Plato’s Two Charioteers: Free Will, Moral Agency, and How to Negotiate Our Capacities for Good and Evil
By Maria Popova
“If I conclude that there is no free will,” astrophysicist Janna Levin observed in her spectacular conversation with Krista Tippett, “it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.” This seemingly paradoxical proposition counters the temptation to view free will as a purgatory between ultimate resignation and ultimate responsibility, and instead captures one of the most vital and vitalizing truths of the human experience — that our locus of agency, the very seedbed of our personhood, resides not in absolute freedom but in the very necessity for exercising choice.
That’s what philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein metabolizes in a portion of her thoroughly excellent Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (public library) — an insightful, inventively argued case for how, nearly two and a half millennia later, the Ancient Greek philosopher’s perennial ideas about morality, happiness, democracy, and science can help us navigate modern life.
Goldstein, who grew up enamored with science fiction, weaves into her philosophical inquiry fictionalized dialogues in which Plato converses with contemporary people he encounters in various contexts — from a cable news interview to a 92Y panel — exploring ideas based on his actual ancient dialogues. In one of these exchanges, her personified Plato considers free will, moral agency, and the perennial tug-of-war between our capacities for good and evil:
The free person has a severely restricted range of choices… I will make my statement sound even more paradoxical. The free person’s choices are completely determined.
Goldstein’s Plato cushions the paradox with what is at once a caveat and a central truth, based on the charioteer metaphor from his Phaedrus dialogue:
The person’s own better nature … is determining that person’s choices. Imagine a two-horsed charioteer, with one course unruly and unable to stay the course, and the other horse knowing his way even without the whip or goad. The charioteer is only to control the bad horse so that the better horse may lead him in order to be free. Freedom isn’t the absence of control; rather, control is the essence of freedom.
Complement Plato at the Googleplex with Goldstein on how Einstein and Gödel changed our experience of time and what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what free will really means and young Sylvia Plath on how we can know whether it exists.
Published April 1, 2016