Earl’s Commentary on the Phaedrus Part Seven

The Phaedrus Kit

Earl Jackson, Jr.


Earl’s Commentary on the Phaedrus Part Seven: The Chariot

Stay Calm: A Suspension of Alienation

I realize you may not be used to seemingly spontaneous disquisitions
on the prenatal immortality of the soul. But please bear with this for
the time being, it is leading to some important arguments. It is also probably
impossible at this point to see how or why we’ve leap from a tripartite
typology of madness to this cosmo-genealogical vision. But this will be
amazingly clear, say, by the commentary on Part Ten.
And some of these things you have to let percolate a while anyway.

When you read a novel, or go see a horror film, you have
entered a contact to engage with willing suspension of disbelief, right?
Well, Plato’s text doesn’t ask for that (nor do I). But perhaps something
tailored to the philosophical demands placed on your twentieth century
sensibilities. Let’s call it a „suspension of alienation.“ Just bracket
this description of the soul, just read this part of the text for a surface
understanding of the sentences. Understanding it doesn’t mean accepting
it or subscribing to any of its premises.

How to Read a Myth

Remember my commentary on Part One?
On Socrates’s attitude to the myth of Boreas (the wind), and other such
myths, and in particular his attitude toward the people who rationalize
the myths away with quasi-scientific analogies? Remember there he claimed
to „believe“ the myths and that he had no time for concocting rational
explanations of them, because that would take time away from pursuing the
command of the Delphic oracle to „Know Thyself.“

I put that attitude and that latter statement together,
and read a little farther in the text there. And I came up with the idea
that Socrates‘ use of myths as instruments for self-understanding meant
that his use of the word „believe“ did not necessarily mean in slavishly
literal way.

Finally, I suggested, that if you extrapolated this idea
of how Socrates is reading the myths from this pssage fully, you might
have a model for how to read the myths he was going to offer later on in
the dialogue. Remember all that? Well here’s the myth I had in mind. At
least the beginning of it. So now, you should probably go back and read
in Part One again, my commentary, and then see if you can see how you can
extrapolate a model for reading myths that helps you read this one.

And I can be pretty confident and encouraging here. When
we get to the section about the lovers meeting each other, and the conduct
of the two horses of the soul during those first dates, I think that both
„the method to the madness“ of Socrates‘ mythopoesis and the cogency of
this reading protocol will come into sharp focus.
I can almost hear your „Ah ha!“ [Oh, more pertinently, „Eureka!“] and see
that lightbulb blazing on above your head, dazzling Oed and catching Noah
by surprise.

O Soul Mio

I caught myself almost typing the words „human soul“ just
now. Technically, however, I wonder if it is accurate to call that kind
of soul that exists before being embodied human? Consider, for example,
the description of a soul’s career from Phaedrus
[If you still don’t know what these numbers are or can’t figure
out how to use them, These are the Stephanus numbers. I explain them on
the page that charts out all of Plato’s dialogues, and I include links
to further explanations. Click THIS
for that.]

The soul in her totality has
the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven
in divers forms appearing; — when perfect and fully winged she soars upward,
and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings
and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground — there,
finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved,
but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body
is called a living and mortal creature.


A note on the translation: the pronoun „she“
quite literally corresponds to the pronouns and adjectives referring to
the soul in the Greek original. This in way, however indicates a matriarchal
religious tendency or a woman-centered conception of the spirit. The gender
of the pronoun quite literally reflects the gender in the Greek. The noun
psyche („soul“) in Greek is feminine. This is a purely grammatical distinction
and has no bearing on the extra-textual sex or gender of any particular
soul or characteristic of souls in general. It is simply a system of classifying
nouns and adjectives. The histories of sex/gender politics since before
the dawn of „Man [sic]“ of course inform, distort, extend, contaminate,
and otherwise overdeterrmine both the signifying excess of the original
and hermeneutic contortions of our encounters with it.

Here is R. Hackforth’s translation of the same passage:

All soul has care of all that is inanimate,
and traverses the whole universe, though in ever-changing forms. Thus when
it is perfect and winged it journeys on high and controls the whole world,
but one that has shed its wings sinks down until it can fasten on something
solid, and settling there it takes to itself and earthly body which seems
by reason of the soul’s power to move itself. This composite structure
of soul and body is called a living being, and is further termed mortal.

Getting back to the nature of the soul – The passage I
quoted above, is one that made me hesitate to call the pre-embodied soul
human. Socrates does however give a description of souls in general, in
which also distinguishes the human soul from the divine soul. Just for
variety, I’m again going to give you R. Hackworth’s translation, but the
Stephanus numbers will help you find the corresponding passage in the text
in the Phaedrus Kit::

Let [the soul] be likened to
the union of powers in a team of winged steeds and their winged charioteers.
Now all the gods‘ steeds and all their charioteers are good, and of good
stock, but with other beings it is not wholly so. With us men [sic ], in
the first place, it is a pair of steeds that the charioteer controls: moreover
one of them is noble and good, and of good stock, while the other has the
opposite character, and his [sic ] stock is opposite. Hence the task of
our charioteer is difficult and troublesome.

Isn’t it interesting that soul is „she“ and „her“ all
over the place, but when you open the hood and find the charioteers and
horses, it’s an all-male cast, charging forth to be „us men in the first

The Divine Banquet and its aftermath

Ok, one more mythopoetic joyride, and then we’ll be back
down to earth, I promise.

The tendency of the pre-embodied
soul is that of its wing – „to raise that which is heavy and carry it aloft
to the region where the gods dwell.“ Those souls whose charioteers have
good control over the horses will be the ones that will enjoy the most
of the heavens before they eventually succumb to the gravity of earthly
existence [Phaedrus

Of all the visions that these souls might thrill to, the
most august is the Divine Banquet. This Banquet is held on „the summit
of the arch that supports the heavens.“ When the gods stand at the summit,
the revolutions of the heavens themselves give the gods a spinning over
view of the beyond. It must something like one of those revolving restaurants
in the Space Needle in Seattle.

The A List

Socrates waxes philosophically poetic in describing this

But of the heaven which is
above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily?
It is such as I will describe; for I must dare to speak the truth, when
truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge
is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only
to mind, the pilot of the soul. The divine intelligence, being nurtured
upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which
is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality,
and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad, until the
revolution of the worlds brings her round again to the same place. In the
revolution she beholds justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute,
not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence,
but knowledge absolute in existence absolute; and beholding the other true
existences in like manner, and feasting upon them, she passes down into
the interior of the heavens and returns home; and there the charioteer
putting up his horses at the stall, gives them ambrosia to eat and nectar
to drink.


The B through F List

Sounds peachy-keen doesn’t it? But that’s how the banquet
goes for the gods. The non-divinity souls who have been able to haul their
charioteers up that high have done so at great cost. It’s tiring and draining
to reach and maintain such heights, especially with half the horse team
decidedly uncooperative. Those that make it up to the summit at the time
of the revolution of the heavens, get caught in the downdraft or undertow
of the gods procession, and will be carried along semi-automatically. But
being towed by Zeus’s chariot isn’t exactly cruise control. You might not
get a chance to gaze at the non-visible absolute-reality scenery because
of the turmoil that this enforced procession has thrown the horses into.Horses
trample each other, charioteers get lamed, or even de-winged (Phaedrus
). It’s a mess, although the gods don’t seem to notice, even
though they’re on the same merry-go-round [and in fact own and operate
the merry-go-round.]

Don’t go away – there’s more to this Commentary yet [I can hear you applauding for joy, there.]

Click THIS to go to Commentary Seven, Side B.

Earl Jackson, Jr.
The Phaedrus Kit