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The Human Soul Explained by Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates

Apollo and his Chariot , resembling the myth of the chariot and the human soul
The soul, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, survives the death of the body and exists in the ideal realm since it is eternal and unchanging. Credit: Public Domain

For ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, the soul lives in the ideal realm, as it is eternal, unchanging, and survives the death of the body.

Plato, a student of Socrates, is one of the world’s most well known and studied philosophers. His famous Dialogues is one of the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates’ philosophy. In Dialogues, Socrates converses with another person. Through the dialogues, Plato presents Socrates’ philosophy.

In the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates meets Phaedrus, who has just heard a speech given by orator Lysias. The dialogue takes place during a walk across the banks of River Ilisos outside of the walls of Athens. Socrates and Phaedrus find a place to rest under the shade of a plane tree.

There, Socrates attempts to convince Phaedrus to discuss the speech given by the famous orator. In the dialogue, he describes the nature of the human soul through the myth of the winged soul.

Socrates and the Human Soul

Socrates believed that reality is dualistic, composed of two different realms. One realm is changeable, transient, and imperfect, whereas the other realm is unchanging, eternal, and immortal. The physical world in which we live—where we can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel—belongs to the former realm, the human realm, which is constantly changing. For Socrates, this is where the human soul belongs.

In contrast, the other realm, the divine realm, is unchanging, eternal, perfect, and includes the intellectual essences of the universe, including concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty. This is the divine soul. Although a close relationship exists between our souls and our bodies, they are radically different entities.

Our human soul strives for wisdom and perfection, which requires reason. As long as the soul is tied to the body, however, this quest for wisdom is inhibited by the imperfection of the physical realm, as the soul is “dragged by the body into the region of the changeable.” where it “wanders and is confused.”

If the soul is able to free itself from the corrupting imperfection of the physical realm and achieve “communion with the unchanging,” then it reaches the divine state.

Socrates, one of the most prominent Greek philosophers lived in Athens
Ancient Athens, often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization, was a thriving hub of intellectual and philosophical activity. Socrates Address, Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Winged Soul and the allegory of the Chariot

According to Socrates and Plato, souls, both divine and human, travel to heaven. Each one is described as a two-horse winged chariot led by a charioteer. The charioteer stands for the rational part of the soul, the part with which humans think and judge.

One of the horses stands for the spirited part which is associated with our powerful emotions, such as anger, rage, and so on. The other horse is the appetitive part, the one associated with our bodily needs such as hunger, thirst, and lust among other things.

As the souls travel on the chariot, they reach a point where they can see beyond the heavens. This is where the true being, the absolute truth, is found. Upon reaching this point, the two horses are calm and serene. They follow the commands of the charioteer obediently. This is the point where the souls of the gods can peacefully contemplate the essence and truth of things.

However, this is not the same for human souls. The horse that stands for the spirited part is white. It stands upright with a perfect posture. It holds its head high, has a regal nose, and black eyes. That horse stands proud but with modesty and self control. It is truthful and honorable. It needs no whip to follow the spoken commands of the charioteer.

The other horse that represents the appetitive part is black and wild. Its body looks crooked, and it is fat and ill-shaped. It has a thick, short neck, broad face, and grey, bloodshot eyes.

It is also deaf to the charioteer’s commands and does not respond to the lashes of the whip. Rather, it tends towards hubris and arrogance. Socrates says that in those human souls which look more like the divine ones, the charioteer raises his head to see what lies beyond the heavens.

The horses, however, do not follow all commands. The attention of the charioteer, focused on controlling the chariot, is drawn away from what they see. Now these souls can see a great part, but not the whole truth. The horses of some other human souls are more untamed. They do not hear the commands of the charioteers, and they do not coordinate their movements. Instead, they drag the chariots downwards.

The charioteers try to control them by firmly pulling the bridles. Only occasionally are they able to turn their heads to the region beyond the heaven. As a result, they can only see a small part of the truth. Finally, the horses of some human souls are extremely wild. They whinny, rear up on their legs, and run into one another while the charioteers attempt to stay upright. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to control the chariots.

According to Socrates in the dialogue, these souls are trampled, one drags the other, their wings are destroyed, and they never manage to catch a glimpse of the truth.

Plato and the Soul

Plato’s theory of the soul is very similar to that of Socrates. However, Plato analyzes the soul in terms of three parts. Appetite, spirit, and rationale are also parts of the soul in Plato’s theory. The appetitive part deals with bodily desires. The spirited part deals with passions not strictly embodied, such as anger at being insulted or the drive to distinguish oneself, and the rationale seeks truth and utilizes logical thinking.

A soul ruled by the appetitive part is constantly changing and dangerous because each desire dominates the entire soul. The spirited part of the soul is not as dangerous, but it is not fully coherent and harmonized since the passions sometimes cannot be controlled. A soul ruled by reason is, nonetheless, both fully harmonized and just. It experiences desires and passions but only in the proper amounts and for the sake of rational ends.

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