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Human Soul as a Chariot

Posted on August 9, 2020 — 4 Minutes Read

One theme that has been recurring throughout the human history, and is often the root of meaningless arguments and conflicts that at times result in unnecessary suffering, is the notion of false dichotomy. Be it in the disguise of art versus science in human knowledge or of liberal versus conservative in political ideologies, either the truth or the ideal is somewhere in between, that is a balanced combination of both, or the dichotomy itself is without ground and is nothing more that a distorted view that misguides the inquiry. This false dichotomy of emotion versus reason, with the latter of which that some believe philosophers of the past are for, is one that is the most classic and perhaps the most distorting of all.

Philosophy is a discipline that offers questions without answers and any text of philosophical value is warranted of an interpretative dispute. While Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, might have stressed the importance of logos that translates to reason or discourse in some of his documented dialogues, one would risk being guilty of a blunt reductionism to found a false dichotomy of emotion versus reason with him being on the side of the latter, for in one dialogue, Phaedrus (246a–254e), Socrates propounds his view of the human soul with the Chariot Allegory, in which the charioteer as intellect or reason drives two winged horses that represent moral and immoral passions, which for one, paints a picture that it is passion that provides motion and as such it is emotion that drives actions. At the same time it suggests that reason is to guide and curate passions instead of repressing or combatting it, for the ideal chariot is one with the charioteer and the horses move in harmony. This Chariot Allegory, as history came to know it, predates the theory of the emotional fast-thinking ‘System 1’ and the deliberative slow-thinking ‘System 2’, that the psychologist, economist, and Noble laureate all in one, Daniel Kahneman details in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is quite an astonishment that thousands of years ago Socrates was able to construct an understanding of the human self, which at that time was conceived as the soul, that is still of relevance today. That is not to say that this Chariot Allegory is without problem for otherwise an assertion without dispute is not of philosophical worth. The troubling and unjustified separation of the soul and body, that resulted in a false schism, which for years to come hindered the understanding of self from progressing forward, is however beyond the scope of the present discussion.

Despite its philosophical ingenuity, the peculiar details and the intricate implications of this Chariot Allegory were not studied and appreciated to the degree that it deserves however, which had unfortunately led to a distorted view and a misguided inquiry found on a false dichotomy of emotion versus reason. The 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume once wrote that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ in one of his masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature, in expression of his view and position on the side of the emotion on this false paradigm. The 19th-century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, also captured his view of the blindness of the will in one of his writings, Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in which he brilliantly said that ‘a man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.’ Despite the ingenious contributions of these thinkers and philosophers past to the intellectual development on understanding the human self, none seemed to have been able to recognise the hidden and unexamined premises of this false dichotomy of emotion versus reason. Nevertheless, the fact that past thinkers were found on both sides of the fence casts a shadow of a doubt on what some believe as the classical assumption of philosophers past, that self-control was assumed to be a matter of mustering reason to subjugate emotions and the lack of which is a weakness of the power of the reason, for some thinkers evidently expressed a view and a position that suggested otherwise. Neither view captured the human self in its utmost intricacy and perplexity though for inquiries and positions on either side were imprisoned by this false dichotomy. It is then no surprise that history has shown that suppressing one or liberating the other will inevitably lead to a crisis. The ideal chariot is one in which the charioteer and the horses operate in harmony, and like everything else, it is part art and part science, part emotion and part reason, and part dialogue and part action.