We are all born with unique talents. But how do we recognize and develop them?
One approach comes from Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot. In the allegory, Plato asks us to imagine that we are a chariot driver who must guide two winged horses—one white, a fierce horse that seeks noble ends, and the other black, an unruly horse that only cares about satisfying its cravings.
To put this horse business in context, think of it like this: We all have tendencies that we’re proud of and tendencies that we aren’t proud of. Plato’s point is that we can’t drive our "chariot" successfully if we only pay attention to our positive and easily controllable "white horse" tendencies. Whether we like it or not, the "dark horse" tendencies are there too—and they need our attention.
The point is, we can’t simply renounce or ignore our weaker or less admirable tendencies—our compulsions, our addictions, our poor choices, and so on—and be done with them. The reality of being human is that we are tugged and pulled by both noble and unruly tendencies. Our challenge isn’t to make the unruly horse vanish. It’s to harness and control the dual energies of both horses and then fly them into the heavens.
What Plato is suggesting is that it’s a mistake to think of self-improvement strictly as an act of renunciation. Renunciation alone isn’t the solution. Religions have been trying to make people make sacrifices, to renounce things, for thousands of years—and how’s that going? The same goes for diets and addictions; we can’t snap our fingers and make our habits go away, that’s not how it works. That’s what the quick fix self-help industry shills out but it’s all a hoax.
We’re stuck with our dark horses. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
You can’t, for instance, simply run away from your gambling addiction by moving to Italy. Pasta and chianti and beautiful vineyards might smooth things over for a while, but eventually your “dark horse” will make an appearance and you'll be on the train to Monte Carlo. Like it or not, all those ticks and habits and blind spots that made you want to run away in the first place are going to be with you wherever you go—you are "harnessed" to the them, you might say.
Right now you're probably thinking, okay, but wouldn't it still be better to be free of our worse tendencies than to be harnessed to them? A reasonable question. Here's Plato's equally reasonable answer: Both horses, according to Plato, have a purpose, even the dark horse. Plato believed that our darker appetites and tendencies, if properly understood and trained, are an important part of our journey to well-being.
"Our appetites and tendencies, if properly understood and trained, are an important part of our journey to well-being."
People who study martial arts know that sometimes positive power comes from redirecting the negative. The same goes for our inner horses. Instead of wasting energy fighting two horses that are pulling us in opposite directions, the master charioteer (that's us) learns to channel those dual energies towards a positive goal. An addiction, for example, gets redirect toward a healthier target, a drive for a shallow pleasure is rerouted towards a nobler pleasure, and so on.
This isn’t easy, obviously. Plato wasn’t into easy. Not his jam.
And that’s the second point Plato is making with his analogy—driving the chariot is incredibly difficult. It takes practice, lots of it, and we’ll never succeed if we are unwilling to do the hard work required. We need to get to know both our “horses” and be prepared when they try to pull us in opposing directions. Our task is to get them in sync and to chart as straight a course as possible.
According to Plato, only humans are stuck with the dark horse, not the gods, which is Plato’s third and final point. Our quirks and weakness are part of what makes us who we are. This, admittedly, sounds cliché, but in the context of Plato’s larger point, it’s an empowering statement that boils down to this: The challenge of being human isn’t to be perfect like the gods. The challenge is to get to know our strengths and our weaknesses, and then to do the best with what we are given.