08 April 2012

The Chariot Metaphor

       For months now I haven't posted on this blog.
  Blame Plato's Phaedrus.  My ability to blog about horses was blocked by an obsession with Plato's chariot metaphor. 

        Perhaps George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, said it best when she wrote, "For all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them."  That was my fear when I began stewing about the influence of long dead Plato's chariot metaphor on the once live horses of the Western past and the still live horses of today.

        The obsession was starting when I posted "A Metaphor That Actually Works" back on 19 Oct. 2011.  Shortly before that, I ran into an online discussion rippling with mentions of Plato's chariot metaphor.  As  far as I could tell, absolutely everyone posting about chariot driving lacked basic knowledge of the horse and horsemanship.  Just like  Plato.  This of course didn't stop him or them from using horse imagery.  Some of the responses in this discussion left me scratching my head because I expect metaphor to have SOME basis in reality.   

So I became confused, and then I became angry.  For example, one person had a pair of  runaway chariot horses going in circles.  That actual horses bolt in circles only when confined to a round pen was not of any interest to them.  My pointing out the problems with misleading metaphor made me about as many friends as pointing out their lack of knowledge of horsemanship.  This site has a highly educated set of followers, and, when not talking about horses or forming metaphors, their educations generally serve them well.  Finally, I became sad because they really didn't see anything wrong with Plato's metaphor, and, if they don't, who will?

       Horses are now an exotic topic for most, but, nevertheless, I worry about the actual metaphor and about actual horsemanship. Most well-educated people and a good many not-so-well-educated people know the general contours of Plato's chariot metaphor.  It's quite like, but a bit more accessible than Freud's id-ego-superego construct. Basically, the rational part of the mind is the driver of the chariot and the pair of horses represents the base and the noble aspects of our nature.  If one hasn't actually read what Plato wrote, the chariot metaphor is actually quite good.

Unfortunately, I've read Phaedrus.  Here's the scene where the "rational" charioteer "trains" the "bad" horse to restrain its sexual impulses:
As I said at the beginning of this tale, I divided each soul into three-two horses and a charioteer; and one of the horses was good and the other bad: the division may remain, but I have not yet explained in what the goodness or badness of either consists, and to that I will proceed. The right-hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose; his colour is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only. The other is a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur. Now when the charioteer beholds the vision of love, and has his whole soul warmed through sense, and is full of the prickings and ticklings of desire, the obedient steed, then as always under the government of shame, refrains from leaping on the beloved; but the other, heedless of the pricks and of the blows of the whip, plunges and runs away, giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer . . . . [The charioteer] falls backwards in adoration, and by his fall is compelled to pull back the reins with such violence as to bring both the steeds on their haunches, the one willing and unresisting, the unruly one very unwilling; and when they have gone back a little, the one is overcome with shame and wonder, and his whole soul is bathed in perspiration; the other, when the pain is over which the bridle and the fall had given him, having with difficulty taken breath, is full of wrath and reproaches, which he heaps upon the charioteer and his fellow-steed, for want of courage and manhood, declaring that they have been false to their agreement and guilty of desertion . . . . And when they are near he stoops his head and puts up his tail, and takes the bit in his teeth. and pulls shamelessly. Then the charioteer is. worse off than ever; he falls back like a racer at the barrier, and with a still more violent wrench drags the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed and covers his abusive tongue and-jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground and punishes him sorely. And when this has happened several times and the villain has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one he is ready to die of fear. And from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear.
Source:  http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.mb.txt 
See also: “An Unfortunate Historical Remnant” to see a typical Greek bit 

I left in my highlighting, but most horsemen won't need it.  "Holy fear," my ass and horses as well.  This passage leaves me sputtering, and that's without getting into the racist aspects of the good white horse and the bad dark horse. 

       Is it clear to everyone from reading the excerpt that Plato, great philosopher that he was, lacked a grasp of basic horsemanship?  Given what I read, that "dark" horse may have suffered such a mangled tongue that he starved to death.  But he learned his lesson, didn't he?  I'll bet kids could ride him after he was properly beaten.  OK, OK, I'm starting to steam again.

       In fairness, I should note that upper class Greeks did not trouble themselves with mundane tasks such as horse training.  That was work for lesser men.  Still, I find Plato's charioteer far from rational.  Anyone seeing that sort of behavior today would most likely be on the phone to the SPCA or the police.  Savage abuse may well have been common in Plato's day, but horses were expensive, and the "rational" charioteer may well have fatally injured one, albeit a "dark" one.  

       It's difficult to gauge the actual level of Greek horsemanship, but Plato [circa 428 BCE - 347 BCE] and Xenophon [circa 430 BCE-355 BCE] were contemporaries, so truly rational horsemanship was known by at least a few literate Greeks.  

       The real question is what was Plato's influence on Western horsemanship.  If it had any, the influence would have affected the upper classes.  Reading this snippet from Phaedrus, I wondered if Grisone had read it as well.  That was about the time that reading Greek classics came back into Western civilization.  Later on, I can picture some British public school lad thrashing his horse and justifying it by quoting Plato--in the original Greek, of course.  How much damage has this metaphor done to actual horses?  Some?  None?  A little?  A lot?  

       I suspect several PhD theses lurk in the equine aspects of Phaedrus and its tendrils.  I leave it to some other English major/horse trainer/psychologist/historian to pursue.  Just counting the misconceptions and atrocities in this passage should be enough to keep some real horsemen awake at night. 

        For now, I just hope those who use metaphor will stick to things they understand at least somewhat.  Most of us today understand horses about as well as Plato did.  As philosophy professor John Searle said,     "[W]e're constantly tempted to use the latest technology as a model for trying to understand . . . .  Freud often compared the brain to hydraulic and electromagnetic systems. Leibniz compared it to a mill, and now, obviously, the metaphor is the digital computer."  I hope those who aren't horsemen stick to the computer.  Computers don't have legs and tongues, and "smart" as they might be, they lack the ability to sense pain.