The Charioteer

September 17, 2012
/ Author: Rick

Plato had a theory of the soul where he identified it as having three parts.

In trying to find a way to explain my concerns with our society’s divergence from freedom and justice — the latter concept being one with which Plato was very much interested, and which motivated a lot of his writing — I find this metaphor to be very useful.

One reason I don’t write as much these days as I used to write is because I don’t really want a blog where I just rant and rave against the lunacy of our generation of lawmakers, law enforcers, and prosecutors. While there’s certainly a lot to rant and rave about, I really have different hopes for my life than being just a voice screaming in the desert.

I want to help change things.

So let me explain why I so often appear to be ranting and raving. It has to do with Plato’s Charioteer, applied as a societal rather than as an individual metaphor, and with an imbalance. (This is not really all that alien a move, since at least one writer says Plato developed his idea from observing the different classes of people in his society.) In fact, to be even more specific, I’m going to apply the metaphor to our criminal justice system.

For those who are wondering who Plato is — I mean no insult by assuming that some of you won’t know about him; to my knowledge, the history of Western thought isn’t much taught these days except in certain university courses, which not all of you will have taken — he is generally credited as being one of the great thinkers of ancient times. Possibly one of the great thinkers of all time. He lived approximately 400 years before the time that Jesus was supposedly born, and was a philosopher, and a student and friend of Socrates. His ideas have significantly shaped the world in which we live today, even if most of us don’t know that anymore.

Like Freud, Plato believed the soul (psyche) was composed of three separate parts. Plato’s conception is a little different, however, and is best explained in his Myth of the Charioteer.

Plato — claiming Socrates as his mouthpiece — “divided every soul into three parts, two of which had the form of horses, the third that of a charioteer.” [1]James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction, p. 61 (2013). And, no, I don’t know why the publication date is listed as 2013, but that’s what the information inside the flyleaf of the book says. One horse is easily controlled; it likes to follow orders, is “noble and handsome and of good breeding.” [2]Id. The other horse, not so much. In fact, the other horse is fairly unruly, being “wild, strong, ugly,” and not much for listening to the Charioteer’s commands. [3]Id. at 61-62.

It makes driving the chariot in any productive manner — i.e., to get somewhere the Charioteer might actually want to go — difficult.

For those who are more familiar with the Freudian tripartite division of the psyche, I see the Charioteer as corresponding with the Ego, while the two horses somewhat resemble the Superego and the Id, respectively.

But, as I said, I want to apply Plato’s metaphor to our justice system, and this, I hope, will explain a lot about my thoughts regarding law enforcement, in particular. I want to do this because many people who read my posts — my rantings and ravings — misunderstand my view regarding law enforcement. People think that I actually hate law enforcement officers, but this is not true. I hate the direction law enforcement, as a profession, has taken in my lifetime, but I don’t hate law enforcement officers.

Think of my position as kind of like “hating the sin, but not the sinner.” Only in my case, I’m serious. It really is just the sin that I hate. That’s why in my everyday life, I have no trouble getting along with police officers, treating nearly all of them nicely, and with respect, until the individual officer gives me a reason to act differently.

Plato’s “noble and handsome” horse, you see, can be seen as law enforcement. The “noble and handsome” horse is a lover of honor or nobility — honorable ideas — and order. When I equate law enforcement with the “noble and handsome” horse, does that really sound like I hate law enforcement?

Law enforcement may be “noble and handsome” and honorable, but law enforcement is not the Charioteer. The “noble and handsome” horse is all about order, and is, after all, a horse. The horse has some mighty — and mighty important — work to do; but, again, however “noble and handsome” it may be, the horse is not the Charioteer.

You might think the unruly horse is the criminal element in our society, but I don’t see it that way. For me, the unruly horse is irrational, full of emotion, and acts not on wisdom, or with thought, but out of that emotion, to develop things like Three Strikes laws to assuage its own pain, rather than out of any concern for society. The unruly horse never considers the harm such draconian ideas bring to society.

The Charioteer is the “lover of wisdom.” The Charioteer is wise, deliberative, and, when things go right, controls both the horses to drive the chariot in the right direction. When it comes to the use I’m making of the metaphor here, the Charioteer might manifest itself in the prosecutorial, or perhaps the judicial, function.

It might, but it does not.

This is because, to be frank, as far as our current justice system goes, the horses have broken free of the chariot. The Charioteer — lover of wisdom — has been left in the dust. The “noble and handsome” horse — still very much noble and handsome to some — with its love of order and command, has run amok. No longer under the proper control of wisdom, it establishes something more like a police state. This is why we get things like the 12-year-old girl who is arrested and taken from her classroom in handcuffs for doodling on her desk. It’s why moms can be arrested for letting their children play outdoors. (Edit 3/21/2017: YouTube video has vanished; link removed.)

The unruly horse, lacking any form of control, is in some ways even worse. As I already mentioned, this is why we get things like Three Strikes laws, with people doing inordinate amounts of time locked away, rather than being rehabilitated. No attempts are made at getting at the root problems behind their criminality. Instead, our anger and our fear lead to us simply attempting to dispose of them as close to permanently as we can get.

So here’s the thing. This is what I am about with my ranting and raving.

If you think about what I’m saying, you’ll notice that nowhere in this story have I talked about the need to get rid of the horses. We need them, if we’re to get where we want to go. The emotional component that allows us to feel empathy for victims, or to fear what would happen if people could just do whatever they wanted, is necessary to achieving justice. The authority of law enforcement is important, too. There is some need for order in every society.

But we need to hook the horses back up to the chariot. If our chariot is to get anywhere, and not run over us in the process, our horses need the wisdom and thoughtful control of Charioteer.

I rant and I rave because I’m not sure if we can attain that — I don’t know if we can put thoughtfulness and sound judgment back in control so that the horses work together — but we must try.


1James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction, p. 61 (2013). And, no, I don’t know why the publication date is listed as 2013, but that’s what the information inside the flyleaf of the book says.
3Id. at 61-62.

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