McLuhan and Plato 3 – the wild horses of passion

In From Cliché to Archetype (72) McLuhan refers to “the classical passage from the Phaedrus of Plato on the wild horses of passion1“. This passage appears immediately before the one discussed in McLuhan and Plato 1 (Phaedrus 249-250) concerning the exposure of souls to “true being” and the causes of their forgetting that exposure. The two Phaedrus passages form a continuous narrative and with the related myth of Er from the Republic constitute a kind of Platonic de anima in myth.

Phaedrus 246a-248b
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite — a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses (…) of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him. (…)
hen perfect and fully winged [the soul] soars upward (…) 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 [bodily] frame (…) and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. (…)
And now let us ask the reason why the soul loses her wings! The wing is the (…) element [of a mortal creature] which is most akin to the divine, and which by nature tends to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the habitation of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of good, wastes and falls away.
Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all;  (…)
But the others [the human charioteers] labour, for the vicious steed [of their pairs] goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained: — and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul2 
(…) Of [these] other souls, that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer [even though he is] troubled indeed by the steeds, and [therefore only] with difficulty beholding true being; while another [charioteer] only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see, by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world (…) but not being strong enough they are carried round below (…), plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon [earthly] opinion.

McLuhan, too, held that human being is always a “composite” of two factors3:

There are only two basic extreme forms of human organization. They have innumerable variants or “parti-colored” forms. The extreme forms are the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)4

visual and acoustic space are always present in any human situation, even if Western civilization has (…) tamped down our awareness of the acoustic. 5

every artifact of man mirrors the shift between these two modes. 6

Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary…a foot, as it were, in both visual and acoustic space…7

Plato calls these factors the two horses of a chariot or two wings of the soul or (combining these) “winged horses”. But because they “have innumerable variants or parti-colored forms”, as McLuhan says, there must be a third factor at stake which accounts for this variety.

In his mythological de anima, Plato approaches this question in two ways. On the one hand, he distinguishes between the “descent” and “breeding” of the horses of the gods and of mortals:

Now the winged horses (…) of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.

The difference here has to do with the coordination or relationship of the two horses.  While the two horses can never be one horse, they can act as one in a coordinated way. This sort of coordinated movement characterizes the chariots of the gods (or the wings of their souls) and it is what allows them to circulate in the region of “true being”. The horses of mortal creatures, by contrast, are ill-matched: one of them is “ignoble” and “has not been thoroughly trained” and is therefore “vicious”. The resulting “unruliness of the steeds” prevents human souls from rising to the divine region of “true being” and binds them to the earth and to mortality.

This Platonic contrast between divine pairs of horses and human pairs appears in McLuhan as the difference between the “complementary” and the “incommensurable” (as in the Global Village 45 passage above), or as “inclusive” relation versus “exclusive”, or as “both-and” versus “either-or” (cf Global Village 31). These are all two varieties of “the gap where the action is”, the former reflecting the metaphorical nature of the gap, the latter rejecting it.

On the other hand, the “innumerable variants” between the performance of the two horses may be referred to the “charioteer” who drives them. Plato speaks, for example, of “the ill-driving of the charioteers” and says in regard to the pairs of unruly steeds that “the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble”. Not only the “descent” and “breeding” of the horses determines the sort of relation they have, then, but also how they are driven and controlled and trained relative to one another by their “charioteer”.

In McLuhan, the “charioteer”, the third factor, appears as the sensus communis which produces, or reflects, a certain “sensory closure”:

Consciousness (…) may be thought of as a projection to the outside of an inner synesthesia, corresponding generally with the ancient definition of common sense. Common sense is that peculiar human power of translating one kind of experience of one sense into all other senses and presenting the result as a unified image of the mind.  Erasmus and More said that a unified ratio among the senses was a mark of rationality. (Global Village 94)

The “charioteer” may also be called “the utterer” as when McLuhan speaks of “the utterer as the etymology” (Global Village 7). The mystery of human being is such that it is never clear if the human soul is the cause of its mode of awareness or an effect of it (or, somehow, both cause and effect at once). However the case may be, the “the utterer” can be called “the etymology” since the ratio of the senses (aka “mode of awareness”) cannot be accounted for aside from the role of the sensus communis, be it active and/or passive. (McLuhan regularly identifies the common sense with the sense of touch and it is noteworthy that touch is both active and passive at once.)

As already noted in different respects above, the key question concerns the nature of the gap between the horses or between wings of the soul or between the senses of eye and ear8. For both Plato and McLuhan, these ratios depend in turn upon insight into the nature of “being itself” as metaphorical (“Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all“) and into the resulting implication that an inclusive relation of the horses/wings/senses is both possible and proper to humans as reflecting such “true being”. Because “being itself” is metaphorical, it is possible for humans to relate metaphorically to it. And because they can relate metaphorically to it, it is possible for them to order their awareness after it metaphorically as well. It is just this, according to Plato in this same section of the Phaedrus, that characterizes the philosopher:

intelligence (…) is the recollection9 of those things which our soul once saw while following God — when. regardless of that which we now call being [aka opinion], she raised her head up towards the true being. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has [coordinated] wings; and this is just, for he is always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which, He is what He is. And he who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into [their] perfect mysteries (…) But, as he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired. (249c-d)

The many deep parallels between Plato’s mythological de anima and McLuhan’s analysis of the modes of awareness (aka “understanding media”) are remarkable. The conclusion is hard to avoid that little progress has been made in communicating these matters over the intervening two and a half millennia. An important aspect of McLuhan’s concern with communication therefore had to do with the question of how these matters were at long last to be communicated such that they might play a regulative role in human governance (individual and collective).  He called this the needed transformation of the ivory tower into the control tower and the key to this transformation, he saw, was the initiation of science, or sciences, in the human domain. 

  1. “Passion” here may be understood not only in the sense of ’emotion’, but also in the sense of ‘passivity’, as in the Easter ‘passion’. This sense would refer to the fact that the human soul is determined by the coordination of these horses such that it appears passive in relation to their active role in-forming it.
  2. See Republic 618c: “And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state”. As will be discussed in later posts concerning Plato’s gigantomachia (aka agon-y) and McLuhan’s “ancient quarrel”, both hold “true being” to be plural and dynamic. The exposure of the soul (obj gen!) to this “extremest conflict” (“extremest” because belonging to “true being” itself) is synchronic so that this “hour” (in ” time not our time”, a time “that is and was from the beginning”, therefore “ancient”) is, as Eliot says, “always now” (Four Quartets, Burnt Norton v). McLuhan’s aim was exactly to thematize this agon-izing synchronic exposure of the soul in an epoch — the world’s night — when human experience had become captured by the Narcissistic denial of it in a planetary numb/dumb.
  3. In his 1967 interview with Gerald Stearn, McLuhan notes that “It’s very difficult to have a structure of any sort without polarities, without tension. (…) Without polarities, without contraries — this is Blake’s whole notion of hateful contraries — without polarities, there is no progression, no structure. (But) for a literary person who likes things to move along in one direction on one plane, polarities are distressing.”
  4. Take Today 22
  5. Global Village 55
  6. Global Village x
  7. Global Village 45
  8. In the myth of Er in the Republic at 614d, in preparation for his becoming “the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men”, Er is instructed to “hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place”.
  9. For McLuhan, too, the role of recall, retrieval, replay, recognition, etc etc, together with its implication of multiple times, is central.

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