The Chariot: Plato’s Concept of the Lover’s Soul in Phaedrus

Plato recorded Socrates’s teachings, chiefly his conceptualizations of the soul. In Phaedrus, Socrates imagines the pederastic lover’s soul as a chariot, tripartitioned into the charioteer, right horse, and left horse.

Dec 26, 2020By Lynnie McIlvain, BA Classics (Classical Studies)
panathenaic amphora
Panathenaic Amphora, 500-480 BCE; with detail from Academy of Plato, 1st century BCE


Much of Plato’s writings are in fact written recordings of Socrates’s work. The philosopher Socrates was executed without recording his philosophies, though many of his students continued to share them. This is how modern scholars are familiar with Socrates. His student Plato transcribes much of Socrates’s theories and significant teachings. Of course, much of Plato’s own philosophy makes it into the recreations as well. His most well-known theories are those that discuss the nature of the human soul, such as in the Phaedrus where Plato describes a dialogue between Socrates and Socrates’s student, Phaedrus, about the structure of the soul of the erastes. 


The Soul In Ancient Greek Philosophy: Pre- And Post-Phaedrus

school of athens raphael
The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) by Raphael, 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


The ancient peoples have long been fascinated by attempts to understand the human soul, whether through mythology, life after death, or in the case of the Classical Greeks, philosophy. Philosophy heavily influenced the Classical era in Greece, with such philosophers as Socrates, Diogenes, Epicurus, Plato, and Aristotle rising to prominence and in some cases, falling again. Ponderings on the soul continued into the Hellenistic period so that generally, any philosopher of note at that time wrote about the concept of the soul, or psyche (Ψυχή) in the original Ancient Greek. Thus, there were many theories from many schools of thought on the topic, present in works like the Phaedrus, the Republic, On the Soul, etc.


Philosophers attempt to establish the existence and permanence of the soul and then with that finished, they theorize about the shape and function of the intangible quality of man, that thing the soul. Of all theories, those endorsed by Plato in the Phaedrus and presumably originated with Socrates are perhaps the most popular and well-analyzed: that of a soul composed of three parts—one that hungers, one that controls, and another who is the ally of the controller.


The Right Horse

attic black amphora phaedrus
Attic Black-Figure Neck-Amphora, 530-20 BCE, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


The right horse, Socrates says to Phaedrus, is the obedient horse. White and dark-eyed, he is “a friend of honor joined with temperance and modesty, and a follower of true glory; he needs no whip, but is guided only by the word of command and by reason.” When the left horse rebels, the right horse struggles to obey, though Socrates explains that it is possible to rouse the right, reasonable horse into a state of confusion and similar chaos. However, this state is calmed often by the right horse itself, as it is not natural for the horse to maintain such chaos.

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Though occasionally incited to wildness, the right horse does not lust in the way of the other horse. It is comparable to Plato’s concept of the thumos in the Republic. It helps the charioteer overpower the battling and straining of the left horse. At all other times, the right horse is “constrained by modesty” and fights to return to that state when led astray by its mate.


The Left Horse

left horse chariot plato
Panathenaic Amphora, 500-480 BCE, via the British Museum, London


Socrates in the Phaedrus refers to the left horse as “the friend of insolence and pride, shaggy-eared and deaf, hardly obedient to whip and spurs.” While the right horse is white and shining, the left horse is dark with grey, bloodshot eyes and walks crookedly. It is described as “heavy and ill put together,” with other unflattering characteristics, such as a flat nose and short neck. The left horse is not a horse that would sell well on the horse-trading market. This is not an easy to miss metaphor: the left horse is undesirable because of its disobedience and lustfulness, which never ceases.


It serves as a striking contrast to the well-behaved right horse, who follows each tug of the reins immediately and does not stray. The left horse, on the other hand, is the stallion who cannot be broken under any duress or maltreatment. It seizes the moment when the erastes is at his weakest—specifically that moment when he has just laid eyes on his eromenos again—to thrust forward and corrupt the restraint of its companions, the obedient horse and its ever-rational chariot driver.


detail das gastmahl
Detail of Das Gastmahl (nach Plato) by Anselm Feuerbach, 1874, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


The left horse is the embodiment of that hungering part of the soul. Particularly, the left, black horse is the part of the soul that urges the erastes to sexually pursue his partner, to convince the eromenos to lay with him in bed without chastity. Socrates tells that when the erastes is near to his eromenos—contrary to the right horse which obeys itself—the left horse “springs wildly forward” and tries to drag along its companion and charioteer closer towards the younger man. At every pull the charioteer makes on the reins in attempts to bring the horse to heel, the black horse resists.


It is single-minded in its lust; lusting is all that the left horse exists to do. It is completely irrational and driven utterly by instinct. Like all instincts, by its very nature, it detests all attempts to civilize it. Anthropomorphically, one might think of this horse as a drunken man with his inhibitions long gone, ruled only by his whims and the desires of the flesh without concern for societal propriety or individual respect.


The Charioteer

charioteer of delhi
Charioteer of Delphi, 478-70 BCE, via Archaeological Museum of Delphi


The charioteer is the voice and spirit of true reason in the soul in the Phaedrus. He guides the chariot and restrains the wild left horse, though he does not always win and is sometimes, like the right horse, pulled along with the fierce and lustful horse. Socrates often speaks of the charioteer and the man himself as the same, saying things like, “As the charioteer looks upon [the eromenos], his memory is borne back to the true nature of beauty…”


Debating with Phaedrus, Socrates explains that the charioteer has access to that which the horses do not; the true nature of things. He is able to rationalize, which even the obedient right horse cannot, left only to follow the wisdom of the charioteer. He is a man familiar with the rights and wrongs of the world and is driven thus to act according to them. He knows that the pederastic relationship is epitomized by gallant attempts at chastity, unlike other sexual relationships in the ancient past, and so fills the role of the one who restrains sexual desire.


socrates alcibiades embrace desire
Socrates Tears Alcibiades From the Embrace of Desire by Baron Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1791, via The Louvre Museum, Paris


The charioteer is in a constant struggle with the left horse. As deeply as the charioteer wants to maintain the modesty and purity of the love of the eromenos, so deeply the left, wild horse wants to corrupt it. Every time that the charioteer succeeds in controlling the left horse and pulling it away, the horse leaps forward with renewed vigor. Such is the way of lust, that each time it is successfully shut down, it rises again only reinvigorated by being temporarily denied.


Continually, it is the charioteer’s job to impose rationality on the irrational. In Phaedrus, Plato writes that the ultimate goal of this struggle is to one day, after much consistent abuse and training at the hand of the charioteer, to humble the left horse to the “wisdom of the charioteer.” This will cause a new reaction in the left horse at the sight of the eromenos. Instead of feeling lust, the left horse will feel fear, and thus allow the charioteer to guide the chariot behind the eromenos in a state of pure love and inspired awe.


Roots Of The Tripartition In The Phaedrus: Plato And Socrates

plato academy mosaic
Academy of Plato, 1st century BCE, via National Archaeological Museum of Naples


Plato was in his time affected by many influences, including other ancient scholars and other cultures, such as Sparta. He first presents Socrates’s argument for the tripartition of the soul this argument in the fourth book the Republic before the Phaedrus, which he writes several years later. In Republic IV, the three parts of the soul are referred to without the analogy of the chariot and discussed without the pederastic context. The soul is partitioned into the rational, the appetitive, and the thumos in the Republic. These each correspond respectively to the charioteer, the left horse, and the right horse.

In modernity still, scholars and theologians and philosophers try to answer the looming question mark of the human soul; what is it? Why is it? Where will it go when the body dies and rots away? It is a testament to the resonant teachings of both Socrates and Plato (and Phaedrus the student) that the method through which the soul is “studied” is often the continued analysis of these immortal philosophers’ Phaedrus and Republic.

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By Lynnie McIlvainBA Classics (Classical Studies)Raised in Washington State, Lynnie is an alumna of the Clark College where she primarily studied Art History and English. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound in a field about which she is even more passionate: Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies. She currently lives in Tacoma WA, and quietly nurtures her love of literature and writing, foraging, and languages alongside her professional career in nonprofit development.