In Phaedrus, the ancient philosopher Socrates uses an extended metaphor to describe the human soul as “a winged pair of horses and their charioteer.” He explains that, while gods’ horses are of good stock, everyone else’s “horses” are of mixed stock—one of the horses is noble and good, while the other has the opposite nature. “Perfectly winged” souls sail above the earth and govern the cosmos, but souls who have lost their wings fall to earth and take on mortal bodies. Socrates then offers a myth explaining how souls become wingless and the struggle they must endure to become winged again. Through this elaborate mythmaking, Plato rejects a deterministic view of human destiny (meaning that all events and choices a person makes are predetermined and cannot be changed) and argues that, by way of philosophy, souls must continually strive to look beyond earthly beauties to eternal, heavenly beauty; in essence, people must seek to extricate themselves from their base desires, represented by the “bad” horse at the helm of their soul-chariot. Furthermore, by setting their sights on the eternal and steeping themselves in philosophy, humans can determine the course and quality of their lives—and even their afterlives.
Socrates explains that all human beings face an uphill battle between noble and base desires—the latter constantly dragging them away from contemplation of truth. In the myth that Socrates weaves, the chariots of the gods happily circle the heavens, carrying out their appointed duties. When the gods travel to “the summit of the arch of heaven” for divine banquets, they have an easy journey because of their well-balanced chariots; however, human souls face a difficult contest. Although souls have one “good” horse and one “bad” one, this doesn’t mean balance or equilibrium; each soul’s “bad” horse constantly weighs them down and inclines them back towards earth, if the bad horse has not been sufficiently subdued by the good one.
Souls that succeed in not being pulled back down to earth stand on the outer edge of heaven and enjoy the view, gazing on ultimate truth and the knowledge of things as they really are. Most souls, however, don’t enjoy this full vision of reality because they’re forced to constantly wrestle with their wayward horse—the soul’s chariot “now rises, now sinks, and because of the force exerted by its horses” gets an incomplete picture of truth. Many souls don’t even make it that far; amidst the jostling with other charioteers, they become maimed, their wings broken. The latter don’t achieve any vision of reality, “and afterwards feed on what only appears to nourish them”—that is, earthly things that only appear to be good, beautiful, and wise, but pale in comparison to eternal beauties. This part of Socrates’s myth explains that one must constantly battle against one’s baser desires if one hopes to contemplate genuine truth; for most people, the distractions of the world make this fight prohibitively difficult.
Depending on its ability to achieve a vision of reality (that is, if it succeeds in reaching the outskirts of heaven and beholding ultimate truth), each soul determines the form it will occupy in its next existence, or next circuit around the heavens. Souls that are weighed down and unable to gain a vision of reality will be planted in the seed of humans occupying various stations in life—“the one that saw most shall be planted in the seed of a man who will become a lover of wisdom [a philosopher]”; the subsequent levels include kings, athletes, physicians, mystics, and successively less respectable stations, all the way down to demagogues and tyrants. “Among all these kinds,” Socrates says, “whoever lives justly receives a better portion, whoever lives unjustly receives a worse.” Thus, the key to regaining one’s wings is to remember the beauty one has seen while following the gods around the rim of heaven: “Hence it is with justice that only the thought of the philosopher becomes winged; for so far as it can [be],” it is close to divinity. If a philosopher uses earthly reminders of beauty to raise him up again to ultimate beauty, “he alone achieves real perfection.”
This achievement doesn’t look like perfection to most people. Because such a philosopher “[stands] aside from human concerns, and [comes] close to the divine, he is admonished by the many for being disturbed, when his real state is one of possession [by the gods], which goes unrecognized by the many.” In other words, one who is in the process of regaining his soul’s wings breaks social conventions, appearing unconcerned by the things that occupy average people. Every soul theoretically has the ability to regain its wings, because no one would have attained the nobility of the human form if they hadn’t approached the highest heavens in a previous existence; yet few people have “sufficient memory” to clearly recall and understand the heavenly truth that earthly beauties reflect.
In Phaedrus, Plato isn’t necessarily trying to provide a literal explanation for how human souls came to occupy their current status. In essence, he suggests that every human being has the capacity to contemplate wisdom, but all will face a difficult battle against their own base desires, the myriad distractions of earthly life, and the disapproval of an uncomprehending society. Nevertheless, it’s a battle worth waging in order to regain one’s “wings” and share with the gods in the vision of eternal beauty.
The Soul’s Struggle for Wisdom ThemeTracker
The Soul’s Struggle for Wisdom Quotes in Phaedrus
Phaedrus — if I don’t know Phaedrus, I’ve forgotten even who I am. But I do, and I haven’t; I know perfectly well that when he heard Lysias’ speech he did not hear it just once, but repeatedly asked him to go through it for him, and Lysias responded readily. But for Phaedrus not even that was enough, and in the end he borrowed the book and examined the things in it which he was most eager to look at, and doing this he sat from sun-up until he was tired and went for a walk […] knowing the speech quite off by heart, unless it was a rather long one. He was going outside the wall to practice it, when he met the very person who is sick with passion for hearing people speak — and […] he was glad, because he would have a companion in his manic frenzy, and he told him to lead on.
But, Phaedrus, while I think such explanations attractive in other respects, they belong in my view to an over-clever and laborious person who is not altogether fortunate; just because after that he must set the shape of the Centaurs to rights, and again that of the Chimaera, and a mob of such things […] if someone is skeptical about these, and tries with his boorish kind of wisdom to reduce each to what is likely, he’ll need a good deal of leisure. As for me, there’s no way I have leisure for it all, and the reason for it, my friend, is this. I am not yet capable of ‘knowing myself’, in accordance with the Delphic inscription; so it seems absurd to me that while I am still ignorant of this subject I should inquire into things which do not belong to me.
When I was about to cross the river, my good man, I had that supernatural experience, the sign that I am accustomed to having — on each occasion, you understand, it holds me back from whatever I am about to do — and I seemed to hear a kind of voice from the very spot, forbidding me to leave until I make expiation, because I have committed an offence against what belongs to the gods. Well, I am a seer; not a very good one, but like people who are poor at reading and writing, just good enough for my own purposes; so I already clearly understand what my offence is. For the fact is, my friend, that the soul too is something which has divinatory powers; for something certainly troubled me some while ago as I was making the speech, and I had a certain feeling of unease, as Ibycus says (if I remember rightly), ‘that for offences against the gods, I win renown from all my fellow men’. But now I realize my offence.
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…
These are the blessings, my boy, so great as to be counted divine, that will come to you from the friendship of a lover, in the way I have described; whereas the acquaintance of the one not in love, which is diluted with a merely mortal good sense, dispensing miserly benefits of a mortal kind, engenders in the soul that is the object of its attachment a meanness that, though praised by the many as a virtue, will cause it to wallow mindlessly around the earth and under the earth for nine thousand years.
Now I am myself, Phaedrus, a lover of these divisions and collections, so that I may be able both to speak and to think; and if I find anyone else who I think has the natural capacity to look to one and to many, I pursue him ‘in his footsteps, behind him, as if he were a god’. And the name I give those who can do this - whether it’s the right one or not, god knows, but at any rate up till now I have called them ‘experts in dialectic’.
Yes, Phaedrus, because I think writing has this strange feature, which makes it truly like painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if alive, but if you ask them something, they preserve a quite solemn silence. Similarly with written words: you might think that they spoke as if they had some thought in their heads, but if you ever ask them about any of the things they say out of a desire to learn, they point to just one thing, the same each time. And then once it is written, every composition trundles about everywhere in the same way, in the presence both of those who know about the subject and of those who have nothing at all to do with it, and it does not know how to address those it should address and not those it should not. When it is ill-treated and unjustly abused, it always needs its father to help it; for it is incapable of either defending or helping itself.
But I think it is far finer if one is in earnest about those subjects: when one makes use of the science of dialectic and, taking a fitting soul, plants and sows in it words accompanied by knowledge, which are sufficient to help themselves and the one who planted them, and are not without fruit but contain a seed from which others grow in other soils, capable of rendering that seed forever immortal, and making the one who has it as happy as it is possible for a man to be.
Until a person knows the truth about each of the things about which he speaks or writes, and becomes capable of defining the whole by itself, and, having defined it, knows how to cut it up again according to its forms until it can no longer be cut; and until he has reached an understanding of the nature of soul along the same lines, discovering the form of speech that fits each nature, and so arranges and orders what he says, offering a complex soul complex speeches containing all the modes, and simple speeches to a simple soul: not until then will he be capable of pursuing the making of speeches as a whole in a scientific way, to the degree that its nature allows, whether for the purposes of teaching or for those of persuading either, as the whole of our previous argument has indicated.