In Phaedrus, Socrates famously introduces the metaphor of the soul as a winged chariot that’s guided by two horses representing, in turn, the noblest and basest human impulses: one of the horses is good, while the other is wicked, devoted to its own base (generally sexual) desires. Socrates explains that the job of a person’s soul is to learn to control the bad horse so as to drive his soul-chariot to the summit of heaven and witness eternal beauty in the company of the gods. Most souls don’t succeed and are dragged earthward by the conflict between their two horses. Socrates’s central point here concerns the relationship between a lover and his beloved. In such cases, one’s bad horse desires sexual indulgence and constantly strives to overpower the good horse’s restraint. The key to leading a philosophical life, he argues, is to repeatedly subdue the bad horse, specifically through the remembrance of heavenly beauty and the practice of restraint. Doing so will eventually make the bad horse placid—i.e., will quell one’s base desires—enabling a relationship with one’s beloved to endure on the basis of philosophy rather than sexuality. This metaphor enables Socrates to argue that love, a divine form of “madness,” is not opposed to living a philosophical life, and in fact promotes the beautification of the soul.
The Soul-Chariot’s Horses Quotes in Phaedrus
About its form we must say the following: that what kind of thing it is belongs to a completely and utterly superhuman exposition, and a long one; to say what it resembles requires a lesser one, one within human capacities. So let us speak in the latter way. Let it then resemble the combined power of a winged team of horses and their charioteer. Now in the case of gods, horses and charioteers are all both good themselves and of good stock; whereas in the case of the rest, there is a mixture. In the first place, our driver has charge of a pair; secondly, one of them he finds noble and good, and of similar stock, while the other is of the opposite stock, and opposite in its nature; so that the driving in our case is necessarily difficult and troublesome.
This is the life of gods; of the other souls, the one that follows god best and has come to resemble him most raises the head of its charioteer into the region outside and is carried round with the revolution, meanwhile being disturbed by its horses and scarcely seeing the things that are; while another now rises, now sinks, and because of the force exerted by its horses sees some things but not others. The remaining souls follow after them, all straining to reach the place above but unable to do so, and are carried round together under the surface, trampling and jostling one another, each trying to get ahead of the next. So there ensues the greatest confusion among the sweating competitors, and in all of it, through their charioteers’ incompetence, many souls are maimed, and many have their wings all broken; all of them with great labor depart without achieving a sight of what is, and afterwards feed on what only appears to nourish them.
When the agreed time comes, and they pretend not to remember, it reminds them; struggling, neighing, pulling, it forces them to approach the beloved again to make the same proposition, and as soon as they are close to him, head down and tail outstretched, teeth clamped on its bit, it pulls shamelessly; but the same thing happens to the charioteer as before, only even more violently, as he falls back as if from a starting barrier; still more violently, he wrenches the bit back and forces it from the teeth of the horse of excess, spattering its evil-speaking tongue and its jaws with blood and, thrusting its legs and haunches to the ground […] When the bad horse has had the same thing happen to it repeatedly and it ceases from its excess, now humbled it allows the charioteer with his foresight to lead, and when it sees the boy in his beauty, it nearly dies of fright; and the result is that then the soul of the lover follows the beloved in reverence and awe.
And then, well, if the better elements of their minds get the upper hand by drawing them to a well-ordered life, and to philosophy, they pass their life here in blessedness and harmony, masters of themselves and orderly in their behavior, having enslaved that part through which badness attempted to enter the soul and having freed that part through which goodness enters; and when they die they become winged and light, and have won one of their three submissions in these, the true Olympic games - and neither human sanity nor divine madness has any greater good to offer a man than this. But if they live a coarser way of life, devoted not to wisdom but to honor, then perhaps, I suppose, when they are drinking or in some other moment of carelessness, the licentious horses in the two of them catch them off their guard, bring them together and make that choice which is called blessed by the many, and carry it through…
Socrates: …[I]t would be [ridiculous] when I tried in earnest to persuade you by putting together a speech in praise of the donkey, labelling it a horse and saying that the beast would be an invaluable acquisition both at home and on active service, useful to fight from and capable too of carrying baggage, and good for many other purposes.
Phaedrus: Then it would be thoroughly ridiculous.
Socrates: Well then, isn’t it better to be ridiculous and a friend than to be clever and an enemy? […] So when an expert in rhetoric who is ignorant of good and bad finds a city in the same condition and tries to persuade it, by making his eulogy not about a miserable donkey as if it were a horse but about what is bad as if it were good, and — having applied himself to what the masses think — actually persuades the city to do something bad instead of good, what sort of harvest do you think rhetoric reaps after that from the seed it sowed?