Insightful Excerpts

Plato and the Upanishads on the Chariot Analogy

How would you describe what it is to be human? To what would you compare our inner experience? Both the Greek and Hindu traditions have used the metaphor of a chariot drawn by the horses of our innate drives and guided by the mind. In the post on Hercules’ Rage I alluded to Plato’s version of this extended metaphor. The two versions make for an interesting comparison.


In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates a speech praising the divine madness of erotic love for young men. In the middle of this speech, to illustrate what animates our lives and loves, Plato offers the chariot analogy. He compares the soul to a chariot drawn by two winged horses, one good, one bad. In other words, the energies of desire and aggression can lead us toward the most sublime beauty or the most profane ugliness.

The challenge of our humanity, according to Plato, is not just that our natural drives have a dual character. It is also that we have forgotten the goodness toward which they are meant to lead us. Thus, our horses have lost their wings. We can no longer use them to ascend to the highest good. How do we regrow our wings?

In a word, by love. When we see an earthly beauty, we are filled with insatiable desire. This is a divine madness, says Plato. For if we are lovers of wisdom (what he calls philosophers), we see in this beauty a reflection of the pure beauty of the virtues. In other words, we fall in love because we see in our beloved some element of truth and wisdom, love and compassion, joy and bliss. Thus, falling in love can cause us to look upward toward these ultimate goods. And in looking upward, the conditions are right to regrow our wings. (Of course, “up” is itself a metaphor for the mythic region of the human psyche.)

For Plato and the wisdom-lovers in his circle, the most beautiful thing on earth was a young man before he grew a full beard, roughly ages 17-18, and extending out in both directions. Love of an ephebe was the most common and socially approved form of homosexuality in ancient Greece. It implied a relationship of mentoring a young man into full adulthood. Plato believed the relationship had spiritual value. 

Later, in his Republic, Plato describes the soul as being comprised of three parts. Here it is not a matter of one part being good and the other bad. It is that one part is our desires and appetites, and another our aggressiveness and aversion. The guide of these two parts is our intuitive perception, our third eye, that part of us which can see the beauty of virtue and all things spiritual.


8846635216870952To describe what the soul actually is would require a very long account…; but to say what it is like is humanly possible and takes less time. So let us do the second in our speech. Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer. The gods have horses and charioteers that are themselves all good and come from good stock besides, while everyone else has a mixture. To begin with, our driver is in charge of a pair of horses; second, one of his horses is beautiful and good and from stock of the same sort, while the other is the opposite and has the opposite sort of bloodline. This means that chariot-driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business…

So long as its wings are in perfect condition it flies high, and the entire universe is its dominion; but a soul that sheds its wings wanders until it lights on something solid…

By their nature wings have the power to lift up heavy things and raise them aloft where the gods all dwell, and so, more than anything that pertains to the body, they are akin to the divine, which has beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort. These nourish the soul’s wings, which grow best in their presence; but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear…

Many souls are crippled by the incompetence of the drivers, and many wings break much of their plumage…

Only a philosopher’s mind grows wings… He stands outside human concerns and draws close to the divine; ordinary people think he is disturbed and rebuke him for this, unaware that he is possessed by god… when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below—and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad. This is the best and noblest of all the forms that possession by god can take for anyone who has it or is connected to it, and when someone who loves beautiful boys is touched by this madness he is called a lover.


The Upanishads

16235_Krishna-Arjuna-caring-god-Hinduism-loving-1920x1200-cIn the Katha Upanishad, Death is instructing the young man Nachiketa on the nature of spiritual reality. Here Self (with a capital S) represents pure awareness. It is the Observer which sees all but makes no judgments. Judgments are the stuff of attraction and aversion, and are rooted in the senses.


Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as the charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the horses;
Selfish desires are the roads they travel.
When the Self is confused with
The body, mind, and senses, they point out,
He seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.
When a person lacks discrimination
And his mind is undisciplined,
The senses run hither and thither like wild horses.
But they obey the rein like trained horses
When one has discrimination
And has made the mind one-pointed.
Those who lack discrimination,
With little control over their thoughts and far from pure,
Reach not the pure state of immortality
But wander from death to death;
But those who have discrimination,
With a still mind and a pure heart,
Reach journey’s end,
Never again to fall into the jaws of death.
With a discriminating intellect as charioteer
And a trained mind as reins,
They attain the supreme goal of life,
To be united with the Lord of Love.



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51OHoHizBJL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Plato, Phaedrus 246-49, in C. D. C. Reeve, ed., Plato on Love: Lysis, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, with Selections from Republic and Laws (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper), 110-115.

UpanishadsKatha Upanishad 1.3.3-9, in Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads, 2nd ed. (Kindle) (Paper), Kindle loc. 874-900. Lineation altered.

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