Plato's Chariot Allegory

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  • THE Chariot Allegory of Plato, which appears in the Phaedrus, is a very important part of the Western — and World — spiritual and philosophical tradition. It presents a rich metaphor for the soul and its journey. Everyone with a soul should read it!

    The soul is portrayed as a compound of three components: a charioteer (Reason), and two winged steeds: one white (spiritedness, the irascible element, boldness) and one black (the appetitive element, concupiscence, desire). The goal is to ascend to divine heights — but the black horse poses problems.

    The chariot image arguably supplies a better tripartite model of the human psyche than Freud's divisions of ego, id and super-ego, However the chariot itself is just the beginning; the story of its journeys is a revealing allegory of the spiritual or philosophical life. In this the superiority to Freud's model is most evident, because whereas Freud's model is materialistic and detached from inherent meaning, Plato's implicitly recognizes the innate religious aspirations of the human soul.

    The myth itself is not Plato's — it was ancient even for him, perhaps coming from Egypt or Mesopotamia — but he adapted and reworked it.

    The entire passage is supplied here. The text is from Benjamin Jowett's third and last translation of 1892. I have added: Stephanus numbers for reference, links to the Greek text, an Introduction and Analysis, and glosses.

    I've also divided the passage into sections to facilitate reading.


          [245c] The soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal; but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, never leaving self, never ceases to move, and is  
    the proem
          [245d] the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Now, the beginning is unbegotten, for that which is begotten has a beginning; but the beginning is begotten of nothing, for if it were begotten of something, then the begotten would not come from a beginning. But if unbegotten, it must also be indestructible; for if beginning were destroyed, there could be no beginning out of anything, nor anything out of a beginning; and all things must have a beginning.

    And therefore the self-moving is the beginning of motion; and this can neither be destroyed nor begotten,

          [245e] else the whole heavens and all creation would collapse and stand still, and never again have motion or birth. But if the self- moving is proved to be immortal, he who affirms that self-motion is the very idea and essence of the soul will not be put to confusion. For 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,  
          [246a]      must not the soul be the self-moving, and therefore of necessity unbegotten and immortal? Enough of the soul’s immortality.  
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      O f 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. the chariot

    Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble

    the allegory
          [246b] 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 --

    Or, 'Soul, considered collectively'
          [246c] 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 be reasonably believed to be; although fancy, not having seen  
          [246d] nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and also a soul which are united throughout all time. Let that, however, be as God wills, and be spoken of acceptably to him.

    And now let us ask the reason 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 downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods.

          [246e] 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 falls away.  
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      Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all;  
          [247a] and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order. They see many blessed sights in the inner heaven, and there are many ways to and fro, along which the blessed gods are passing, every one doing his own work; he may follow who will and can, for jealousy has no place in the celestial choir. But when they go to banquet and festival, the heavenly procession
          [247b] then they move up the steep to the top of the vault of heaven. 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.

    For the immortals, when they are at the end of their course,

          [247c] go forth and stand upon the outside of heaven, and the revolution of the spheres carries them round, and they behold the things beyond. But of the heaven which is above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily? It is such as I will describe; for I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence,
    heaven above the heavens
          [247d] visible only to mind, the pilot of 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, until the revolution of the worlds brings her round again to the same place. In the revolution she beholds justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation,

          [247e] which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute; and beholding the other true existences in like manner, and feasting upon them,

    she passes down into the interior of the heavens and returns home; and there the charioteer putting up his horses at the stall, gives them ambrosia to eat and nectar to drink.

    Such is the life of the gods; but of other souls,

          [248a] that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer into the outer world, and is carried round in the revolution, troubled indeed by the steeds, and with difficulty beholding true being;

    while another only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. 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,

    rises and falls
          [248b] 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 to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion.  
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      T he 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 fall, re-
          [248c] 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 forgetfulness
    and vice
          [248d] 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 degrees
    of fall

          [248e] 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. Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot probation
          [249a] grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings in the third of the recurring periods of a thousand years; he is distinguished from the ordinary good man who gains wings in three thousand years: -- and they who choose this life three times in succession have wings given them, and go away at the end of three thousand years. But the others receive judgment when they have completed their first life, and after the judgment they go, some of them to the houses of correction which are under the earth, and are punished; others

    intermediate process
          [249b] to some place in heaven whither they are lightly borne by justice, and there they live in a manner worthy of the life which they led here when in the form of men. And at the end of the first thousand years the good souls and also the evil souls both come to draw lots and choose their second life, and they may take any which they please. The soul of a man may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the man. But the soul which has never seen the truth will not pass into the human form. For a man must have intelligence of universals,  
          [249c] 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. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has wings; and this is just, for he is always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which He is what He is. And he who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect.  
          [249d] But, as he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired.

    Thus far I have been speaking of the fourth and last kind of madness, which is imputed to him who, when he sees the beauty of earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly away, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below;

          [249e] and he is therefore thought to be mad. And I have shown this of all inspirations to be the noblest and highest and the offspring of the highest to him who has or shares in it, and that he who loves the beautiful is called a lover because he partakes of it.  
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      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 pre-
          [250a] 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 which once they saw.

    Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them; and they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive.

          [250b] For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty.

    There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness -- we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into

    we philo-
          [250c] a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. Let me linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away.  
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          [250d] But of beauty, I repeat again that we saw her there shining in company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. But this is the privilege of beauty, that being the loveliest she is also the most palpable to sight.
          [250e] Now he who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted, does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other; he looks only at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget; he consorts with wantonness, or 'freshly initiated'
          [251a] and is not afraid or ashamed of pursuing pleasure in violation of nature.

    But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration;

    beauty reminds of Beauty
          [251b] for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing from shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wings begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul -- for once the whole was winged.

    During this process the whole soul is all in a state of ebullition and effervescence,

    wings nourished
          [251c] which may be compared to the irritation and uneasiness in the gums at the time of cutting teeth, bubbles up, and has a feeling of uneasiness and tickling; but when in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion (himeros) and is refreshed and warmed by them, irritation, discomfort
          [251d] and then she ceases from her pain with joy. But when she is parted from her beloved and her moisture fails, then the orifices of the passage out of which the wing shoots dry up and close, and intercept the germ of the wing; which, being shut up with the emotion, throbbing as with the pulsations of an artery, pricks the aperture which is nearest, until at length the entire soul is pierced and maddened and pained, and at the recollection of beauty is again delighted. And from both of them together  
          [251e] the soul is oppressed at the strangeness of her condition, and is in a great strait and excitement, and in her madness can neither sleep by night nor abide in her place by day. And wherever she thinks that she will behold the beautiful one, thither in her desire she runs. And when she has seen him, and bathed herself in the waters of beauty, her constraint is loosened, and she is refreshed, and has no more pangs and pains; and this is the sweetest of all pleasures the pierced lover
          [252a] at the time, and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all; he has forgotten mother and brethren and companions, and he thinks nothing of the neglect and loss of his property; the rules and proprieties of life, on which he formerly prided himself, he now despises, and is ready to sleep like a servant, wherever he is allowed, as near as he can to his desired one, who is the object of his worship,  
          [252b] and the physician who can alone assuage the greatness of his pain. And this state, my dear imaginary youth to whom I am talking, is by men called love, and among the gods has a name at which you, in your simplicity, may be inclined to mock; there are two lines in the apocryphal writings of Homer in which the name occurs. One of them is rather outrageous, and not altogether metrical. They are as follows:  
          [252c]       Mortals call him fluttering love,
          But the immortals call him winged one,
          Because the growing1 of wings is a necessity to him.

    You may believe this, but not unless you like. At any rate the loves of lovers and their causes are such as I have described.

    Now the lover who is taken to be the attendant of Zeus is better able to bear the winged god, and can endure a heavier burden; but the attendants and companions of Ares, when under the influence of love, if they fancy that they have been at all wronged, are ready to kill and put an end to themselves and their beloved.

    1Or ‘the movement of wings’
          [252d] And he who follows in the train of any other god, while he is unspoiled and the impression lasts, honours and imitates him, as far as he is able; and after the manner of his God he behaves in his intercourse with his beloved and with the rest of the world during the first period of his earthly existence. Every one chooses his love from the ranks of beauty according to his character, and this he makes his god, and fashions and adorns  
          [252e] as a sort of image which he is to fall down and worship. The followers of Zeus desire that their beloved should have a soul like him; and therefore they seek out some one of a philosophical and imperial nature, and when they have found him and loved him, they do all they can to confirm such a nature in him, and if they have no experience of such a disposition hitherto, they learn of any one who can teach them,  
          [253a] and themselves follow in the same way. And they have the less difficulty in finding the nature of their own god in themselves, because they have been compelled to gaze intensely on him; their recollection clings to him, and they become possessed of him, and receive from him their character and disposition, so far as man can participate in God. The qualities of their god they attribute to the beloved, wherefore they love him all the more, and if, like the Bacchic Nymphs, they draw inspiration from Zeus, they pour out their own fountain upon him, wanting to make him as like as possible to their own god.  
          [253b] But those who are the followers of Here seek a royal love, and when they have found him they do just the same with him; and in like manner the followers of Apollo, and of every other god walking in the ways of their god, seek a love who is to be made like him whom they serve, and when they have found him, they themselves imitate their god, and persuade their love to do the same, and educate him into the manner and nature of the god as far as they each can; for no feelings of envy or jealousy are entertained by them towards their beloved, but they do their utmost to create in him the greatest likeness  
          [253c] of themselves and of the god whom they honour. Thus fair and blissful to the beloved is the desire of the inspired lover, and the initiation of which I speak into the mysteries of true love, if he be captured by the lover and their purpose is effected. Now the beloved is taken captive in the following manner:  
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    A s I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three -- two horses

    the chariot
          [253d] 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 white horse
          [253e] 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. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings the dark horse
          [254a] of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love. They at first indignantly oppose him and struggle
          [254b] will not be urged on to do terrible and unlawful deeds; but at last, when he persists in plaguing them, they yield and agree to do as he bids them. And now they are at the spot and behold the flashing beauty of the beloved; which when the charioteer sees, his memory is carried to the true beauty, whom he beholds in company with Modesty like an image placed upon a holy pedestal. He sees her, but he is afraid and falls backwards in adoration, and by his fall is compelled to pull back the reins  
          [254c] with such violence as to bring both the steeds on their haunches, the one willing and unresisting, the unruly one very unwilling; and when they have gone back a little, the one is overcome with shame and wonder, and his whole soul is bathed in perspiration; the other, when the pain is over which the bridle and the fall had given him, having with difficulty taken breath, is full of wrath and reproaches, which he heaps upon the charioteer and his fellow-steed,  
          [254d] for want of courage and manhood, declaring that they have been false to their agreement and guilty of desertion. Again they refuse, and again he urges them on, and will scarce yield to their prayer that he would wait until another time. When the appointed hour comes, they make as if they had forgotten, and he reminds them, fighting and neighing and dragging them on, until at length he, on the same thoughts intent, forces them to draw near again. And when they are near he stoops his head and puts up his tail, and takes the bit in his teeth.  
          [254e] and pulls shamelessly. Then the charioteer is worse off than ever; he falls back like a racer at the barrier, and with a still more violent wrench drags the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed and covers his abusive tongue and -- jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground and punishes him sorely. And when this has happened several times and the villain has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one he is ready to die of fear. And from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear.  
    the unruly one now follows the charioteer's foresight (pronoia)
          [255a] And so the beloved who, like a god, has received every true and loyal service from his lover, not in pretence but in reality, being also himself of a nature friendly to his admirer, if in former days he has blushed to own his passion and turned away his lover, because his youthful companions or others slanderously told him that he would be disgraced, now as years advance, at the appointed age  
          [255b] and time, is led to receive him into communion. For fate which has ordained that there shall be no friendship among the evil has also ordained that there shall ever be friendship among the good. And the beloved when he has received him into communion and intimacy, is quite amazed at the good-will of the lover; he recognises that the inspired friend is worth all other friends or kinsmen; they have nothing of friendship in them worthy to be compared with his. And when this feeling continues and he is nearer to him and embraces him, in gymnastic exercises and at other times of meeting,  
          [255c] then the fountain of that stream, which Zeus when he was in love with Ganymede named Desire, overflows upon the lover, and some enters into his soul, and some when he is filled flows out again; and as a breeze or an echo rebounds from the smooth rocks and returns whence it came, so does the stream of beauty, passing through the eyes which are the windows of the soul, come back to the beautiful one;  
          [255d] there arriving and quickening the passages of the wings, watering them and inclining them to grow, and filling the soul of the beloved also with love.

    And thus he loves, but he knows not what; he does not understand and cannot explain his own state; he appears to have caught the infection of blindness from another; the lover is his mirror in whom he is beholding himself, but he is not aware of this. When he is with the lover, both cease from their pain, but when he is away then he longs as he is longed for, and has love’s image, love for love (Anteros) lodging in his breast,

          [255e] which he calls and believes to be not love but friendship only, and his desire is as the desire of the other, but weaker; he wants to see him, touch him, kiss, embrace him, and probably not long afterwards his desire is accomplished. When they meet, the wanton steed of the lover has a word to say to the charioteer; he would like to have a little pleasure in return for many pains,  
          [256a] but the wanton steed of the beloved says not a word, for he is bursting with passion which he understands not; -- he throws his arms round the lover and embraces him as his dearest friend; and, when they are side by side, he is not in a state in which he can refuse the lover anything, if he ask him; although his fellow-steed and the charioteer oppose him with the arguments of shame and reason.

    After this their happiness depends upon their self-control; if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail,

          [256b] then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony -- masters of themselves and orderly -- enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous elements of the soul; and when the end comes, they are light and winged for flight, having conquered in one of the three heavenly or truly Olympian victories; nor can human discipline or divine inspiration confer any greater blessing on man than this. If, on the other hand, they leave philosophy and lead the lower life of ambition, then probably,  
          [256c] after wine or in some other careless hour, the two wanton animals take the two souls when off their guard and bring them together, and they accomplish that desire of their hearts which to the many is bliss; and this having once enjoyed they continue to enjoy, yet rarely because they have not the approval of the whole soul.

    They too are dear, but not so dear to one another as the others,

          [256d] either at the time of their love or afterwards. They consider that they have given and taken from each other the most sacred pledges, and they may not break them and fall into enmity. At last they pass out of the body, unwinged, but eager to soar, and thus obtain no mean reward of love and madness. For those who have once begun the heavenward pilgrimage may not go down again to darkness and the journey beneath the earth, but they live in light always; happy companions in their pilgrimage, and when the time comes at which they receive their wings they have the same plumage because of their love.  
          [256e] Thus great are the heavenly blessings which the friendship of a lover will confer upon you, my youth. Whereas the attachment of the non-lover, which is alloyed with a worldly prudence and has worldly and niggardly ways of doling out benefits, will breed in your soul those vulgar qualities which the populace applaud, will send you  
          [257a] bowling round the earth during a period of nine thousand years, and leave you a fool in the world below.

    And thus, dear Eros, I have made and paid my recantation, as well and as fairly as I could; more especially in the matter of the poetical figures which I was compelled to use, because Phaedrus would have them.

    And now forgive the past and accept the present, and be gracious and merciful to me, and do not in thine anger deprive me of sight, or take from me the art of love which thou hast given me, but grant that I may be yet more esteemed in the eyes of the fair.

    Socrates' concluding prayer to Eros
          [257b] And if Phaedrus or I myself said anything rude in our first speeches, blame Lysias, who is the father of the brat, and let us have no more of his progeny; bid him study philosophy, like his brother Polemarchus; and then his lover Phaedrus will no longer halt between two opinions, but will dedicate himself wholly to love and to philosophical discourses.

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    The Chariot Allegory from Phaedrus is something better studied than read quickly or superficially. This short Introduction supplies a few pointers to orient readers to the rich material.


    Basically, allegory describes the soul figuratively as a chariot, driven by a charioteer, and powered by two horses: a noble white horse and an ignoble dark one. The charioteer attempts to rise to the heavens and beyond, there to behold divine visions, but often doesn't succeed, instead falling to earth. Then there is a process by which it may regrow wings and ascend again.

    Associated with the broader topic of ascent and fall are two interleaved themes: the efforts of the charioteer to control the horses, and a discussion of what we may broadly call Platonic love. The latter is closely related to the second speech of Diotima in Symposium 210–212.


    The passage can be divided into seven sections:

    Sections of Phaedrus Chariot Allegory
    Number Section Description
    1 (245c – 246a) An introduction or proem
    2 (246a – 246e) The chariot introduced
    3 (247a – 248b) The heavenly procession
    4 (248b – 249e) The fall and embodiment
    5 (250a – 250c) Pre-existence
    6 (250d – 253c) Regrowth of wings
    7 (253d – 254e) Sublimation of lust
    The sections can be briefly summarized as follows:

    1. Proem. This is an transition between the allegory itself and preceding discussion in Phaedrus. It presents a short logical proof for the immortality of the soul (the unmoved mover argument). The argument isn't necessarily fully convincing, but its evocative tone sets the stage for the myth which follows.

    2. First description of the chariot (246a–246e). This introduces the chariot, the charioteer, the two horses, and the soul's basic plight: the soul wishes to rise to heaven's heights, but often loses her wings instead.

    3. The heavenly festival (247a–248b) explains the blessed sights and benefits enjoyed by gods and the souls of those men who can control their steeds.

    4. When they fall (248b–249e), souls lose their wings and undergo a probationary period of lesser or greater length, in which they grow new ones . The alternative embodiments correspond to various stations of life, determined according to how much vision of divine truth a soul experienced.

    5. The soul's pre-existence (250a–250c). The soul has seen these sights before. This section is generally taken as a reference to the soul's pre-existence by Plato. There is some ambiguity, though. Does it mean the soul saw these spectacles on previous ascents? Or before even the first attempt?

    6. Regrowth of wings (250d–253c). The topic of Platonic love is introduced. From here until the end the allegory is increasingly concerned with its role in the soul's ascent.

    7. Second chariot description (253d–254e). We now return to the original chariot theme, and this is more fully integrated with the intervening discussion on Platonic love.

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    An Interpretation of Plato's Chariot Allegory

    The Chariot
    Other Chariot Analogies
    The Allegory of Ascent and Fall

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    In interpreting Plato we have good reason to delve beyond the literal. Here is no ordinary writer, nor even an ordinary genius. The depth and breadth of his intellect is astonishing and singular.

    Notwithstanding the air of humility and conviviality his writings present, Plato perhaps had awareness of the greatness and importance of his mission. We can easily imagine him possessed of great zeal to share his knowledge for the betterment of humankind. Perhaps, just as he studied traditions ancient in his time, he sensed that he was writing 'for the Ages.' To do this efficiently, and in a finite number of works, discretion and judgment would be required. Plato was not an encyclopediast. In the cases where he related myths, the purpose was to support his broader philosophic aims -- which pertain to the elevation and fundamental renewal of man's mind and soul.

    In the present analysis I suggest interpretations at both the psychological and religious levels. These interpretations are interdependent and interpenetrating, but presented with sufficient separateness that readers who are not strongly disposed to the religious view may still find the psychological analysis, which has a practical emphasis, of interest.

    The goal is not to analyze the myth in excessive detail. Rather, the idea is to suggest to the reader general contexts of meaning -- broad structural outlines of the myth's interpretation. With these in mind, one may then derive more specific and finely graded meaning oneself from reading, studying, and reflecting on the text.

    We pursue the present interpretation in two section. The first considers the figure of the chariot itself. We then examine the larger allegory in which the chariot is involved.

      Interpretation (Contents)  

    The Chariot

    Plato first presents the image of the chariot, a composite figure: a charioteer, two winged horses -- a noble white and an ignoble dark one. This composite he explicitly calls a model of the human soul or psyche. The individual components of the model are not described in much detail, but since Plato considers the same tri-partite structure of the soul in the Republic, written about the same time, we have a good idea as to his meaning (Lovibond, 1993).

    As Plato's model naturally invites comparison with Freud's well-known id/ego/superego system, that is a convenient reference point. Plato, however, through myth, is able to express both rational and extra-rational knowledge. In the end one is left with the distinct impression that Plato's is the better model.

    The Dark Horse

    Of the two models, the most closely corresponding parts are the dark horse and Freud's id. The dark horse corresponds to appetites, concupiscence, and bodily desires and lusts. In Platonic psychology, this part of the soul is called the epithumetikon. Beyond this much we need say little -- this soul element, and its characteristic problems, is familiar enough, both experientially and at the relgio-cultural level.

    The horse is unruly and causes great problems for Plato's charioteer. But, as in Freud's model, where it imparts energy or libido for general motivation of the psyche, so here too it is needed to draw the chariot. What is required, then, is a training of the horse -- the sublimation of Freud's system -- so that it provides properly-directed energy.

    The Charioteer

    The charioteer, who drives the chariot and commands the horses, with special attention needed to the unruly one, corresponds to the Freudian ego, which manages conflict between the id and super-ego (the latter, to anticipate, roughly corresponding to the white horse). However, unlike Freud's ego, which, in a sense, evolves or develops in the psyche specifically to broker disputes between the id and superego, Plato's charioteer has a more definite goal and destiny: to direct the chariot to the heights of heaven and beyond, there to behold 'divine sights'.

    In Plato's psychology, the charioteer is associated with Reason and the reasoning element of the mind, and called logistikon, derived from the Greek word, logos.

    The White Horse

    The white horse stands for the element of the psyche associated courage, boldness, heroism, 'spiritedness' and what some call the irascible. Call to mind the image of the hero on the white charger. All the rich and varied mythos and connotations associated with a noble white steed apply.

    This horse represents what is termed thumos in Plato's psychology. As indicated above, it roughly corresponds to the Freudian super-ego; however this is the point of greatest difference between the two models. In Freud's system, the super-ego mostly plays counterbalance to the id; further, there is a tendency to regard the superego as something learned -- a collective set of socialized rules of right-and-wrong internalized by a developing child. In that sense, the superego and the id are of different basic logical categories. In Plato's analogy, however, the white horse and black horses are of the same logical order, and this is no doubt significant. Like the black team-mate, the white horse is decidedly passionate, ambitious, energetic, and goal-seeking. It imparts equal force or drive to the chariot. But it is a white horse. There is, though, a basic asymmetry to the model, associated with the white horse's innate affinity for the charioteer. Whereas the dark horse needs the whip, the white horse is commanded by word alone.

    The Modern Loss of Thumos

    It is evident from Homer and before that Greek culture attached considerable importance to the concept of thumos. That a similar word or concept doesn't exist in modern English (and that super-ego is at best a meager and unsatisfying substitute) is terribly important. For something to be fully conscious -- and, especially for it to be part of the collective, public consciousness -- we need a word or term for it. Lacking a term, the idea or thing is marginalized, without complete access to our full intellectual and behavior repertoire. It is unintegrated into conscious psychic life. When something so basic as thumos is not integrated, the entire organism of the psyche must as a consequence necessarily be thrown into severe disarray.

    Modern man has no concept of thumos. This is like the charioteer not realizing he has a white horse! If thumos is no longer consciously recognized, the variations of psychic disorder that result are numerous and diverse. This subject alone would merit a long article or book -- and probably relate quite directly to a number of serious contemporary social and cultural concerns. Here, however, we shall have to content ourselves to just list a few examples (a task facilitated by making convenient use of the analogy itself).

    Among the problems that may result from the charioteer's incognizance of the white horse are these:

    • The chariot lacks power. Half the chariot's energy comes from the white horse. Lacking this, the chariot cannot ascend to the heavens. In modern terms, this could be understood as like a state of generalized depression or anomie. Meanwhile the noble white is there, stamping his feet, eager to do the work for which he was bred.

      Apropos of this are the words Hamlet's famous soliloquy:

      Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
      The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
      Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
      And by opposing, end them.

      The second option, opposing the sea of troubles to end them, the heroic response -- that's thumos. Again, if a person lives in a culture where thumos is neglected or denied, and if they don't even recognize that they have it in the first place, the heroic path becomes that much more unfamiliar, difficult, and rare.

    • The black horse dominates. If the charioteer does not recognize the white horse, all his attention is on the black horse. This is basically the Freudian view that has been indoctrinated into and dominates the collective Western thinking: all psychic life (and, therefore, all culture) is interpreted relative to the dark horse. Either one is dominated by appetites and lusts, and relies on them inordinately and inappropriately for motivation, or else one is unduly preoccupied with controlling and suppressing them. With Plato's model, there is an alternative: to let the dark horse run more or less according to its better natural inclinations, but to use its white companion to keep it from pulling the chariot off course..

    • The white horse runs wild. While the white horse is noble and responsive to reason, it lacks reason and direction itself. Without the control of the charioteer, it will try to go its own way just as surely as the black horse will. Examples of this would be a strong, ambitious willfulness that is misdirected -- for example, ones energetically pursuing a project that seems worthy, but which is ultimately folly. The figure of Don Quixote tilting at windmills is apt.

      (Note: In Jungian theory, the taking control or appropriating of the ego by a dissociated part of the psyche is considered a form of 'possession'. The idea here then is one of thumos possession -- the thumos possesses the ego. While this is a relevant concern for all people, it might be especially so for women, among whom thumos is even more unfamiliar than among men. This would seem related to the idea of animus possession among women, which Jung discussed in several works.)

      While the horse is white, it is not perfect. Here the image, necessitated by the chariot analogy, is perhaps limited. A better animal symbol might be a lion (mentioned below): thumos can, when sufficiently threatened, lash out with violence and aggression, unless checked by reason. While it might be overstressing the analogy, we could possibly see in some acts of terrorism a misuse of the thumos. In the well-known 2004 video of Osama Bin Laden, he attributed his 'conversion' to terrorism with his witnessing the death and maiming of innocent women and children in the bombing of apartments in Lebanon by Israelis forces in 1982. Assuming his truthfulness here, what should have happened is this: he should have witnessed the terrible scene, and his thumos should have been activated in a positive way. He should have formulated a heroic response. That would be, for example, to say: "I desperately want to help these people, and for this to never happen again." But for that to happen, he would need to take the genuinely heroic step of somehow, against all seeming odds and precedent, contributing to peace in the Mid-East. This would require the cooperation of thumos and Reason.

    • The white horse imitates the dark horse. Were we to consider a literal team of horses, we could imagine that, lacking the attention and control of the driver, one horse my follow the lead of the other. Here this would involve a subversion of the white horse and his energies in service of the appetites of the dark one. No doubt we can find examples of this in modern life -- such as individuals who aggressively crusade to promote indulgent lifestyles, falsely thinking this righteousness, etc.

    • The white horse is misinterpreted and maligned. The charioteer cannot be oblivious entirely to the actions and powers of the white horse. He will feel its stirrings and movements in any case. Lacking an accurate concept to organize these sensations, he will instead use less appropriate ones. The most likely misunderstanding, mislabeling, misclassification, or misconceptualization of thumos would be to perceive it as anger, since their respective physical sensations have much in common. But feeling or expressing anger, per se, is not generally considered a good thing. Therefore the rider might treat his white horse harshly, pulling the reigns hard, even when the horse is actually headed in the right direction.
    So much, then, for what the chariot image contains. We might also briefly consider what elements it lacks -- for this, too, is a great virtue of such an analogy: that it gives us a tangible framework for considering a complex idea and to reflect on it. Just as, in Plato's dialogues, his characters seldom arrive at definitive conclusions concerning the topic of conversation, but still learn much in the process, we here may approach his chariot analogy in a similar way.

    Accordingly, we may mention two ideas that are not explicitly addressed by the image, but which the analogy and our own experience suggest. One concerns the issue of identification. In our own mental life, it seems evident that, at any given time, something that we may call our conscious identification may reside with either our reasoning faculty, our appetitive nature, or our thumos nature. The preferred case, of course, is the first alternative. If one were to consider another's question, "Who are you?", or perhaps better still, the self-directed question, "Who am I?", the usual answer would refer to the reasoning part of ones nature -- this is what we often consider the ego in the colloquial (i.e., not specifically psychoanalytic) sense. Ego, in fact, means "I" or "me". Our usual self-image, then, basically corresponds to the role of the charioteer.

    It seems plain enough, however, that a person's conscious identification may at times may be with either of the two horses. For instance, one may be entirely pre-occupied with some appetitive aim ('I simply must have that red convertible!' or, perhaps worse, 'I am a thoroughly modern person with all the latest gadgets -- picture telephones, high-resolution, wide-screen television, etc.). And we have already mentioned examples where a person becomes identified with their thumos.

    This idea of variable locus of identity raises the possibility a fourth element of the soul -- which would be some basic, alternatively locatable sense of me-ness; a point of view; an 'I'. We simply raise this here as a theoretical possibility.


    A second question concerns where the charioteer gets his instructions from. Or, in a sense, we might ask: if he is the driver, who navigates? If the charioteer so ardently seeks the divine sights, doesn't this presuppose that he is lacking in some fundamental way? But if he is lacking, can he direct the chariot wisely?

    The Christian view, of course, is that the soul's reasoning faculty is aided by divine grace. One view could be that God sends inspiration directly to the charioteer. Another is that the charioteer is accompanied by a second figure -- the image or actual presence of Jesus Christ in the soul. The idea of Christ as true pilot of the soul is, of course, a very familiar one to Christians, and one we see suggested in more or less explicit terms by many Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

    It is further relevant to mention the most well-known chariot figure of Eastern religion, that of the great Indian work, the Bhagavad Gita. There, Prince Arjuna, the chariot' owner and the narrative's protagonist, is accompanied by Krishna, who advises and counsels him (see next section).

    Whether or not he may have agreed with the idea, Plato perhaps would not have found the idea of some guiding or directing influence on the charioteer wholly unfamiliar. Among the Golden Verses of Pythagoras (Firth/Taylor, 1904) we find the following:

    Leaving thyself always to be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, and that ought to hold the reins. (Verse 69)
    Whether this verse originated with Pythagoras (ca. 582–ca. 507 BC) is a matter of speculation. But in any case Plato's strong Pythagorean influence is attested to by no less than Aristotle, and it may well have been from one of Plato's alleged Pythagorean teachers that he learned the chariot analogy.
      Interpretation (Contents)  

    Other Chariot Analogies

    It is instructive to briefly consider here some other important ancient chariot analogies for the soul.
    Ezekiel's Chariot Vision
    The profound and mysterious Chariot-Throne vision, found beginning in the first chapter of Ezekiel (ca. 580 BC; roughly 200 years before Plato's Phaedrus) is under-appreciated by modern readers. Ironically, were this found in some tradition other than the Judeo-Christian, Westerners would likely hold this remarkable passage with greater reverence and awe.

    While ostensibly a vision of God, it is also figurative of the human soul, the God-image in man. Ezekiel, it will be recalled, saw a dramatic vision of a Chariot and the Throne of God within it:

    4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
    5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
    6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
    7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
    8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
    9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
    10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
    (Eze 1:4-10).

    The fantastic vehicle contained four living creatures -- later (Eze 10) identified as cherubim -- each with four faces: human, lion, bull, and eagle. Each figure was also associated with wings, as well as 'wheels within wheels', conveying the idea of movement.

    In his Commentary on Ezekiel (ca. 410 AD), St. Jerome specifically related the Chariot-Throne image to Plato's psychology. In Jerome's analysis: the human face corresponds to the Platonic logistikon, the soul's reasoning faculty (i.e., the Phaedrus' charioteer); the lion to Plato's thumos element (white horse); and the bull to concupiscence, epithumia (dark horse). (Though most English translations say ox here, the Hebrew word, showr, as means either bull or ox.) The eagle, however, has no obvious counterpart in Plato's psychology or chariot analogy. Jerome, picking an eagle's keen vision as the defining attribute, saw it as representing a transcendent part of the psyche, something that hovers above the others, able to scrutinize and discern things. This is a rather remarkable insight on Jerome's part, though whether it originated entirely with him or was mentioned by other writers before him is perhaps open to speculation.

    In any case, this additional faculty or power of the soul seems worthy of further consideration (although not here). It does not seem the same as the 'I' principle alluded to above. I would rather suggest that it may have more to do with things like Wisdom or special sapiential faculties of the mind or psyche.

    We are also told (Eze 1:26) that above the fantastic figures was the likeness of a throne and, upon or above this, the likeness as the appearance of a man. In Christian theology, the figure on the throne would correspond to the Christ-image or to Christ within the soul. The Syrian monk, Pseudo-Macarius, a contemporary of St. Jerome, wrote in a homily on Ezekiel's vision (Maloney, 1992; Homily 1):

    "Thus the soul is completely illumined with the unspeakable beauty of the glory of the light of the face of Christ and is perfectly made a participator of the Holy Spirit. It is privileged to be the dwelling-place and the throne of God, all eye, all light, all face, all glory and all spirit, made so by Christ who drives, guides, carries, and supports the soul about and adorns and decorates the soul with his spiritual beauty."
    Christ and/or the Christ-image directs the soul's growth, perhaps also being a template for the transformation of the old man to the New Adam or Son of Man. Of this important subject we may perhaps say more elsewhere.
    Merkabah and Hekhalot Mysticism
    We may also note in passing Jewish Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism, which used the Ezekiel vision as a basis for speculative consideration of the nature of God and technical discussion concerning methods of mystical ascent (Scholem, 1961). Based on the available documented evidence, the current view is that these traditions developed, roughly speaking, beginning from 100 BC to 100 AD.

    The influence of Platonism or neoplatonism seems likely. However, we may also allow the possibility that this Jewish mysticism has roots in a much older Chaldean or even Egyptian tradition. The principles and basic ideas of chariot mystical ascent, of course, have much in common with the ecstatic soul-flights of shamanism, which, from its ubiquitous geographic dispersal, we may well suppose to be of prehistoric origin. The incorporation of chariot symbolism could have occurred only shortly after the invention of the chariot itself (2000 BC?) and at many different locations simultaneously.

    The Katha Upanishad
    The Katha Upanishad of Hindu scriptures contains a fairly detailed chariot analogy for the human soul, one not infrequently compared to that of the Phaedrus. (Dates of composition of the Vedic literature are contested and we do best to stay clear of the subject.) The relative passage occurs in Book 1, Chapter 3 (Panoli, 1994):

    1.3.2. ... those who are desirous of crossing (the ocean of samsara [illusion]).
    1.3.3. Know the Self to be the master of the chariot, and the body to be the chariot. Know the intellect to be the charioteer, and the mind to be the reins.
    1.3.4. The senses they speak of as the horses; the objects within their view, the way. When the Self is yoked with the mind and the senses, the wise call It the enjoyer.
    1.3.5. But whoso is devoid of discrimination and is possessed of a mind ever uncollected – his senses are uncontrollable like the vicious horses of a driver.
    1.3.6. But whoso is discriminative and possessed of a mind ever collected – his senses are controllable like the good horses of a driver.
    1.3.7. But whoso is devoid of a discriminating intellect, possessed of an unrestrained mind and is ever impure, does not attain that goal, but goes to samsara.
    1.3.8. But whoso is possessed of a discriminating intellect and a restrained mind, and is ever pure, attains that goal from which he is not born again.
    1.3.9. But the man who has a discriminating intellect as his driver, and a controlled-mind as the reins, reaches the end of the path – that supreme state of Vishnu.

    Similarities to the Phaedrus myth are obvious, but there are important differences as well. In the Katha Upanishad, the horses are identified as the senses, and no qualitative (i.e., evaluative) distinction is made among them; that is, there is no good-white-horse/bad-black-horse discrimination as in the Phaedrus. Nothing suggesting thumos, especially in its positive, heroic aspects, is mentioned. The similarities and differences are such that a hypothesis of common origin of this and the Phaedrus myth can be neither demonstrated convincingly nor disproven. Overall, the explicit reference to reincarnation in both analogies is perhaps the strongest evidence in favor of historical connection. But, if so, we lack a basis to prefer a model of East-to-West or West-to-East dissemination, or even, say, a Persian origin and from thence to both West and East.

    The Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata
    In the better-known Bhagavad Gita, already mentioned, the literal story concerns a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, whom he enlists as the driver of his chariot and advisor as he prepares for an immense and climactic battle. The adversarial forces are identified as competing and conflicting parts of the soul, and Arjuna, Krishna, and the chariot are between them (Arjuna in a state considerable distress, unsure whether to fight or give up). Within the Bhagavad Gita it is said that the whole outline of Vedantic and yogic theory and practice is presented. The Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna are portrayed as seated in a grand chariot yoked with white horses (Bhagavad Gita 1.14), but beyond this specific details about the chariot are not given.

    However, the Anu Gita section of the epic Mahabharata contains further conversations between Krishna and Arjuna after the battle. There we find the following passage (Telang, 1882) which begins, "Brahman said":

    Since the mind is ruler of these five elements, in (the matter of) absorbing or bringing (them) forth, the mind itself is the individual self. The mind always presides over the great elements. The understanding proclaims its power, and it is called the Kshetragña. The mind yokes the senses as a charioteer (yokes) good horses. The senses, the mind, and the understanding are always joined to the Kshetragña. That individual self, mounting the chariot to which big horses are yoked, and in which the understanding is the drag, drives about on all sides the great chariot which is pervaded by the Brahman, has the group of the senses yoked (to it), has the mind for a charioteer, and the understanding for a drag. That learned and talented person verily, who always understands thus the chariot pervaded by the Brahman, comes not by delusion in the midst of all entities. (Anugîtâ 36)

    Similarities between this passage and the Katha Upanishad are evident.

    So much, then, for the figure of the chariot itself. We now turn attention to the allegory.

      Interpretation (Contents)  

    The Allegory of Ascent and Fall

    We pursue interpretation of the allegory at three levels: (1) as a metaphor for theosis, or the soul's divinization; (2) as a figure for contemplative or mystical ascent; and (3) at a third level of meaning that has no convenient term, but which we could call the ascent to the present and is related to humanistic/existential psychology (Uebersax 2014).

    In Greek and other ancient religions, the idea of theosis, that a person might become a god or godlike, was common. Theosis still figures prominently in Eastern Christianity, but in Western Christianity it gets little attention. For many Americans and Europeans, Christianity is too often only an ethical system. It's small wonder, then, so many flock to the New Age and Eastern religions, which cater to peoples' natural interest in theosis.

    Plato's philosophy contains a theory and method for the soul's theosis. For example, in the dialogue, Theaetetus (176b), he writes:

    We ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise. (Jowett, 1892; Vol. 4)

    and this passage could as easily appear in the Phaedrus. The soul's divinization, for Plato, is accomplished by, among other things, what he calls contemplation (theoria) of the divine Forms. These are what the soul in the chariot myth sees in its ascent 'beyond the heavens'.

    Readers will likely have heard of Plato's doctrine of Forms, but may, thanks in part to the narrow view promoted by modern positivistic philosophy, have a mistaken or limited understanding if it. A common modern view is that Plato's Forms refer simply to intellectual abstractions or universal definitions. To clarify this, and to reveal the true religious dimension of Plato's theory, we must to consider this subject in a little detail.

    First, remarks about the word, 'Forms', are in order. The term itself is potentially misleading, since it tends to imply or connote things that are definitions or intellectual abstractions. Plato's actual word is eide, which could be translated as Ideas. However, the term, 'Ideas', is also potentially misleading, because Plato's Forms exist independently of human thought; they are eternal (outside of time) realities. Possibly better terms might be Essences or Realities. Ultimately, there may be no good single word to describe these things. Perhaps Plato picked the word, eide, because in Greek that implies something seen, and, for him, the Forms are perceived by a mental faculty similar to vision. Lacking a better term, we might as we well stay with 'Forms', understanding it as an placeholder for a better one (i.e., we could as easily call these X's).

    It's also important to distinguish between two kinds of Forms. First are those associated with material objects. For example, there might be a Form for all tables, one for all dogs, etc. The Form of a table would be the essential quality that all actual, particular tables share. We might call this Plato's general theory of Forms. In contrast is what we could call his special theory of Forms. This applies not to material objects, but to intangible things like beauty, truth, wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, and goodness. Like tables and dogs, these things may occur in particular instances; but we may also inquire as to the essences which all particular instances have in common. What is the essence of beauty? What do all experiences of beauty have in common? That is the Platonic Form, Beauty.

    The distinction between the general and special kinds of Forms is extremely important and often overlooked by those who deny that Plato is alluding to deeper metaphysical realities here. It is arguably the case that Plato discussed the former, general kind of Forms primarily as a means to introduce the second, more important kind. Even his ancient critics seem to agree, for example, that Socrates, Plato's teacher, was mainly interested in the second kind of Forms. It is the acquaintance or contact with the Forms of intangible things like beauty, justice, virtue, etc. that divinize the soul.

    An Example

    Every year or so around Christmas time, many or most people have a singular experience of 'Christmas Joy'. It's like suddenly remembering, "Yes, this is what it's all about! How foolish of me to have forgotten!" One then invariably has the wish or intention to retain the feeling all year long (and almost as invariably, one doesn't).

    Now the content of this experience is something universal, because it doesn't just apply to one particular thing or event. The essence of the experience is the same thing, both then, and if you have the experience another time; it's literally as though there is the one thing, Joy, which you see or participate in at both times. It's also transcendent, because it doesn't strictly apply to or require anything material. One could imagine having the same feeling even if one had no physical body. It is a religious experience. All it really requires is that, besides your own soul, that God and other souls exist. The basis for true Joy, we might say, is the realization and appreciation that one has the opportunity to Love God and others, that such Love is possible at all, and that it is an essential feature of our existence. The above may but a poor description of the experience, but hopefully it conveys the general idea.

    Such an experience has a feeling-like quality, but also an intellectual component: an insight or clear recognition that there should be peace on earth; that this is how things are meant to be; how obvious this all is, etc. This transcends ordinary experience, feeling, and reasoning. It is something you simultaneously see, feel, understand, experience, and participate in. This, I propose, is what it means to experience one of the special Platonic Forms. This is our peeking temporarily into the realm 'above the heavens'.

    Theosis and Soul Growth

    In Plato's allegory, each time the soul ascends to the highest realm, it sees, experiences, or mentally grasps one such divine Form. Repeated ascents make soul gradually more godlike, more divine, more like God.

    Lest one think the idea of theosis is mere hubris, we need only look at Scripture. First, we are told rather explicitly in Genesis that the human being is made in God's image and likeness. While we are in a 'fallen' condition, this merely hides or obscures the God-image in which we are made. Nothing biblical ever suggests that the God-image itself was damaged or lost.

    Second, we can see in several passages what seem like clear allusions to the idea of becoming more divine or godlike. For example, the first Epistle of John says:

    "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2)

    St. Paul, too, addressees this idea in 1 Cor 13:12 and 2 Cor 3:18. He basically implies that we could not, at present, bear to see God as He is, because we are too unlike Him; but that eventually, as we are made more like God, proceeding "from glory to glory", we will be more able to see Him "face to face."

    In Plato's system, our gradual divinization occurs as we become better acquainted with Forms like those of Beauty, Virtue, Justice, Goodness, etc. These are, in a sense, manifestations of God's nature. The ability to experience these Forms develops through: (1) moral improvement; (2) detachment from worldly concerns, (3) Platonic contemplation (theoria) , (4) love of Wisdom (philosophia), (5) piety and holiness; (6) edifying discourse and inquiry (dialogue) ; and (7) general intellectual training (e.g., mathematics, etc.). Just as with the Christian idea of the God-image of the human soul, Plato emphasizes that the divine Forms are not foreign to us. Our soul already has an affinity for them; in a sense, it is the same "stuff" as these Forms. He further suggests that we have already seen or experienced these Forms, and what is involved is a kind or remembering of them. Our increasing in communion with God, becoming more godlike, and seeing the imprint of divinity already in the soul are parts of the same process.

    Contemplative Ascent
    At a different level, we can understand the chariot allegory in terms of the more traditional process of Christian mystical life, such as that associated with figures like St. Teresa of Jesus (or St. Teresa of Avila) and St. John of the Cross. We might also call this ascetic-contemplative ascent, as the ascetic (ethical/psychological purification) and contemplative phases are both part of the usual model of Christian mystical theology. This journey, often described in the mystical literature with phrases like the Ascent of Mt. Carmel or the Ascent of Mt. Sinai, is traditionally associated with experiences of ecstatic communion with God, which alternate with darker or more negative periods. In the latter, the person experiences distress, dissatisfaction, and agitation. St. John of the Cross, of course, called these dark nights of the soul, and St. Teresa referred to periods of aridity. Both seem to have in common a sense of ones feeling abandoned by God.

    Sometimes these 'descents' are connected with falling prey to temptation -- falls from grace in the ordinary understanding of the phrase. Yet at other times they seem without any obvious connection to the ethical behavior of the person, as in the Book of Job. One of the challenges the person then faces is that of remembering or holding onto the recognition of the gains, insights, truths, etc., experienced during the previous ascents.

    While clearly related, this idea is somewhat different from the theosis described above. In this kind of contemplative ascent and communion, there may not be the same experience of contact with divine Forms. In fact, there may at times be little or no intellectual content (as conventionally understood) to the ecstatic experience at all. Sometimes there is just a sense of the presence of God, or sometimes it may be as though the understanding and senses are asleep, in the terminology of St. Teresa.

    The Ascent to the Present
    We now consider a third level of interpretation of the chariot allegory. We usually think of the soul's life journey as something like movement on a horizontal axis of time -- from cradle to grave and beyond. Besides this, the potential of movement exists along a second dimension, perpendicular, as it were, to the first. This second dimension could be considered one (a) upward; (b) inward; or, (c) outward towards the world; we could even call it a dimension (d) towards greater wakefulness. All these apply. This is the direction towards greater immediacy of experience, inner and outer; greater clarity of mind; greater connection to reality; the 'pure experience' of the here and now. We instinctively try to move in the positive direction of this axis, in a constant, ongoing process that could be called the ascent to the present.

    At the higher levels of this dimension: the mind is collected and lucid; the outwardly sensible world is more clear; inwardly, there is greater capacity for insight; one is more easily absorbed in work, better able to concentrate.

    The opposite or lower end of the dimension is characterized in general by mental distraction and agitation. Were we to examine it further, a wide range of different kinds of disruptive and intruding thoughts (anxiety, fear, anger, daydreaming, etc.) could be recognized. Outward perception is less distinct, and inwardly there is little or no insight.

    If required to choose a single word to denote the level of superior functioning, I would propose the word, recollection. It is a reasonable choice, and has the advantage of connecting discussion here with similar ideas presented elsewhere.

    In one sense, the state of recollection and composure is quite extraordinary -- in that it is statistically uncommon. But in another sense it is quite ordinary -- the natural or intended mode of functioning. It's the state we refer to when we talk about 'getting it together'. While ordinary in this sense, the state is nonetheless very positive, because the nature of human existence is basically such that simply being, doing, working, is, in essence, a positive, rewarding, and generally positive thing. Of course, ultimately we are speaking here of a range of states of greater or lesser extraordiness.

    The idea of a 'Zen-like' flow state, where the outward world is experienced through cleansed 'doors of perception' is familiar to most modern readers, as it has been a popular literary topic beginning around the 1950s. This is not the only dimension to the kind experience we mean here, however. Overemphasis upon enhanced perception and physical activity reflects somewhat an unusual anti-intellectual bias that has become prevalent. While these attributes are important to consider, they are potentially less important than a comparable enhancement of intellectual activity. In these states, may discover and marvel at the amazing complexity, scope, depth, and speed of our mental processes. One may begin to see how much, ordinarily, we impede and obstruct these processes; how much we oppose ourselves; how many mental errors we make -- and by our own choice. Processes, decisions, and levels that are ordinarily pre-conscious can open to our awareness. This is all very much connected with sapiential faculties, exceptional cognitive activities associated with discernment and the 'Wisdom' given so much emphasis by many world religions.

    Unfortunately, such states of exceptional recollection or composure are often difficult to obtain. Instead, we are often tossed about by the vicissitudes of life -- anxious, worried, distracted, on the one hand; or mentally occupied with self-deceptions, defense-mechanism, or idle and vain thoughts on the other. Further, even when we are able to obtain a modicum of composure, it seems only a matter of time before we will become distracted again.

    This, then, I propose as the third level at which we may interpret the chariot allegory: the alternation of ascents along the dimension to greater recollection and mental 'presence', and the falls back into states distraction, confusion, or loss or diminution of soul.

      Interpretation (Contents)  


    I n all three of the cases mentioned above -- theosis, contemplative ascent, and what has been termed recollection -- there are more exalted states alternating with fallen states. All three may be seen to correspond to the soul rising up on wings, striving for the divine vision or a heavenly banquet, but falling and becoming incarnated, encapsulated in a body.

    This brings us to one of the most intriguing parts of the Phaedrus chariot allegory. There, the soul chariot falls, either because of mishandling of the horses (inability to control the appetites or desires; ethical or mental failing), or because of forgetfulness (not remembering ones true nature and the divine Forms, etc.). What's especially interesting, and presumably significant, is that Plato is very specific at this point. He might have simply said, "then the soul becomes embodied, where it awaits the regrowth of wings" and left it at that. Instead he details nine(!) different levels, and categories within each, of life into which the soul may fall. Further, the details concerning the multiple lives required before the soul may regain wings are specific and somewhat complex. One might suppose, then, that Plato had something specific in mind in giving so much detail. And even he didn't, we could justify interpreting them on the grounds that they carry unconscious meaning -- just as one may interpret the unconscious content of dream images. The details are not to be glossed over, in any case.

    I would interpret this section's basic meaning as follows. Life, whether seen at the level of salvatory theosis, contemplative ascent, or attainment of psychological composure, is characterized by periods of growth and periods of apparent setbacks. In the latter case, ones goal is clearly to get back 'on track' as quickly as possible. That, however, is often obstructed by a tendency to forget or lose sight of the previous exalted states or revelations. Once off the path, one is in serious danger of forgetting oneself, ones mission, goal, and destiny. This is why falling off the path is so dangerous in the first place -- the next step is more often likely to be one further away from the path than back towards it.

    This progressive aspect is represented by the successive lives in the chariot allegory. It isn't just a matter of the soul falling and incarnating, and then growing new wings. The initial fall may be to varying degrees. And after the first incarnation, more are required. Following each is a judgment, with reward or punishment; then there is selection of a new life, determined partly by choice and partly by lots; this is like how, in life, ones next state of mind is partly determined by ones current state and partly by the exigencies of circumstance.

    Here is why it's so important to become a philosopher, or else a lover of Beauty, whenever possible. At this highest level of 'embodiment' we remain in a position most favorable both (1) for the regrowth of the soul's wings, and (2) for choosing another propitious embodiment, should that be required. Having a philosophic, loving, or creative attitude now is the surest way to re-attain a desired exalted (winged, unembodied) state, or, if not, to at least remain in a superior embodied state in the future.

    Categories of Embodiment

    With these considerations in mind, we shall examine the specific kinds of embodiment mentioned in (248d-e).

    Against a possible charge of overinterpretation we may note the following. We have here with an ancient myth here -- at least 2400 years old and perhaps much older. The works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung have established beyond much doubt that ancient myths carry important psychological meanings. They were formulated in the first place, and have endured over centuries, by virtue of resonance and relevance to personal psychological experience. They can be understood as a means of cultural expression of important psychological and philosophical matters. In the case of Greek myths, especially, such meanings may have been expressed in myths not just unconsciously, but perhaps also with conscious awareness and intent.

    The question, then, is not so much whether there is psychological meaning here, but whether we can find the correct meaning. With mythos of such fundamental significance, we should recognize the possibility multiple meanings. An apt analogy is found in St.. Augustine's words concerning the "true" level at which to interpret the Creation story of Genesis:

    Thus, when one says, "Moses meant Genesis as I interpret it," and another, "No-- he meant it as I see it", I believe I am more faithful to say: "Why not, rather, that both be true? And if a third or fourth, or if one finds some yet different truth, why not believe that Moses, through whom one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many different people, saw all these?" (Confessions 12.31.42; author's translation)

    The idea of multiple levels of meaning, of course, is consistent with our approach in the previous section. We shall here, however, be primarily focused on the level of immediate psychological experience --a fall from a state we've termed recollection. This psychological experience is, in a sense, a common denominator and also the most direct manifestation of a fall from the progress in theosis, or from contemplative ascent.

    Rather than risk defeating the purpose of the poetic imagery, which, as we suggest, is allegorically expressed precisely because it exceeds simple logical presentation, we'll consider only the most general principles. With these the reader may then derive more specific meanings best suited to his or her own situation.

    The nine levels of embodiment and their subcategories are summarized in Table 1. (There we rely more on Hackworth's [1952] more modern translation than Jowett's [1892]).

    Table 1. Levels of Fall from 'Recollected' State
    Rank Phaedrus mytha Interpretation
    1 Philosopher, lover of Beauty, musician, and lover Mentally poised; discerning; first priority: Wisdom and self-recollection
    2 Righteous king or warrior chief On a worthy 'crusade'
    3 Administrator, businessman, trader Business, material increase and responsibility; some risk of compromise
    4 Athlete, or physical trainer and physician Concerned with body, fitness, health
    5 Prophet; mystery-priest Exterior religious practice
    6 Poet or imitative artist Imitative art
    7 Artisan or farmer Crafts, work
    8 Sophist or demagogue Lies, false-reasoning, false-hopes
    9 Tyrant Abandoned to appetites; closed-minded; now deaf to Reason
    a Based on Hackworth (1952) translation.

    The highest and lowest levels are of principal interest and command most of our attention:

    • Philosopher, lover of Beauty, musician - and lover

      Here one remains in a position most favorable for both (1) the regrowth of the soul's wings, and (2) the ability to choose another good embodiment, should that be required.

      Philosopher. A philosopher, though embodied, keeps the mind attuned to religious and divine matters; his or her thoughts and activities are directed to the supersensual realm; the person is in the world but not of it -- prepared to deal with the world, but also cognizant of its illusory or maya-like qualities. Philosophy, in the words of Socrates, means a life preparing to die -- not meaning literal death, but to attachment to the material world.

      Lover of Beauty. Plato's word here is philokalou, a lover of beauty or Beauty. Like the philosopher, such a one is concerned with divine, transcendent, and eternal things; and may also act to bring beauty into the lives of others.

      Musician. Perhaps the paradigmatic case is that of an orchestral composer or conductor; that is, one who organizes all the musical instruments into a beautiful, cohesive whole.

      Lover. This refers, of course, to divine forms of love. The best form of love, and that to which all other forms should lead, according to Plato, is the love of the source of Goodness, which is God. To quote St. Augustine again,

      But the true and highest good, according to Plato, is God, and therefore he would call him a philosopher who loves God; for philosophy is directed to the obtaining of the blessed life, and he who loves God is blessed in the enjoyment of God. (City of God, 8.8; Marcus Dods, tr.)
    • Thus the lover here is synonymous with being a philosopher, as should be clear from the entire context of Phaedrus.

    • Righteous king or warrior chief

      Righteous king. A king rules, commands a state. This would be one who is in control of oneself; who organizes and directs the polity of the psyche in the service of righteousness.

      Righteous warrior chief. A warrior chief is similar, though here there is more energy and thumos. This is like a person who approaches a project with a militant or aggressive zeal. One in this state retains sufficient recollection and discernment to choose a worthy task. The war-like attitude means one puts other things aside and approaches the project with single-mindedness and determination. This state is not ideal, but is positively directed, and one may accomplish a great deal. A danger here, and in the next levels, is that one may identify too strongly with the state and fail to seek the superior status of philosopher.

    • Administrator, businessman, trader

      All these require integrity, and may accomplish good; but the soul may be weighed down by material concerns. Concessions may be made to the dark horse; but Reason retains the upper hand.

    • Athlete, or physical trainer and physician

      These correspond to a person concerned with the body and physical health. They are good pursuits, but carry the risk of ones placing the body ahead of intellect in importance. These are to be distinguished from a philosopher who lives healthily so as to be a better philosopher and so that the body does not hinder the mind.

    • Prophet, mystery-priest

      This does not mean a truly spiritual person, who is a philosopher. Rather, this status, to quote Hackforth (p. 84): "is no doubt that of the shadier sort of religious 'expert' to whom Socrates refers with such contempt at Rep. 364b ff." The religious charlatans referred to there were mercenary magicians who promoted idle superstitious and magical beliefs. In this category we would place "religious materialists" -- those who use esoteric pursuits or beliefs as a means of escape, or as a means to justify or trivialize vice, attachment to appetites, etc.

    • Imitative artist, craftsman, farmer

      These categories, which comprise two levels in Plato's taxonomy, are similar in that a person is engaged in work that is not very creative -- a laborer, in other words. These toil, allowing themselves to be content with drudgery, but neglect the mind.

    • Sophist, demagogue


      Sophists were the pseudo-philosophers of Plato's time. (Plato criticized them as sharply as Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees, and for many of the same reasons.) Sophists habitually relied on specious reasoning. But most of all they were characterized by an attitude of cynicism and malicious skepticism. They wished not so much to establish a belief as to deny that truth is unattainable; in that context, of course, all manner of appetitive indulgence and 'carnality' is tolerable.

      Thus, one becomes a sophist when one deludes oneself with false reasoning or lets doubt and cynicism dominate ones outlook. There seems a clear link to depressive states as well: if truth is unattainable, why exert the intellect? Why not just let the mind go to sleep?


      One kind of demagogue tries to control the populus with empty promises and false hopes. Another incites hatred and anger to distract attention from more important concerns. A person becomes a self-demagogue when motivated by vain and illusory goals, or when the personality is organized around an irrational hatred or anger.

    • Tyrant

      Of all these conditions, the worst is that of a tyrant. In self-tyranny, the mind is completely closed to Reason, and there is no direct route back to being a philosopher. One becomes a tyrant when appetites or lusts take over completely -- when one not only succumbs or indulges, but does so with a conscious and forceful decision to cast aside all restraint and reason. Some appetite or desire then becomes a tyrant, resisting and suppressing all dissent.

      A sophist or demagogue at least maintains the semblance of rationality. But not so a tyrant: a demagogue distorts, a sophist despairs of, but a tyrant defies Reason.

      Perhaps most importantly, a tyrant oppresses and significantly harms the populus. Addictive behaviors are perhaps the must obvious example of self-tyranny.

    One of the most important aspects of these negative categories is that there is no easy way back from them to the highest states, much less back to the state where one grows wings. In terms of the allegory, these are the states where one has forgotten almost completely the vision of the Forms.

    The allegory does allude to a condition worse than a tyrant--that of a beast. This would be one who has gone so much into their appetites that they no longer have even the capacity for moderation or for self-reflection concerning their situation.

    This, I propose, conveys the basic principles associated with one meaning of successive embodiment in the chariot allegory. At the least, it seems a useful way that it may be interpreted.

      Interpretation (Contents)      Top of Page  


    We may now seek practical benefits from our labors. In life one may expect that more exalted states -- whether these be the enjoyment of divine Forms, periods of communion with the Divine, or flow states of superior psychological insight and functioning -- will eventually give way to fallen states of one kind or another.

    In this case, the one thing you most don't want to do is this: to let yourself become so upset, resentful, unhappy, and flustered that you forget the entire gameplan. In particular, one must avoid at all costs becoming so upset that one becomes identified with the upsettedness and the fallen state. Otherwise, even should the initial fallen state be rather mild -- an administrator -- the next step may well be to that of a demagogue or tyrant.

    What you do want is this: to keep things in perspective, and to retain composure as much as possible. Should you simply lose your ecstatic wings and fall into the state of a philosopher, lover, musician, or creative artist, consider yourself fortunate. Tend to your business, patiently awaiting the wings' regrowth; beware a fall to a lower state. Should you first fall to a lower state -- a merchant or laborer -- again do your work well, and seek to become a philosopher: that is the best gateway to re-ascent. And should you be so unfortunate as to fall to one of the worst states, recognize this and come to your senses as quickly as possible; your understanding the principles of self-sophistry, demagoguery, and tyranny may promote this.

    These are the main considerations, but there are also others, all of which follow more or less naturally from the principles of common sense and the organizing framework supplied by this metaphor. We may list a few more examples as follows:

    • Try not to fall in the first place. It isn't as easy to get back on track as one tends to believe. You might think, "I'll just stray for a moment." But the memory of the Forms often fades quickly and one easily get lost in dallying. You may find that returning to the path involves unwelcome detours and delay.

    • Ascend as high as you can in the first place. According to the allegory, this gives one better vision of the Forms, stronger memories, and faster regrowth of wings.

    • Choose to be a philosopher, lover, musician, or creative artist whenever you can (but especially a philosopher).

    • If you're going to fall, understand that there are degrees, and, if possible, try to fall as little as possible.

    • Learn to recognize and classify your present condition. This will help you retain perspective on things.

    • Use reminders. In the allegory, it's failure to remember the Forms and the soul's purpose that leads to inferior embodiments; and remembrance that mediates the faster advancement of the philosopher. The relevant memories can be stimulated or retained by such things as suitable reading material, edifying discourse, etc. And, of course, the opposite is also true: distractions like usual television programs, aimless 'web-surfing', idle talk, and so on, contribute to forgetting the important things.
    This, then, concludes our interpretation and analysis. We have seen how there is a great deal of useful information to be found in Plato and how this may apply to many different levels of life. The spiritual and religious dimension of his philosophy has been emphasized. We have demonstrated a general and valuable method of interpretation and 'exegesis' -- looking beyond the literal word to its deeper meaning -- that may be applied to his other works.
      Interpretation (Contents)      Top of Page  




    To Cite this Article

    Uebersax, John S. Plato's Chariot Allegory. Works on Psychology (John Uebersax). February 2007. Web. Accessed day month year.


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    Orig 21 Feb 2007
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