From its inception, one of philosophy’s most prominent topics has been the discussion of the self. How can one know oneself? What makes your self yours? Questions like these have been ubiquitous throughout philosophy for generations, and for good reason. In discussing the whys and hows of life, it’s almost impossible to avoid questioning the lens you see things through. As a result of this, a multitude of different theories and models have been proposed to explain the mysteries of the self, and while many have become lost to time, a select portion are known still to this day. Two of these enduring models of the self are the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot from the Milinda Panha and Plato’s Chariot Analogy from Phaedrus. Both of these analogies remain relevant in modern times due to their recognition of the self as a complex and multifaceted thing. In spite of their differing origins, a multitude of comparisons can be made between the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot and Plato’s Chariot Analogy.
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Like many other texts from its time, the exact origins of the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot are a difficult thing to place. Though the Simile of the Chariot is found in a number of different forms in Buddhist literature, the most accepted and discussed source of the simile is from a work called the Milinda Panha or, Milinda’s Questions, (O’Brien 1). The text of the Milinda Panha dates back to around 100 BC and covers a series of dialogues between Milinda, an Indo-Greek king, and Nagasena, a Buddhist monk from Kashmir (O’Brien 3). The Milinda Panha is the source of numerous Buddhist stories and theories, but its Simile of the Chariot; attributed to Nagasena, is perhaps its most well-known.
Nagasena’s Simile of the Chariot comes about as a result of Milinda’s questioning of the self. When the king asks Nagasena’s name, he replies that Nagasena is indeed what he is called, but that “no permanent individual” named Nagasena existed within him. As a response to this assertion, Milinda questions how it is that Nagasena can exist without having a self: “If, Reverend Nagasena, there is no individuality, who gives you monks your robes and food, lodging and medicines? And who makes use of them? Who lives a life of righteousness, meditates, and reaches Nirvana?” (Chaffee Pg.148-149). In short, Milinda questions how one can be individual or responsible if their self does not exist. Concerning this, Nagasena questions Milinda about what part of a chariot makes it a chariot. After stating that no individual part of the chariot gives it its existence, Nagasena notes that in the same way, the culmination of these parts is no more a “chariot” than the individual parts themselves. With regards to this, Milinda and Nagasena both conclude that names such as “chariot” or “Nagasena” are little more than “practical designations” for circumstantially created things.
Though Nagasena’s simile is conceptually very simple, it does an excellent job of illustrating the flaws with labels. Certainly, it would be, and is, easier to just call something a “chariot” or whatever else, but it undermines the uniqueness and complexity of said object. Furthermore, Nagasena’s model helps to show how difficult it can be to truly define something. If it is not possible to distinguish what part of the chariot makes it one, if such a distinction even exists, then how could we hope to do the same thing with a self? There’s no individual piece of a chariot that makes it a chariot, just as the combination of these pieces does not define its essence. The Buddhist anatta, or “no-self” philosophy hinges on views like what Nagasena puts forth here. In this line of thought, there is no permanent distinction of the self, just a combination of impermanent elements with only a fleeting sense of identity. In this light, Nagasena’s simile helps to illustrate the Buddhist idea of the “five aggregates,” and how they serve to construct a self in Buddhist beliefs. Just as not one individual aggregate makes a consciousness, no individual part of a chariot makes a chariot. Despite its hazy origins, the Milinda Panha’s Simile of the Chariot has a very succinct and thought-provoking message: the names we give things are merely distinctions for the sake of practicality, and in no way define their nature or essence.
Much like Nagasena, Plato also utilized an analogy including a chariot to illustrate his views on the self, though in a much different manner. Plato’s Chariot Analogy is covered in the work Phaedrus, one of Plato’s numerous dialogues. Written in approximately 370 BC, Phaedrus, named after one of the principle speakers in the dialogue,and is often referred to as one of Plato’s most important works. At the time, Plato often discussed a “tripartite” model of the soul or self, consisting of reason, physical appetite, and spirit/passion (Chaffee Pg.96). The Chariot Analogy is often lauded for its explanation of the self as something that requires proper balance between these three factors.
Plato’s analogy describes the soul, or the self, as analogous to a chariot drawn by two winged horses. The first of the horses is described as an “upright and cleanly-made” animal, and is both agreeable and of noble breed. This white horse signifies the first part of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul, representing spirit. In sharp contrast, the second, darker horse is described in a much less flattering manner: “The other is a crooked lumbering animal… the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” This horse, the rougher and more disobedient of the two symbolizes appetite. The charioteer in charge of these two horses serves as the final piece of Plato’s model of the soul, reason. In the analogy, the charioteer must control and guide the two horses to reach fulfillment and enlightenment. The charioteers who are unable to keep themselves on the right track are “destined to experience personal, intellectual, and spiritual failure,” (Chaffee Pg. 96).
As can be seen, Plato’s usage of the chariot is quite different from Nagasena’s, but he still paints a very clear picture on his views of the self. Foremost, the white horse symbolizes how our passion, mainly emotions according to Plato, are a core driving force in the journey of our lives. This horse being generally agreeable helps to both fuel and support the charioteer’s courage and ambition. Though passion can lead us astray at times, Plato seems to believe it is most often a force of good. Unlike the white horse, the black horse, representing our appetite, is often obstructive and difficult to maintain. However, while appetite can certainly be a negative force, it drives us forward nonetheless. The temptation of carnal desires is something no one is free from, but the pursuit or resistance of these things helps us to understand ourselves better and become more reasonable in future occurrences. In Plato’s model, by gathering the reason and understanding to maintain balance between the horses, the charioteer is able to gain the greatest understanding of themselves and of the world. To summarize, Plato’s Chariot Analogy illustrates his belief in the importance of utilizing reason to balance desire and spirit to gain the greatest understanding of the self.
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The similarities between the two works reach past just the chariot; the analogies of Nagasena and Plato both demonstrate the self as a multifaceted thing. Throughout both analogies, it is made clear that both men feel the self is something with numerous components, though their views on these components certainly differ. In the same vein, Plato’s threefold model of the soul aligns fairly well with the Buddhist belief in the five aggregates as it is represented in the Chariot Simile. In both models, the soul or self would fail, or perhaps not even exist, if the right pieces weren’t in play. Moreover, in both instances, the soul would not be able to reach its “truest” or most enlightened form should these elements not be in balance. In short, both Plato’s analogy and Nagasena’s simile both seek to guide us in further understanding the components of the self.
While both of these metaphors have a multitude of similarities, it wouldn’t be correct to say that they are entirely similar. It’s reasonable to assume that Nagasena and Plato followed very different philosophical paths, and the views they express through their analogies serve to reflect this. The core goal of the charioteer in Plato’s analogy illustrates this point most clearly. To Nagasena or others who share his view, the charioteer’s journey of “ascending” their self would be near pointless if said self did not exist. Moreover, The Buddhist analogy deals more with the physical definition and components of a self, while Plato’s analogy is more concerned with defining the balance necessary between aspects of the self. Another key difference between the two is how they describe balance within the self. The core message of Plato’s allegory is that balance between our internal emotions and desires is something we should strive for in order to be our best self. Nagasena, through his simile, states that a balance between the things that make us is inherent. Unlike Nagasena, Plato has a greater belief in the uniqueness of the self and does not believe that the constant change of life is fueled entirely by things outside of our control. It’s clear that the respective chariot analogies have a multitude of differences, both in terms of message and ideology; both Plato and Nagasena’s ideas are quite different, but equally valid.
As can be seen, both the Buddhist Simile of the Chariot and Plato’s Chariot Analogy, though far off in age and origin, are effective illustrations of the human self. The similarities of the two analogies reach past just the mutual usage of a chariot. The Buddhist Chariot simile helps to show us the inherent issues with labels, or practical designations, while Plato’s analogy demonstrates the difficulty and importance of finding internal balance. Though there are distinct differences between the two metaphors of Nagasena and Plato, both philosophers show an understanding of the self far ahead of their respective times.
- Chaffee, John. The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas. Pearson, 2014. Jayarava. “The Simile of the Chariot.” Jayarava’s Raves, 2009, jayarava.blogspot.com/2009/05/simile-of-chariot.html.
- O’Brien, Barbara. “King Milinda’s Questions and the Chariot Simile.” Learn Religions, Learn Religions, 25 June 2019, www.learnreligions.com/king-milindas-questions-450052.
- Taylor, Thomas. “Plato’s Chariot Allegory, with the Commentary of Hermeas.” Universal Theosophy, 11 May 2017, universaltheosophy.com/articles/platos-chariot-allegory-with-the-commentary-of-hermeas/.
- Uebersax, John. “Plato’s Chariot Allegory.” Plato’s Chariot Allegory, Feb. 2007, www.john-uebersax.com/plato/plato3.htm.