Plato’s Tripartite Theory of the Soul: A brief Meditation

The Indo-Europeans, who most likely developed a pastoral and agricultural culture somewhere on the rolling steppes of Asia (Ukraine is a popular guess), were introduced to the domestication of horses and the implementation of chariots by the Near East cultures they came into contact with, like Mesopotamia.

The story is a bit obscured by history, but at some point many of them became a nomadic, warlike, and horse-centered culture. They migrated into India, into Greece and Italy, and became the Celtic culture in Spain and Britain.

In India we read in the many epics of a heroic age–a chariot age. In Homeric Greece we have similar accounts, which is humorous once you realize how little chariots could have actually been employed in the mostly rocky, craggy, uneven land of Greece proper. Yet Achilles and Agamemnon both have chariots from which to wage battle, just as their Vedic counterparts, Arjuna and his famous family, similarly employ chariots.

The wisemen of both cultures must have inherited a tradition that modeled the human soul on the components of a chariot, and even the word ‘yoga’, “to yoke,” may refer back to a chariot team.

Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul is the tradition I am most familiar with, and I want to briefly discuss it, for reasons I’ll spell out afterwards.

For Plato, the human being is divided into a rider (charioteer), a black horse, and a white horse.

The black horse represented the animal like lusts of our bodies–the need to stuff our faces with food, procure a mate and reproduce, to conserve energy and be lazy, and to ensure creature comfort. We share this aspect of our nature with the other animals.

The white horse represents our self-esteem, or self-value, and is involved in attaining pride and glory on the one hand, and the avoidance of shame on the other. You can think of this horse as the social aspect of our nature as hierarchical, group animals. We want high status, the qualities we call virtues, like courage and strength, and we want to avoid cowardice, weakness, and ineffectiveness. We struggle to stay proud and esteemed by our colleagues and avoid embarrassment. This aspect of our nature cares about how we are perceived; we share this with other primates.

Obviously, these metaphors are most suited to a war like, male dominated society, but the need to maintain high status and avoid shame is a universal human trait; it need not be limited to military acumen.

The charioteer in this equation represents what the Greeks called ‘Nous’ or ‘mind.’ This is the rational aspect of our nature, the strategic side, the part of us that should be driving our drives, rather than to be driven by them. This is the aspect of ourselves that knows where we need to go in order to achieve the goals we set.

Plato’s point was that most of us are dragged along by our impulses. We live for food, rather than eat to live. We consume mindlessly. We care about the way we look to others, and we driven by our desires for esteem and respect. But Plato urged us to learn how to take control, to be the director of our drives–our spiritual chariots. It’s not that the drives of the body or the need for glory are bad; they’re necessary as drives. They provide the momentum we need to get going, to fight on in our struggles, to exert effort and go the distance.

But they need to be subordinated to the Mind, to Nous. They need conscious direction.

The way that ancient people saw it, each individual has one of these aspects of soul in predominance. Some of us are slaves to our hungers; we cannot seem to control ourselves. Others do anything they can for esteem, for glory. They thirst for accolades and hide everything about themselves that is shameful, embarrassing, and weak.

Few of us are the masters of our drives. We are swept along by parts of us that are out if our control. But the best we can be is in conscious control of our inner horses, and this, for Plato and for his Vedic counterparts, was the aim of the good life, the aim of the philosopher.

Try this: when you are swept along by a drive that you seem to be possessed by in the moment, ask yourself what horse is in control. If we can name our drives, the research shows that we can conceptualize it overtime, and gain some awareness of what really drives us in the moment. Armed with this self-awareness, we can begin to assert rationality into our actions, directing our passions instead of being tugged this way or that.

The reins are in your hands. You have to claim ownership and control.


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