Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 7. Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment

c) The Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment
Plato’s myth in the Phaedrus of the soul as a charioteer with two winged horses (246a–257b) seems, at face value, to have a drastically negative view of human embodiment. We see here the tripartite view of the soul introduced earlier in this series. The soul is “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). The charioteer is the intellect, the obedient horse is spirit, and the unruly horse is appetite. The soul is not one part of this, such as the charioteer, but the whole team.
In the myth we first see the gods, who are also charioteers with winged horses, though in their case both horses are noble and in perfect balance.  They gods effortlessly ascend to the rim of heaven to look “beyond” it to contemplate the forms. Human souls try to follow in their train, but with their unruly dark horses this is a difficult ascent as the bad horse seeks to drag the soul down. Some manage to get just high enough to glimpse the forms, others rise and fall, glimpsing some forms and missing others, many don’t get high enough to see anything. The soul that glimpses the forms gets another safe circuit around the heavens. In theory, it can keep this up forever (248c). However, if it fails to see the forms it starts to forget, is “weighed down, sheds its wings, and falls to earth” (248c). Depending on how much a person saw before he fell, he will be anything from a philosopher all the way down to a tyrant, the lowest form of human in Plato’s view (248e). The goal is to grow one’s wings back and ascend again. This takes a long time and is very difficult. What makes it so hard is that “the senses are so murky that it is only a few people who are able to make out, with difficulty, the original of the likeness they encounter here,” unlike when we were perceiving the forms apart from our senses. “That was the ultimate vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing we are carrying around now, which we call a body, locked in like an oyster in its shell” (250b-c).
The picture of an undesirable “fall” of humanity into a body, a body in which it is now buried alive and imprisoned, is hardly imagery that presents a positive view of embodiment. It is no wonder that many have balked at it. However, I would like to tentatively suggest that things may not be as they appear at first blush.
First, we should note that what Plato offers is “a mythic hymn” (265c) that tells us not “what a soul actually is” but “what it is like,” the former being a task for a god, the latter being humanly possible (246a). The non-literal aspects of the ascent are hinted at in talk of the “the place beyond heaven . . . without colour and without shape and without solidity” (247c). This cannot be a literal “place” nor can it be literally “beyond” heaven. It is “visible only to intelligence” (247c); an intellectual “space” that occupies no physical space. So we need to be careful how we interpret the myth.
Second, we should note a major problem with taking the story as relating to an actual fall into embodiment from a blissful disembodied state. The soul under discussion in the “story-like hymn” is the tripartite soul known from various other Platonic texts. The problem is that everywhere else in Plato the spirit and appetite (the two horses) are extensions of the soul under the conditions of embodiment.[1] To take the story even semi-literally would be to see pre-embodied souls as tripartite and this is problematic at two levels. First, it is inconsistent with what Plato says elsewhere. Second, and more importantly, it is difficult to give any worthwhile account of the two horses for a disembodied soul. Consider how Socrates explains the nature of the dark, unruly horse: it is attracted with passion for earthly things and drags the soul down (247b); it hungers for physical bodily pleasures (253e–254a). Surely these are the passions of the embodied soul.
Now it may be objected that the notion of disembodied tripartite souls must be intelligible because the gods themselves are here tripartite. They too are charioteers with pairs of winged horses. But we need to remember that for Plato the gods are not disembodied. The Timaeus makes very clear that the gods are astral deities composed of soul and body. Their bodies are those astral objects that moved in perfect circles around the heavens (Tim. 38c–40d). Because nothing disturbs their circular motions they are closer to perfection. This, presumably, is why the myth in Phaedrus images them as having two white horses in perfect union (246a; 247b). Humans, in the Timaeus, have their circular motions interrupted by the rectilinear motions of up, down, left, right, backwards, and forwards.[2] This is a result of embodiment and it generates disruption and problems for reason. The Phaedrus myth pictures this condition as that of having an untamed horse that struggles against the wishes of the charioteer. Now if this parallel between the analysis of the internal conflict within the human soul in Phaedrus and Timaeus is correct, then the soul we are talking about is embodied in both cases. What I am suggesting is that while Plato is telling a story about a fall into embodiment, we need to appreciate that it is a story and be open to the real possibility that he is not making any claims about the biography of any actual souls. He is not, in other words, speaking of an actual or literal fall into embodiment, but of the metaphorical fall of an already-embodied subject.[3]
Third, let’s consider the main point of the myth, the problem created by embodiment is, as we saw in the Phaedo, a very specific problem—an epistemological problem. The contrast throughout the myth is between the pure sight on reality when considered apart from the senses and the very murky view offered by the bodily senses (250b). The focus of the myth is on a fall from a higher mode of apprehending reality to a lower mode. For nourishment the fallen souls have “their own opinions” instead of knowledge (248b). The wings are fed from the grass of the plain where truth stands, and cannot be sustained by mere “opinion.” So the task of the soul is to re-grow its wings and to ascend again, moving from sense perception to apprehension of the forms. But, like the descent, this ascent is an epistemic one symbolized as an ascent from the body.
Fourth, the surprise, in light of the use of rather negative body imagery in the myth, is that the actual journey of ascent grants an important role for the body. The philosopher sees beauty here in the sensible world (for beauty is seen all around us) and is “reminded” of the vision of beauty itself. This beauty captures his heart and makes him seem to others like a mad man, for he is “possessed by a god” (249d). The perceivers of beauty “are startled when they see an image of what they saw up there. Then they are beside themselves, and their experience is beyond comprehension because they cannot fully grasp what it is they are seeing” (250a). So literal vision, “the clearest of our senses” (250d), is the start of the journey. Radiant beauty sparkles through the eyes and the intellect recognizes in it that by which the beautiful particular is beautiful, and the wings start to grow.
Importantly, the ascent does not mean leaving the particular beautiful thing/person behind. The philosopher becomes obsessed with the particular object of his love (in the Phaedrus, it is a beautiful boy[4]) and must keep on gazing at it or recalling it in order for his wings to keep growing (251d-e). Ascending to beauty itself does not require leaving the beautiful particular behind.

As well as demonstrating that Plato did not wish to drive a wedge between form and appearance, the strongly positive view of methexis (participation) in the Phaedrus frees him from the charge of otherworldliness and total withdrawal from physicality, for the philosophic ascent does not result in a “loss” of love for particular beautiful things, since the particular participates in beauty itself. Thus the philosopher is synonymous with the lover of beauty, and also with one of a musical or loving nature (248d). . . . [I]t is precisely within the physical world that he recognizes a likeness to the realities, and then is ‘stricken with amazement and cannot control himself’ (241a). . . . [T]he image of the good in the beauty of physicality is not just an empty ‘version’ or simulacrum.[5] And so if the philosopher can be accused of neglecting ‘things below’ like the insane bird (249d), it is not that he turns away from physicality itself (for that would deny him access to the good), but that he neglects a mundane apprehension of physicality as merely immanent or crudely separated from the whole, and all the concomitant proprieties of property, custom, and conventional status (252a). By contrast the contagion of the divine urges the philosopher from place to place, yearning to see the beautiful again.[6]

Furthermore, when the object of his love is another person, as it is in the Phaedrus, the true lover seeks to lead the beloved on the same journey for the beloved’s own sake, rather than using them as a means to an end (255b-e).[7] This is the kind of love that Socrates praises and seeks to awaken in young Phaedrus (252b). And it is praise of this love that is the whole point of Socrates’ speech. Eros, he says, is sent by the gods for our benefit (244a).
Fifth, the two horses themselves play an interesting role in the journey. On the one hand, the unruly horse can cause major problems, forcefully resisting the directions of the charioteer and the promptings of his partner horse. He can drag a soul down into being entombed in a body, blind to reality. However, on the other, the image itself suggests that the horses play a key role in motivating and moving the soul.[8] The charioteer (intellect) is to give direction, but the horses are to translate this direction into movement. As Martha Nussbaum observes, “If we starve and suppress emotions and appetites, it may well be at the cost of so weakening the entire personality that it will be unable to act decisively; perhaps it will cease to act altogether. The idea of ‘nourishing’ the non-intellectual plays an important part in Plato’s myth.”[9] Of course, the horses need training and taming, but when they are so disciplined they play a constructive rather than a destructive role. More than that, Nussbaum argues that the horses play a positive role in guiding our aspirations towards understanding. Socrates’ hymn of praise to the divine madness of erotic love makes very clear that “certain sorts of essential and high insights come to us only through the guidance of the passions. . . . The non-intellectual elements have a keen natural responsiveness to beauty, especially when beauty is presented through the sense of sight.”[10] The three aspects of soul, each with its own desires, respond to beauty in different ways. The appetite wants to have sex with the beautiful boy (254a) while the spirit feels shame and holds back (254a). This conflicted reaction to an instance of beauty throws the charioteer into an initial state of confusion until “his memory is carried back to the nature of beauty” (254b). In this way, the horses, in their limited perceptions of beauty, can spark the mind to seek the form of beauty itself. The dark horse can be overpowered by the charioteer and trained to know fear, awe, and respect in the presence of the beautiful boy. So, when rightly aligned, the embodied parts of the soul can guide and drive the philosopher towards the world so that he is enabled to ascend to the forms.[11] The point is that while the body can be an epistemic tomb, it need not be. The body can play a constructive role in the pursuit of reality so long as it knows its place vis-à-vis the charioteer.
Plato’s problem is not with bodies per se, but with disordered souls. The reordering of the soul and the regrowth of its wings does not require disembodiment. Remember that it is the whole soul that is winged (246a). The soul that falls and the soul that regrows its wings and ascends to the forms is the tripartite soul (nous, spirit, and appetite), which is the embodied soul.

[1] This is the case in texts apparently earlier (e.g., Republic) and later (e.g., Timaeus) than the Phaedrus. So it is hard to think that Plato changed his mind on the matter. On the link between tripartation and embodiment in the Timaeus see Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy, 142–52.
[2] See fn. 38.
[3] Eric Perl suggests a very similar reading of the myth in Thinking Being, ch. 2, section 5. In further support of the reading he observes that later in the dialogue Socrates says that when he observes a person who is able to rightly discern forms he will “follow behind as if he [the enlightened person] were a god” (266b). This is an allusion to the myth in which the “pre-incarnate” souls “follow a god” to “the place above the heavens.” Perl’s point is that the story is a mythic presentation of this same point. It does not require literal disembodiment. Thus, one need not take the myth at face value.
[4] The context of the dialogue is the warped homoerotic relationship between Lysias and Phaedrus. Phedrus is obsessed with Lysias, but Lysias merely uses Phaedrus for his own ends. Socrates presents himself, in contrast to Lysias, as a true lover of Phaedrus, a philosophical lover who seeks Phaedrus’ own betterment. On this theme see Bradley, Who Is Phaedrus?
[5] Cf. “[W]hen Plato says that sensible objects are only imperfectly beautiful or just, he does not mean that they are approximately beautiful or just [as if they were imperfect copies of a perfect exemplar]. Rather, he means that they are only accidentally beautiful or just, while the Form and its characters possess the relevant property in an essential manner.” Alexander Nehamas, “The Imperfection of the Sensible World,” 178. Nehemas, however, does still conceive of forms as perfect models. His point is that particulars can (for a time) possess the relevant properties perfectly, and thus be truly good or just or wise or beautiful. Their imperfection lies in that they, unlike the form, do not possess the properties essentially. Indeed, following Allan Silvermann, I think that Plato does not believe that particulars possess any properties essentially, but only by participation in forms. In other words, particulars, unlike forms, do not have an essence.
It is worth saying that while forms self-predicate, it is not agreed what such self-predication amounts to in Plato. So the claim that “the beautiful (i.e., the form of beauty) is beautiful” can mean that it is supremely beautiful—the perfect model of beauty—or that it is self-identical (i.e., it is itself and nothing else). Following Silvermann, I understand self-predication in the later sense. “Beauty is beautiful” does not mean that beauty is a beautiful object. Rather, each form self-predicates insofar as each form is its essence. “When Plato says that each Form is itself by itself, auto kath auto, monoeides, simple, eilikrines, pure, and one, I take him to be referring only to the relation of Form to essence. Being is found only where subject and essence are related, that is only where essence is predicated of some subject. . . . [S]ince the only thing that [a Form] Is is its essence, each Form is monoeides, ‘of one essence’” (Dialectic of Essence, 91).
[6] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 14, 15.
[7] See fn. 53.
[8] In this analogy Plato clearly sees each of the three “parts” as a source of desire within the soul, each with its own object (the charioteer, nous, desires “the plain truth,” the white horse, spirit, is a lover of honour, the black horse, appetite, loves sexual pleasure and gratification). The challenge is to bring these desires into harmony under the rule of the charioteer.
[9] Nussbaum, “This Story Isn’t True,” 214.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Against this positive evaluation of the horses in Phaedrus, see Frisbee Sheffield, “Erôs Before and After Tripartation,” in Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 211–37.


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