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Plato's Chariot Allegory

Plato's Phaedrus

chariot allegory type vase image


The Chariot Allegory appears in Plato's work Phaedrus which is considered to have been composed around 370 BC, about the same time as Plato's The Republic.

A few selections from Phaedrus, as translated by Benjamin Jowett, will be set out below after some explanatory sentences intended to make for better understanding of the meanings Plato was intending to convey in this Chariot Allegory.

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Phaedrus largely consists of dialogue attributed to Plato's friend, and teacher, Socrates.

After making a case for the immortality of the soul Socrates introduces a Chariot Allegory depicting each soul as the "natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer".
The souls of gods are depicted as having two good horses whilst all others have one good and beautiful white horse and another dark or black horse which is neither good nor beautiful.
Socrates holds that in heaven there is a procession of chariots led by Zeus. The ride is turbulent and unpredictable in that the good and beautiful white horse wishes to rise, but the dark horse attempts to pull the chariot back towards the earth.
Immortal souls that succeed in following the gods closely just about manage to glimpse divine reality and are nourished and grow in the presence of wisdom, goodness, and divinity.
Other souls, while straining to keep up, are unable to rise, and in noisy, sweaty discord they leave uninitiated, not having seen reality.
When the chariot plummets to earth, the horses lose their wings, and the soul becomes embodied in human flesh.

The Chariot Allegory then asserts Metempsychosis, ( an Ancient Greek version of Incarnation - Karma ), under which those souls which have "seen the most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature" with those who have (successively) seen less truth being (successively) less favoured in "the birth" as …

a righteous king or warrior chief
a politician, or economist, or trader

all the way down to:
the soul which has never seen the truth (and which) will not pass into the human form.

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Some selections concerning the Chariot Allegory from Plato's Phaedrus
Translation by Benjamin Jowett
…the body which is moved from without is soulless; but that which is moved from within has a soul, for such is the nature of the soul. But if this be true, must not the soul be the self-moving, and therefore of necessity umbegotten and immortal? Enough of the soul's immortality.

Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite -- a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.
I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing; -- when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground -- there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. For immortal no such union can reasonably believed to be; …

… And now let us ask why the soul loses her wings! The wing is the corporeal element which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downward into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good wastes and fall away. …

… The chariots of the gods in even poise, obeying the rein, glide rapidly; but the others labour, for the vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained:-- and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul. …

… The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad …

… The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world and they all follow, but not being strong enough they are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion.
The reason why the souls exhibit this exceeding eagerness to behold the plain of truth is that pasturage is found there, which is suited to the highest part of the soul; and the wing on which the soul soars is nourished with this. And there is a law of Destiny, that the soul which attains any vision of truth in company with a god is preserved from harm until the next period, and if attaining always is always unharmed. But when she is unable to follow, and fails to behold the truth, and through some ill-hap sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice, and her wings fall from her and she drops to the ground, then the law ordains that this soul shall at her first birth pass, not into any other animal, but only into man; and the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature; that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be some righteous king or warrior chief; the soul which is of the third class shall be a politician, or economist, or trader; the fourth shall be lover of gymnastic toils, or a physician; the fifth shall lead the life of a prophet or hierophant; to the sixth the character of poet or some other imitative artist will be assigned; to the seventh the life of an artisan or husbandman; to the eighth that of a sophist or demagogue; to the ninth that of a tyrant -- all these are states of probation, in which he who does righteously improves, and he who does unrighteously, deteriorates his lot. …

… But the soul which has never seen the truth will not pass into the human form. For a man must have intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one conception of reason; -- this is the recollection of those things which our soul once saw while following God -- when regardless of that which we now call being she raised her head up towards the true being. …

… For, as has been already said, every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things they once saw …

… As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three -- two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour 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. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.  
Source: Plato, Phaedrus [245e-253e], trans. Benjamin Jowett

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Several truly notable authorities
endorse Tripartite Soul Theory

Key Socratic Dialogues from
Book 4 and Book 9 of Plato's Republic

Plato's Ideal State       Plato's Chariot allegory      

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