Chariot Allegory  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus (sections 246a–254e), uses the Chariot Allegory to explain his view of the human soul. He does this in the dialogue through the character of Socrates, who uses it in a discussion of the merit of Love as "divine madness".

The allegory

Plato paints the picture of a Charioteer (ἡνίοχος) driving a chariot pulled by two winged 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 represents intellect, reason, or the part of the soul that must guide the soul to truth; one horse represents rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature (e.g., righteous indignation); while the other represents the soul's irrational passions, appetites, or concupiscent nature. The Charioteer directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, and to proceed towards enlightenment.

The journey

Plato describes a "great circuit" which souls make as they follow the gods in the path of enlightenment. Those few souls which are fully enlightened are able to see the world of the forms in all its glory. Some souls have difficulty controlling the black horse, even with the help of the white horse. They may bob up into the world of the forms, but at other times enlightenment is hidden from them. If overcome by the black horse or forgetfulness, the soul loses its wings and is pulled down to earth.

Should that happen, the soul is incarnated into one of nine kinds of person, according to how much truth it beheld. In order of decreasing levels of truth seen, the categories are: (1) philosophers, lovers of beauty, men of culture, or those dedicated to love; (2) law-abiding kings or civic leaders; (3) politicians, estate-managers or businessmen; (4) ones who specialize in bodily health; (5) prophets or mystery cult participants; (6) poets or imitative artists; (7) craftsmen or farmers; (8) sophists or demagogues; and (9) tyrants.

One need not suppose, of course, that Plato intended this as a literal discussion of metempsychosis or reincarnation: perhaps he meant it figuratively.

Plato does not see the human soul as a sort of patchwork of emotions and concepts; this differs from the views of many philosophers of his time. Instead he views the soul as a sort of composite, in which many different elements blend together and affect each other. He uses the allegory of the charioteer to explain that love is a reflection of love of the forms, and is thus a "divine madness," a theia mania.

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Chariot Allegory" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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