The following is an exploration of the Platonic Charioteer Allegory, an allegory which appears not only in Greek philosophy, but also in Indian spiritual texts, both with quite similar underlying meanings.
Before we come to Plato’s use of the Allegory along with Hermeas’s excellent explanation, let us quickly touch upon its use in eastern texts.
The main source of the Chariot Allegory in the east is found the Katha Upanishad (1:3:3-9), one of the oldest, mukhya or Principal Upanishads. The following translation is by Charles Johnston:
“Know the Higher Self as the lord of the chariot, and the body as the chariot; know the soul as the charioteer, and the mind and emotional nature as the reins. They say that the powers of perception and action are the horses, and that objective things are the roadways for these; the Self joined with the powers through the mental and emotional nature is called the enjoyer of experience by the wise. But he who is without understanding, with mind and emotional nature ever uncontrolled, of such a one his powers of perception and action are not under his command, like the unruly horses of the charioteer. But he who is possessed of understanding, with mind and emotional nature controlled, his powers of perception and action are under his command, like the well-ruled horses of the charioteer. But he who is not possessed of understanding, with ungoverned mind and emotional nature, ever impure, gains not that goal, but follows the circling path of death and rebirth. But he who possesses understanding, with well governed mind and emotional nature, ever pure, he indeed gains that goal, from which he returns not to rebirth. But the man who, using the wisdom of the charioteer, keeps the mind and emotional nature, the reins, well in hand, he gains the consummation of the way, the supreme goal of the divine Pervading Power.”
This gives us our first taste of the meaning underlying the Allegory, and provides us with an overview of ideas that will be much further developed elsewhere. A primary source for this development is the symbolic nature of the Indian epic the Mahabharata, where the Chariot Allegory is given a prominent role in the chapters referred to as the Bhagavad Gita. Here the Allegory is brought to life in the characters of Krishna (the lord of the chariot), Arjuna who rides as the passenger but also directs Krishna where to move with the chariot, the horses, and lastly the entire setting—for Arjuna directs Krishna to move the chariot between the two opposing armies, themselves symbolizing the lower and the higher nature. The whole of the Bhagavad Gita can be read as a kind of unfoldment of the Allegory first given in the Katha Upanishad.
Moving now from the east to the west, we return to Plato’s use of the Allegory, which appears in the Phaedrus (246a–254e). We give here selections of that passage as translated by Thomas Taylor.
[Translation of Plato]
Respecting its [the soul’s] idea1 we must: speak after the following manner: To give a perfect description of its nature, would indeed be the employment of a narration every way prolix and divine; but to describe a certain similitude of this idea is the business of a human and shorter discourse. Let it then be similar to the kindred power of a winged chariot and charioteer. All the horses and chariots of the Gods are indeed good, and composed from things good; but those of other natures are mixed. And, in the first place, our principal part governs the reins of its two-yoked car. In the next place, one of the horses is good and beautiful, and is composed from things of this kind; but the other is of a contrary nature, and is composed of contrary qualities: and on this account our course is necessarily difficult and hard.
But we must endeavour to explain why it is called in a certain respect a mortal and immortal animal. Every soul takes care of every thing which is inanimate, and revolves about the whole of heaven, becoming situated at different times in different forms. While it is perfect, indeed, and winged, its course is sublime, and it governs the universe. But the soul whose wings suffer a defluxion verges downward, till something solid terminates its descent; whence it receives a terrene body, as its destined receptacle, which appears to move itself through the power of the soul: and the whole is called an animal composed from soul and body, and is surnamed a mortal animal. But that which is immortal is perceived by no rational deduction, except that which is hypothetical and feigned: since we neither see, nor sufficiently understand, that a God is a certain immortal animal endued with a soul, and possessing a body naturally conjoined with soul, through the whole of time.
These things however are asserted, and may exist, as it pleases divinity. But let us now declare the cause through which the wings were cast aside, and fell from the soul. And this is of the following kind: There is a natural power in the wings of the soul, to raise that which is weighty on high, where the genus of the Gods resides. But of every thing subsisting about body, the soul most participates of that which is divine. But that which is divine is beautiful, wise, and good, and whatever can be asserted of a similar kind. And with these indeed the winged nature of the soul is especially nourished and increased: but it departs from its integrity, and perishes, through that which is evil and base, and from contraries of a similar kind. Likewise Jupiter, the mighty leader in the heavens, driving his winged chariot, begins the divine procession, adorning and disposing all things with providential care. . . .
And, indeed, the vehicles of the Gods being properly adapted to the guiding reins, and equally balanced, proceed with an easy motion: but the vehicles of other natures are attended in their progressions with difficulty and labour. For the horse, participating of depravity, becomes heavy; and when he has not been properly disciplined by the charioteers, verges and gravitates to the earth. And in this case labour, and an extreme contest, are proposed to the soul. But those who are denominated immortals, when they arrive at the summit, proceeding beyond the extremity of heaven, stand on its back: and while they are established in this eminence, the circumference carries them round, and they behold what the region beyond the heavens contains. . . .
The dianoëtic power of every soul, when it receives a condition accommodated to its nature, perceiving being through time, it becomes enamoured with it, and contemplating truth, is nourished and filled with joy, till the circumference by a circular revolution brings it back again to its pristine situation. . . . But, when it returns, the charioteer, stopping his horses at the manger, presents them with ambrosia, and together with it, nectar for drink. And this is the life of the Gods.
But, with respect to other souls, such as follow divinity in the best manner, and become similar to its nature, raise the head of the charioteer3 into the supercelestial place; where he is borne along with the circumference; but is disturbed by the course of the horses, and scarcely obtains the vision of perfect realities. But other souls at one time raise, and at another time depress, the head of the charioteer: and, through the violence of the horses, they partly see indeed, and are partly destitute of vision. And again, other souls follow, all of them affecting the vision of this superior place: but from being unable to accomplish this design; they are carried round in a merged condition, spurning against and ruffling on each other, through a contention of precedency in their course. Hence the tumult, contest, and perforation, are extreme. And here, indeed, many become lame through the fault of the charioteers, many break many of their wings, and all of them, involved in mighty labour, depart destitute of the perception of reality; but after their departure they use an aliment composed from opinion; through which there is a great endeavour to behold where the plain of truth is situated. For, from a meadow of this kind, that which is best in the soul receives convenient nutriment; and from this the nature of the wing is nourished, by which the soul is enabled to ascend. And this is the law of Adrastia, that whatever soul attending on divinity has beheld any thing of reality shall be free from damage, till another period takes place: and that if she is always able to accomplish this, she shall be perpetually free from the incursions of evil. But if, through an impotency of accomplishing this end, she has not perceived reality, and from some misfortune, and being filled with oblivion and depravity, she becomes heavy and drowsy, breaks her wings, and falls again on the earth,4 . . .
. . . But he who has been recently initiated, and who formerly was a spectator of many blessed visions, when he beholds some deiform countenance, elegantly imitative of beauty, or some incorporeal idea, at first indeed he is struck with horror,18 . . . But, in consequence of surveying this beautiful object, he experiences a mutation in his feelings, a perforation and unaccustomed heat,20 such as horror produces. For, receiving the influx of beauty through his eyes, he becomes hot, and this irrigates the nature of his wings; but when heated, whatever belongs to the germinating of his pinions liquefies, and which formerly being compressed through hardness restrained the vigour of their shoots. But an influx of nutriment taking place, the quill of the wing swells, and endeavours to burst forth, through the whole form of the soul: for the whole was formerly winged. The whole, therefore, in this case, becomes fervid, and leaps upward. . . . When, therefore, it beholds the beauty of some human form, then imbibing the parts which flow from thence, and which is on this account called desire, it becomes irrigated and heated, ceases to be in pain, and rejoices. But when it is separated from this vision of beauty, and becomes dry through heat, then the orifices of the passages through which the feathers endeavoured to shoot forth, being closed, impede the offspring of the wing. . . . Hence, the whole soul, becoming pierced on all sides in a circle, is agitated with fury, and tormented; but, through the memory of the beautiful, again exults with delight. . . . This passion therefore, O beautiful youth, which is the subject of my present discourse, is called by men Love:21 . . . [there is much more said here by Plato about the nature of desire and passion]. . . The willing desire, therefore, and end of true lovers, if they obtain the object of their pursuit, is such as I have described: and thus they become illustrious and blessed, through the fury of love towards the beloved, when the beloved object is once obtained.
But every one who is allured is captivated in the following manner. In the beginning of this fable25 we aligned a triple division to every soul; and we established two certain species as belonging to the form of the horses, and considered the charioteer as the third species. Let this division, therefore, remain the same for us at present. But one of the horses, we said, was good, and the other not. But we have not yet declared what the virtue is of the good horse, or the vice of the bad one; it is therefore proper that we should now declare it. The good horse,26 therefore, subsists in a more beautiful condition, is erect, well-articulated, has its neck lofty, its nose somewhat aquiline, its colour white, and its eves black. It is likewise a lover of honour,27 together with temperance and modesty; is the companion of true opinion, is not whipped, and is only to be governed by exhortation and reason. But the bad one is crooked,28 various, rash in its motions, stiff and short-necked, flat-nosed, of a black colour, having its eyes gray, and being full of blood; is the companion of injury and arrogance, has its ears hairy and deaf, and is scarcely obedient to the whip and the spur. When, therefore, the charioteer beholds the amatory eye inflaming all the soul, through sensible perception, and filling it with the incentives of titillation and desire, then, as always, the horse which is obedient to the charioteer, violently checking its motions, through shame retrains itself from leaping on the beloved object. But the other cannot be held back, either by the spur or whip of the charioteer; but hurries along violently, leaping and exulting, and, fully employing the charioteer and its associate, compels both of them to rush along with it to venereal delight. Both these, however, resist its violence from the beginning, and indignantly endure to be thus compelled to such dire and lawless conduct. But at length, when there is no end of the malady, in consequence of being borne along by compulsion, they now give way, content to do what they are ordered, and deliver themselves up to the survey of the splendid aspect of the beloved. But the charioteer, from a vision of this kind, recovers the memory of the nature of beauty, and again perceives it firmly established, together with temperance, in a pure, and holy29 feat. In consequence, however, of such a perception he is terrified, and through reverence falls supine, and at the same time is compelled to draw back the reins with such vehemence, that both the horses fall upon their hips; the one indeed willingly, through his not making any resistance; but the other with arrogant opposition, through his extreme unwillingness to comply. But when they have departed to a greater distance in their course, the one, through shame and astonishment, moistens all the soul with sweat; but the other, being liberated from the pain which he had suffered through the bridle and the fall, is scarcely able to breathe, and, full of anger, reviles the charioteer and his partner in the course, as deserting order and the compact through effeminacy and fear; and again compelling them to proceed, though perfectly unwilling, he scarcely complies with them, requesting some delay. But when the appointed time for which the delay was granted arrives, and which they feign themselves to have forgotten, then the vicious horse, violently urging, neighing, and hurrying them away, compels them to address the beloved again in the same language as before. When, therefore, they approach near, then bending and extending his tail, and champing the bridle, he draws them along with importunate impudence. But the charioteer, being still more affected in this manner, and falling down as it were from the goal, pulls back the reins with still greater violence from the teeth of the injurious horse, represses his reviling tongue and bloody jaws, fixes his legs and hips on the ground, and thus torments him for his behaviour. But when the vicious horse has often endured a punishment of this kind, he is at length rendered humble and submissive, and follows the providential directions of the charioteer; so that he is lost as it were on seeing a beautiful object. Hence it sometimes happens, that the soul of a lover follows its beloved with reverence and fear, and that the lover pays it every kind of observance and attention as if it was equal to a God. . . .
[Introduction to Hermeas]
This alone gives us a strong footing in the meaning of the Allegory, and the fundamental duality embedded in it. In the Bhagavad Gita this very same duality is represented primarily by the two opposing sides in the war (and the various charioteers, chariots, horses, etc. in either army) and secondarily by the two characters, Arjuna and Krishna, themselves representing, from a certain point of view, the higher and lower natures (in their own form of opposition during the opening chapters).
The most meaningful aspects of the Allegory—as explored by Plato, roughly overviewed in the Katha Upanishad, and which are developed into an entire symbolic scene in the Bhagavad Gita—each find explanation in the following truly excellent commentary by Hermeas.—J.W.F.
[Translation of Hermeas]
What are we to understand by the charioteer and the two horses? In the first place, this is to be considered respecting them, whether it is necessary to arrange1 them according to essences, or according to powers, or according to energies. For there are different opinions on this subject. I say then, that they must be arranged according to powers. For their arrangement cannot be according to energies, since the horses are represented energizing, but there are not energies of energies; and because the energies of the soul are at different times different, but the horses are always the same. For the soul does not receive different horses at different times, but always has the same. Nor can the arrangement be according to essences, since even in our souls, the essences remain undefiled with vice. For the essence of the soul is never vitiated; since if it were, it would perish. But the powers of it become depraved, and this is in a much greater degree the case with its energies. Plato himself likewise says, “that the horses and charioteers of the Gods are all of them good, and consist of such things as are good;” but of ours he says, “that they become depraved, and suffer a defluxion of the wings.” If therefore, the essence of our soul remains undefiled with vice, but the powers of it become distorted, the horses and charioteers may be very properly arranged according to powers. But this also Plato himself clearly proclaims, when he says, “Let it be similar to the connascent power of a winged chariot and charioteer.” If, however, some one should say, that the words, “all of them are good and consist of things good,” are spoken as signifying that these horses and charioteers are derived from beneficent causes, the words that follow will bear witness against this interpretation. For our horses and charioteers are from things that are good as from causes; so that all of them according to this will be good. Plato, however, says that ours are defiled with vice. But Plato is not the first who assumes a charioteer and horses; for prior to him they were assumed by the divinely inspired poets Homer, Orpheus, and Parmenides. By them, however, as being inspired, they are mentioned without cause: for they spoke enthusiastically. But since Plato introduces nothing into his philosophy, which he could not derive from a cause, let us show why, though he speaks with greater dignity about these particulars, he omits to mention the causes of them; in the mean time observing, that the theologists prior to him, appear to have assumed the charioteer and horses, as pertaining to powers. For Jupiter in Homer,2 uses horses, which Neptune is said to unbrace, and he does not always use them, but is represented as sometimes sitting on a throne. But if the essence of Jupiter consisted in riding in a chariot, and Jupiter was the same as the charioteer, he would always drive a chariot. Now however, he is represented as doing other things. By the horses and charioteer therefore, the different powers of Jupiter are celebrated. In the mean time, it must be observed, that the assertions respecting a divine and human soul ought to be common.
Plato therefore, in the Timæus says, that the Demiurgus in constituting the essence of the soul, assumed a middle essence from the genera of being, viz. from [the three genera] essence, same and different. And this middle nature which he assumed, is a medium between the impartible essence and the essence which is divisible about bodies. But the irrational life, nature, and the participations of soul by the body, constitute the essence which is divisible about bodies. And again, the Demiurgus assumed a middle sameness, which is a medium between impartible sameness, and the sameness which is divisible about bodies. The like also takes place with respect to the middle difference. The Demiurgus likewise, says Plato, mingling these three, constituted the essence of the soul. These middles however, in divine souls, consist of pure and incorruptible genera, but this is not the case in our souls. But as Plato says, “the Demiurgus poured mingling, the remainder of the former mixture; in a certain respect indeed, after the same manner, yet not similarly incorruptible according to the same, but deficient from the first, in a second and third degree.” The horses therefore, and the charioteer, are the powers of the three; and the one power of the soul, which is productive of these three powers, is the idea of the soul. The power therefore of being, i.e. of essence, which is one of the genera, is the charioteer; but the power of the same, is the better of the two horses; and the power of the different, is the less excellent horse. Hence, if we conceive two horses and a charioteer, which are made to coalesce, then the one power which is generative and productive of the charioteer and the horses, is the idea of the soul. Power however, must here be understood conformably to geometricians, in the way they are accustomed to say, that a right line is in power a square. In what was before said therefore, Plato discussed the essence of the soul; but here, he speaks about its powers; and in what follows, about its energies. These therefore, being three, viz. essence, self-motion, and immortality, three powers are here assumed, analogous to them, viz. the idea of the soul, the horses, and the more partial lives of the horses. For the idea of the soul is assumed analogous to the one essence of it, which unically possesses both self-motion and immortality. But the horses, and the self-motive nature of them, are assumed analogous to the self-motion of the soul. And the more partial lives of the horses, viz. the ascents and descents of the soul, the defluxion of her wings, and the germination of them, are analogous to her immortality.
But why does he call the power of the same, and the power of the different, the horses, but the power of essence, which is one of the genera of being, the charioteer? It is evident therefore that all the genera participate of each other, but each of denominated according to that which predominates. And essence, which is now assumed in order to the composition of the soul, is the summit and is most perfect, and according to this has dominion over the rest. Hence the soul is not compelled to be moved according to essence.3 But the remaining two which are the powers of the same and the different, are assimilated to horses, as being seen in motion and periodic progressions. These powers also are the circles or wheels of the same and the different. For considered as proceeding about the intelligible, they are horses, but as returning to the same condition, they are circles or wheels. And the better wheel indeed, which is the circle of the same, is that which revolves about intelligibles, and has the power of elevating the soul; on which account also, it is called voluble or agile. But the less excellent wheel, which is the circle of the different, and is genesiurgic, revolves about sensibles and doxastic natures, and is called erect, when it possesses its proper virtue, and thus has an indication of the erect, and the unoblique, when it announces sensibles without distortion. Thus, for instance, if opinion wishes to perceive something sensible, pre-election, or deliberate choice is sufficient, and this excites and extends the spirit. This also, if it should happen to be requisite sends forth rays through the eyes. But these dart forth to the sensible object, and sense being again bent back through the eyes, announces what it sees to the spirit, and from thence to opinion; and thus the reflexion or bending back, is not accurately a circle, but by running in a right line, from the goal to the barrier, and from the barrier to the goal, it imitates a circle. The who of this likewise, is an erect circle. But when it announces any thing in a distorted manner, it is said to sustain all-various fractures. This circle also, [in partial souls,] has a downward-drawing, and genesiurgic power. But in divine souls, it providentially attends to secondary natures.
We may likewise make the following division, and call the intellect of the soul, the charioteer; but the circle of the same, and the better horse, the dianoetic part of the soul; and the circle of the different, and the less excellent horse, the doxastic part. But it must be observes, that dianoia participates of difference, and opinion of sameness. For every part which you may assume of the soul participates of both these. And if we survey indeed the horses and the charioteer, according to that which is highest in the soul, the supreme union of the soul with intelligibles and the Gods, will be the charioteer. But the better horse will be that power of the soul, which always aspires after intelligibles. And the inferior horse, will be that power, which comes into contact with intellections, accompanied with division and transition. And these things indeed will take place, if you survey the charioteer and the horses, in the dianoetic soul alone. But if you survey them in the doxastic soul, then dianoia must be assumed as the charioteer; the power of the doxastic part, which always desires to be co-arranged with dianoia, must be considered as the better of the two horses; and that power of it which aspires after generation, and the government of secondary natures, as the less excellent horse. It is possible also, by assuming the charioteer according to both dianoia and opinion conjoined, to arrange the better horse, as corresponding to the dianoetic power alone, but the inferior horse, as analogous to the doxastic power. For it must be observes, that when the soul gives itself up to more excellent natures, then opinion resigns the whole of itself to dianoia, and wishes to pertain to it alone; though when it becomes weary, it wishes to energize by itself. And these things indeed, viz. the horses and the charioteer, we may survey in the rational soul alone.
Since, however, the soul descends so as to have the irrational nature woven together with it, each of the horses resists, in being thus connected with the irrational form of the soul, we must not omit to consider these also when in this condition. For the sol possessed the former, according to the eternal progression of itself from the Demiurgus alone. But those of which I am now going to speak, the soul receives from the junior Gods, and from the connexion with the mortal form of life. The charioteer therefore, will here subsist according to opinion; but the better of the two horses will be anger; and the inferior horse will be desire. Hence, when opinion is in an erect condition, it produces the middle,4 and rightly opining man, and a middle charioteer. But when opinion is distorted, it produces the distorted man, and resembles a charioteer hurried along at the will of the horses. The doxastic horses, and charioteer therefore, when properly disciplined, produce for us the highest political man; bill the dianoetic horses and charioteer, the contemplative, or theoretic man. These horses however, and the charioteer, are changed, according to the spheres and the elements, and according to every form of life. For in the solar sphere, they are solar, in the sphere of Jupiter, they are Jovian, in the sphere of Mars, Martial; and in short, they are always established according to the peculiarity of the God [about which they are arranged]. And if indeed, they are established according to the divine form, they are divine; if according to the angelic, they are angelical; if according to the dæmoniacal form of life, they are dæmoniacal: but if according to the heroic form, they are heroic; and in a similar manner in all the other forms of life.
But what are we to understand by the word υποπτερον?5 And in the first place, let us see what a wing signifies. The wing of the soul therefore, is her anagogic power, which is especially seen according to the better of the two horses. We denominate this horse therefore, a wheel, or rather the circle of the same, because it is a lover of the beautiful, aspires after intelligibles, and never resists the charioteer, but acts rightly, and also errs in conjunction with it. But the other horse, which is the downward-drawing and genesiurgic power of the soul, gravitates to earth, and resists the charioteer. All souls therefore have wings: for all of them have all powers, and this is also the case with the charioteer and the horses. But in divine souls indeed, the wings are always unencumbered; and hence they are said to be winged, (πτερωτοι) but not sub-winged (υπσττεροι). On the contrary, in our souls which are human, the wings are not always expanded, but are sometimes closed and sluggish. For we possess the power of them (since we never lose our powers); but we have not always the energy of them. Hence to us the term sub-winged is more adapted, in consequence of possessing the power, but not entirely the energy of wings. But to the Gods, the term winged is adapted, as having in efficacy, both powers and energies. Hence afterwards, he says of our soul, that formerly it was winged. Wishing therefore to assert that which is common both to divine souls and ours, he uses the word sub-winged. For all souls have an anagogic power, though some have it always, but others sometimes only in energy. Or it may be said that the term sub-winged is properly asserted, both of divine souls, and ours. Of divine souls indeed, because in them, the wings are about their lowest powers, and which are nearest to the earth: their energies being always established in intelligibles. But the whole of the term sub-winged, is adapted to our souls, because the winged is not properly true, when applied to them, except at certain times.
While much here is quite intricate and certainly requires lengthy study and contemplation in order to arrive at a full understanding, even upon a surface reading we may begin to glimpse a greater scheme to the Chariot Allegory. And while some may scoff at the ease by which we move between east and west in this article, we believe that those who are sincere in their quest for a greater understanding of either Plato or the Upanishads and Gita will greatly benefit from an exploration of both uses of the Allegory.
Notes to Plato
1. By the idea of the soul we are not to understand its supernal exemplar, but its intimate form, and the disposition, and as it were figure of its power. But by the chariots of the Gods, that is, of the mundane Gods and beneficent dæmons, are to be understood all the inward discursive powers of their souls, which pursue the intelligence of all things, and which can at the same time equally contemplate and provide for inferior concerns. And the horses signify the efficacy and motive vigour of these powers. But the horses and chariots of partial souls, such as ours when separated from the body, are mixed from good and evil. Our principal part is intellect. The better horse is anger, and the worse desire. The wings are anagogic or reductory powers, and particularly belong to the charioteer or intellect. An immortal animal is composed from soul and a celestial body; but a mortal animal from soul and an elementary body. For partial souls, such as ours, have three vehicles, one ethereal, derived from the heavens; the second aerial; and the third this gross terrestrial body. Jupiter here signifies the head of that order of Gods which subsists immediately above the mundane Gods, and is called απολυτος, liberated: for the term mighty, as is well observed by Proclus, is a symbol of exempt supremacy. The twelve Gods, therefore, which are divided into four triads, are Jupiter, Neptune, Vulcan, Vesta, Minerva, Mars, Ceres, Juno, Diana, Mercury, Venus, Apollo. The first triad of these is fabricative; the second defensive; the third vivific; and the fourth reductory. And the chariots of these Gods are supermundane souls, in which they are proximately carried. By the heavens, to the contemplation of which the liberated and mundane Gods proceed, cannot be meant the sensible heavens: for what blessed spectacles do these contain, or how can Gods be converted to things posterior to themselves? It is evidently, therefore, the heaven which Plato in the Cratylus defines to be οψις εσ το αων, or sight directed to that which is above; and forms that order of Gods which is called by the Chaldæan oracles νοητος και νοερος, intelligible and intellectual. There is a remarkable error here in the Greek text, for instead of ουρανια αψιδα, celestial arch, it should be read ύπουρανια αψιδα, subcelestial arch, as is evident from Proclus in Plat. Theol. p. 217, who lays a particular stress upon the word ύπουρανια, as a reading universally acknowledged. Our course is said to be difficult and hard, because the motion of the better horse verges to intelligibles, but of the worse to sensibles and generation; and because our soul is unable in the present life equally to contemplate, and providentially energize. By ambrosia is signified that power which renders the Gods separate from generation; but by nectar the immutable nature of their providential energies, which extend even to the last of things.
2. See the Additional Notes to the Timæus.
3. The head of the charioteer is that unity of the soul, which she participates from a divine unity, and which is, as it were, the very summit and flower of her essence.
4. The general cause of the soul’s descent, is her neglecting, as it were, the universal form of the world, diligently contemplating a certain portion of it only, and ardently desiring a partial mode of subsistence; imagination and her vegetable power strongly alluring her to such a condition of being.
5. As there are principally nine celestial souls, viz. the soul of the world, and the souls of the eight celestial spheres, to which our souls are at different times accommodated; hence, souls in their descent receive nine differences of character. But the philosophic genius has the first rank, because it is naturally adapted to the investigation of every thing human and divine. And as such a genius is studious of wisdom and truth, and the first beauty subsists in these; hence, with great propriety, it brings with it the pursuit of beauty. But we receive the image of beauty through the sight and hearing; and hence Plato connects with this character a musician and a lover: the former on account of audible, and the latter of visible beauty. But the next character is that of a king, who indeed extends a universal providence towards mankind, but whose contemplations are not so ample as those of the philosopher. The providential energies of those which follow, are still more contracted. But when he distributes prophets and mystics into the fifth order, we must not suppose that, he means such as are divine, but mercenary and vulgar prophets, who do not operate from science and art, but from custom and chance.
6. The numbers three and ten are called perfect; because the former is the first complete number, and the latter in a certain respect the whole of number; the consequent series of numbers being only a repetition of the numbers which this contains. Hence, as 10 multiplied into itself produces 100, a plain number, and this again multiplied by 10 produces 1000, a solid number; and as 1000 multiplied by 3 forms 3000, and 1000 by 10, 10,000; on this account Plato employs these numbers as symbols of the purgation of the soul, and her restitution to her proper perfection and felicity. I say, as symbols; for we must not suppose that this is accomplished in just so many years, but that the soul’s restitution takes place in a perfect manner.
7. We not must understand by this, that the soul of a man becomes the soul of a brute, but that by way of punishment it is bound to the soul of a brute, or carried in it, just as dæmons reside in our souls. Hence all the energies of the rational soul are perfectly impeded, and its intellectual eye beholds nothing but the dark and tumultuous phantasms of a brutal life.
8. The four kinds of fury are the prophetic, mystic, poetic, and amatory.
9. He who is agitated with this enthusiasm possesses that purification which is called by the Platonic philosophers telestic, because it is obtained by the exercise of mystic rites, and gives perfection to the soul.
10. Plato every where speaks of the sun as analogous to the highest God. For as here the sun is the lord of the whole sensible world, so the first cause of the intelligible world. And as light is deduced from the lord the sun, which conjoins, connects, and unites that which is visive with that which is visible, after the same manner the light proceeding from the highest God, which light is truth, conjoins intellect with the intelligible. We may see, therefore, that beauty imitates this light: for it is as it were a light emitted from the fountain of intelligibles, to this world, which it calls upwards to itself, and becomes the source of union to lovers and the beloved.
11. Plato, in the Timæus, says that the demiurgus, when he made the world, disseminated souls equal in number to the stars, viz. as we have observed in the Introduction to that dialogue, equal according to analogy, and not as monadically considered. Now, therefore, in conformity to what is there asserted, he says, “we together with Jupiter,” as knowing his proper God. For this is the felicity of the human soul, to revolve in conjunction with its proper deities; since it is not possible to pass beyond the Gods.
12. The word τελετη or initiation, says Hermeas, was so denominated from rendering the soul perfect, παρα το τελεαν ψυχην αποτελειν. The soul, therefore, was once perfect. But here it is divided, and is not able to energize wholly by itself. But it is necessary to know, says Hermeas, that telete, mueσis, and epopteia, τελετη, μυησις and εποπτεια differ from each other. Telete, therefore, is analogous to that which is preparatory to purifications. But muesis, which is so called from closing the eyes, is more divine. For to close the eyes in initiation is no longer to receive by sense those divine mysteries, but with the pure soul itself. And epopteia is to be established in, and become a spectator of the mysteries. See more on this interesting subject in my Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic mysteries.
13. There is nothing belonging to antiquity more celebrated than the mysteries, and especially the Eleusinian, though the leading particulars of this august institution are perfectly unknown to the moderns, as I have shown in my Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic mysteries. One circumstance in particular of the last importance, has been grossly misrepresented by that most consummate sophist Dr. Warburton, in his Divine Legation of Moses. The circumstance I allude to belongs to that part of the mysteries which is called εποπτεια, or inspection. For here the Gods themselves became actually apparent in splendid images to the eyes of the epoptæ, or initiated inspectors. And this, in the first place, is evident from the following passage of Proclus, in MS. Comment, on the first Alcibiades: Εν ταις αγιωταταις των τελετων, προ της ϑεον παρουσιας δαιμονων χθονιων τινων εκξολαι προφαινονται, και απο των αχραντων αγαθων εις την ύλην προκαλουμεναι. i.e. “In the most holy of the mysteries, before the God appears, the impulsions of certain terrestrial dæmons become visible, alluring (the initiated) from undefiled goods to matter.” And that by the most holy of mysteries he means the Eleusinian, is evident from his sixth book de Plat. Theol. p. 371. where he expressly calls them by this name. And still more expressly in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, p. 380. Εν απασι ταις τελεταις και τοις μυστηριοις, όι ϑεοι πολλας μεν έαυτων προτεινουσι μορφας πολλα δε σχηματα εξαλλαττοντες φαινονται· και τοτε μεν ατυπωτον αυτων προξεξληται φως, τοτε δε εις ανθρωπειον μορφην εσχηματισμενον, τοτε δε εις αλλοιον τυπον προεληλυθως i.e. “In all initiations and mysteries, the Gods exhibit many forms of themselves, and appear in a variety of shapes. And sometimes indeed an unfigured light of themselves is held forth to the view; sometimes this light is figured according to a human form, and sometimes it proceeds into a different shape.” And we are informed by Psellus in a MS. on Dæmons that this evocation of divine natures formed one part of the sacerdotal office; though, says he, those who now preside over the mysteries, are ignorant of the incantation necessary to evocation. Αλλ’ οι γε νυν της τελετης προεξαρχον, την μεν της κλησεως ουκ ισασιν επωδην. This doctrine, too, of divine appearances in the mysteries is clearly confirmed by Plotinus, ennead. 1. lib. 6. p. 55. and ennead. 9. lib. 9. p. 770. From all this we may collect how egregiously Dr. Warburton was mistaken when, in page 231 of his Divine Legation, he asserts that the light beheld in the mysteries was nothing more than an illuminated image which the priest had purified. “This,” says he, “which was all over illuminated, and which the priest had thoroughly purified, was αγαλμα, an image.” But, indeed, his whole account of this divine institution is absurd, false, and ridiculous in the extreme. I only add, that the preceding observations plainly show to what Plato alludes in this part of the dialogue, by his simple and blessed visions resident in a pure light, and that we can no longer wonder why the initiated are reported to have been called happy.
14. viz. perfect.
15. By this Plato indicates the firm and permanent nature of intelligibles.
16. He says this because the light here is not pure, being mingled with the air.
17. Plato now wishes to speak concerning the amatory character, and to show how it is led back from sensible to intelligible beauty. What he says, therefore, is this,—that intelligible beauty shines forth in an intelligible essence, together with the spectacles which are there, and that from this beauty, sensible beauty is unfolded into light. For, as the light proceeding from the sun illuminates the whole sensible world, so beauty, originating from intelligibles, pervades through the regions of sense. But he calls the fight the clearest of all the senses, because it is more acute than the rest. Hence, it is considered as analogous to fire by those who compare the senses to the elements. But its superior acuteness is evident from this, that when sound, and that which is visible, are produced together, as in the instance of thunder and lightning, we first see the lightning, and some time after the sound reaches our hearing. The reason of this is evident: for sight sees without time, or in an instant; but the other senses require time. Sight also is analogous to intellect: for as intellect sees all things indivisibly, so likewise sight. For it directly sees the interval which reaches from hence as far as to the heavens.
18. It is well observed by Hermeas, that it is necessary to consider what is here said vitally and intellectually. For, as we are seized with astonishment on beholding certain sensible particulars, so likewise in the vision of the Gods; not that it is such a terror as that which arises from the view of enemies approaching, but a terror better than a fear of this kind, through the transcendent fullness of the Gods. It is necessary, therefore, that the human soul should submit itself to the Gods, and to incorporeal forms which surpass our power, and should be seized with a terror better than human fear at the view of them, not as if they were dire, and dreadful, and resisting; for these are the indications of matter and earth-born natures. Plato, therefore, signifies by horror, an excitation from sensibles to intelligibles.
19. That is, he would sacrifice to intelligible beauty, of which sensible beauty is the representation, similitude and image. For here, says Hermeas, those who sacrifice to statues do not sacrifice to the matter itself, and the images, but to the Gods. Και γαρ ενταυθα οι τοις αγαλμασιν ϑυοντες ουκ αυτη υλη ϑυουσι και ταις εικοσιν, αλλα τοις ϑεοις.
20. Heat here signifies the anagogic power of the soul, or that power which elevates her to intelligibles.
21. Plato, says Hermeas, wishes to etymologize the name of Love, viz. the passion which is ingenerated in us from the beautiful. This passion is called by men Love, from flowing inward, but by the Gods winged, from its giving wings to the soul. But Plato, says Hermeas, calls Homerics those that sing the verses of Homer. He also denominates the above verses recondite, wishing to indicate the concealed, divine, and arcane nature of the assertion.
22. For all the gifts of Jupiter, says Hermeas, are firm, stable, and always subsist after the same manner.
23. For Mars is the source of division and motion. But it is necessary to know this universally, says Hermeas, that whatever is imparted by any divinity is received according to the peculiar aptitude of the recipient. Thus, for instance, says he, Venus bestows friendship and union; but since the illumination imparted by the goddess is mingled with matter, the recipient often perverts her gift, and friendship becomes adultery, from being viciously received. For things are imparted in one way by the Gods, and are received in another by their participants. Thus also, when different substances become the recipients of the solar heat, one of these is liquefied as wax, and another is hardened as clay: for each receives what is given according to its proper essence, though the solar light has a uniform subsistence.
Hermeas adds, it may also be said, speaking more theoretically, that the slaughter which is here ascribed to Mars, signifies a divulsion from matter, through rapidly turning from it, and no longer energizing physically, but intellectually. For slaughter, when applied to the Gods, may be said to be an apostasy from secondary natures, just as slaughter here signifies a privation of the present life.
24. Of the two divinities, Juno and Apollo, that are here mentioned, says Hermeas, the former converts all things through empire, and the latter leads all things to symphony and union.
25. Socrates having spoken concerning that love which subsists according to rectitude, and also concerning that which subsists according to a deviation from rectitude, and having, therefore, discussed the extremes, he now wishes to speak about the media, viz. temperate and intemperate love. As, therefore, he speaks of the soul considered as associating with the body, he very properly gives to it other horses: for, in proportion as the soul descends into generation, and approaches to these tempestuous realms, she receives a greater number of vestments. Hence, he discourses concerning other horses, viz. such as possess a habitude to this body, and participate of its vital passions. For the soul while she lives in the intelligible world has other horses, which are characterized by sameness and difference. This indeed is evident, for ancient theology gives horses even to the Gods themselves. Now, therefore, he considers other horses, viz. anger and desire, and calls his discourse concerning them a fable, which he did not before, when speaking of the horses of divine natures, and of the human soul herself when liberated from this terrene body. The reason of this, as Hermeas beautifully observes, is, because the soul is in this body as in a fiction. For the whole apparent body with which we are surrounded, and all the visible order of things, is similar to a fable. Very properly, therefore, does Socrates, wishing to speak concerning the habitude, proximity, or alliance of the soul to this body, call his discourse a fable. But he did not call what he said prior to this a fable, because the soul while living on high with the Gods had other horses. He also here calls the rational soul ηνιοχικος, of the nature of a charioteer, and not ηνιοχος, a charioteer, as in what he said prior to this; signifying that the rational soul in the present body only imitates a charioteer. In speaking of the horses, too, he uses the word ιππομοργω, or having the form of horses, and not ιπποι, horses, as before. For the energies of the soul in conjunction with body are not such as when she is united with intelligibles.
26. The divine Plato, says Hermeas, distributes the parts of the soul into different parts of the body. Hence, considering intellect and the reasoning power as analogous to the ruler of a city, he establishes them in the brain: for the brain is spherical, and man is a microcosm. He makes the brain, therefore, analogous to the heavens. In the next place, since anger is naturally more noble than desire, and is analogous to those in a city that fight for its defence, and repress whatever is disorderly and tumultuous in it, and whom he callsauxiliaries; since anger also reproves and opposes desire,—hence he fixes it in the heart, that it may be in the vestibules of reason, being only separated from the brain by that interval the neck. But the desiderative part, as being irrational and similar to the mercenary tribe and the multitude in a city, he places in the liver, as an ass at a manger. Anger, therefore, is more noble than desire, as being nearer to reason; and hence it has a better station, for it is arranged in a better region. He says, therefore, in the first place concerning anger, that it is more beautiful, and is impressed with forms, at one time from the body, and at another from the manners and the soul. He calls it straight, because it receives the measures of reason, well-articulated, i.e. of a distinct, and not of a mixed nature; and having its neck lofty, i.e. always extending itself, and despising things of a worse condition. He also says that it has an aquiline nose, indicating by this its royal nature: for the hooked or aquiline, says Hermeas, is always given by Plato to that which is royal and noble; and the aquiline is of a more elegant form than the flat nose. He adds, that it is white to the view; indicting that it is most splendid and shining with beauty; also, that its eyes are black, viz. investigating things profound, and wishing to survey unapparent and intelligible natures: for he calls the unapparent black.
27. Plato having related the prerogatives which the better of the two horses possesses from the body, now enumerates those which it possesses from the soul. Honour, then, is the greatest of goods, as he says in the Laws, but nothing evil is honourable. On which account also we honour Divinity. The good horse, therefore, is a lover of honour; that is, it aspires after form and the good. But it also loves honour in conjunction with temperance, i.e. it possesses these prerogatives of the soul, performs things pertaining to itself, and is not willing to be filled with the contrary. It is likewise only to be governed by reason and exhortation, as being near to reason, and directing by its measures all the measures of its own life.
28. Plato here speaks concerning the worse of the two horses, and imitates its mingled nature. For he no longer speaks first concerning the prerogatives of the body, and afterwards concerning those of the soul, but he confuses the order. In opposition, therefore, to what he had asserted of the more noble horse, he says of this, that it is crooked, as being characteristic of desire; for desire is similar to a wild beast: various, for this epithet also is accommodated to desire, which is multiform, and the friend of multitude; and rash in its motions, as being hurried alone, by casual impulse. He also adds, that it is stiff, indicating by this its resisting nature: that it is short-necked, as being abject, living according to desire, and not aspiring after honour: flat-nosed, as being vile, grovelling, and not royal: of a black colour, as being dark, and not clear and shining like the other: having its eyes gray, as being only superficially splendid, and possessing intellections only as far as to the phantasy: being full of blood, i.e. being most allied to generation: the companion of injury and arrogance, as possessing properties directly contrary to the other horse; for that was the associate of temperance and modesty: has its ears hairy and deaf, as being unobedient, and often hearing a thing without attending to it: and, lastly, is scarcely obedient to the whip and the spur, as not capable of being benefited by exhortation.
29. i.e. In the intelligible; for such is the intelligible region, since the beauties which are here are not genuinely beautiful.
Notes to Hermeas
1. For προττειν here, it is obviously necessary to read ταττειν.
2. Iliad. viii. v. 440.
3. For the soul is eternal according to essence, but temporal according to energy. Hence according to the former it is immovable, but is movable according to the latter.
4. i.e. Man of a middle class of excellence.
5. This word means literally sub-winged.