, that polis will descend to death. It will become a decadent and hedonistic society crashing down in fire, like Phaeton, to its doom as all who follow their carnal appetites do. A political body, however, that struggles to rein in the wayward horse and be guided by the noble horse ascends to the celestial realm of immortality and perfection.

The polis, in this myth, finds itself in a transitionary or intermediate state of being. It is between the destructive fire of darkness below and the light of immortality, perfection, and beauty above. It has two paths to follow at this point: the path of the soul and rational control of the appetites, represented by the noble horse, or the path of carnal lusts and out of control desires, represented by the ignorable horse. This is a choice.

The drama of the soul is the drama of the political because man, who is soul, is defined by his political nature in Plato. There is no way to escape it. Plato presents, in many ways, what St. Augustine would reflect more deeply upon in The City of God. There are two cities. Two men. Two societies. There is the city of lust and death—the ignoble horse, which is falling. Then there is the city of the soul, of reason and love—the noble horse, which is ascending. We find ourselves part of this eternal drama. Plato passes the torch onto us: What horse, what city, what character, of this cosmic drama will you be part of?

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