Ancient psychology in general is helpful because each of the unique ancient pictures of the soul represents a philosopher’s genuine attempt to capture and explain what it means to live as a human being with a human mind. Ancient thought thus represents an invaluable insight into the human condition, the benefit of which should not be discarded simply because it may not align with the facts of the matter.
I try to approach my life as a Stoic would. The Stoics believed that all human motivation was the result of forming the judgement that something is beneficial or harmful. They did not believe that irrational parts of our mind had motivational power, and they took emotions to also be a result of our rational judgments. Stoicism helps me formulate my thoughts, interpret my emotions, and focus on the aspect of my mind that I take to be most relevant: namely what I judge to be true or false in a given situation.
When someone reads Plato’s Phaedrus, they acquire a metaphor for understanding themselves. They learn that the mind can have multiple sources of motivation. That some sources of motivation can have different objects of desire and these sources of motivation can simultaneously conflict. The black horse can serve as a stand-in, a representation for the parts of themselves they do not like or do not feel they have adequate self-control over.
The worry runs something like this: Ancient conceptions of the soul are intellectually and historically valuable, but they are not true. No current major psychologist would endorse Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics’ conception of the mind as accurate. While it may be historically valuable, it is a mistake for those who want to better understand their own behavior, or the nature of human happiness, to turn to ancient philosophy for answers.
This is why people do, and should, turn to ancient philosophy in order better understand themselves and how to be happy, virtuous people. Ancient authors provide us with stories and paradigms about how the mind works, and how to improve it and gear it towards excellence. Engaging with these stories, even if we do not ultimately endorse them as true, is therapeutic in itself.
Plato’s allegory of the chariot, as well as ancient psychology more generally, might not be able to give people empirical evidence on the nature of the mind, but it can still give people a story. It provides a way to make sense of, order, and categorize the internal phenomenon of the mind. It provides an explanation for why we are not the kind of people we want to be, and lays out steps for how we can transform ourselves into the kind of people we admire. 
But it matters no more to me if the Stoic conception of the mind is empirically true than if Romeo and Juliet were actual people, or if the events of the Illiad actually happened. While I would like it to be true, it is sufficient that it is helpful.
by Michael Tremblay
There is no denying that these theories have had valuable influence on western thinking, and that there is merit in studying them for one’s own intellectual curiosity. But putting the historical value aside for a moment, one might question if turning to ancient thinkers is really a valuable strategy for learning about the mind, or how to be happy in a modern world.
The process of thinking about how one’s mind works, and thinking about how to represent it and describe it, can be deeply therapeutic. I would argue that gaining a story that allows one to represent their own mind to themselves is more helpful for many people than possessing the empirical facts of the matter.
Plato as an example:
However, I want to challenge these kinds of concerns, and argue that those who want to understand what it means to live as a human being still have a good reason to look to the ancients.
And finally, we learn what it takes to have a virtuous soul. An excellent soul is one in which the part which is the natural leader dictates the motivational force of the other parts of the soul. Just as a chariot should be controlled by the charioteer and not the horses, a soul should be controlled by reason and not desire.
Given this concern, this article will attempt to answer a troubling question: ‘Why should someone who wants to understand their own mind turn to ancient philosophy, instead of modern psychology?’.
For an example of a fascinating conception of the soul in ancient philosophy, let us look to Plato’s Phaedrus and the allegory of the chariot. In this work, Plato describes his tripartite soul through an analogy to a charioteer commanding two winged horses.
So what can we take from this analogy? First we see that the soul is divided into three parts. One of those, reason, is the natural and proper leader of the others. But the other two parts have motivational force, with desire in particular being capable of moving the individual against the dictates of reason.
Even if you disagree with Plato about the nature of the mind, by engaging with Plato you are forced to further develop your own intuition of how your mind works. By confronting Plato and disagreeing with him, you are forced to consider and develop the reasons as to why Plato could be wrong. Furthermore, disagreeing with Plato does not necessarily mean you disagree with all the ancient thinkers. This disagreement can serve as a starting point to for the study of other theories.  One might, after all, find themselves in greater agreement with the psychology of Aristotle or the Stoics.
Ancient Greek philosophy is rife with beautiful and interesting discussions of the soul. From the tripartite soul of Plato and Aristotle, to the intellectualism of the Stoics, ancient philosophers were fascinated by the foundations of human motivation and behavior, and strove to understand the structure of the mind.
Second, we have an explanation for why we often fail to act how we would want to act. There are parts of soul which do not necessarily respond to the dictates of reason and possess their own motivational force. If left untrained they will pull us in directions that reason tells us we should not go.
At this point, one might object that Plato’s allegory of the chariot is wrong, underdeveloped, or lacking empirical support. In other words, it is an interesting story, but it is not the truth of the matter. Our minds are incredibly complex and nowhere near analogous to a charioteer and two horses.
But even if we reduce Plato’s description to a story, a simple allegory, what is truly lost? Is this story without value, qua allegory, for the struggling individual trying to make sense of their problems?
As human beings, we are story-telling creatures. We desire ways to make sense of and interpret our lived experience and the human condition. We desperately want to come to terms with the nature of our motivations and actions, and we all aspire to one day grasp the causes of our moral successes and failures.
The charioteer, who represents our reason, seeks to guide the chariot in the proper direction. But in order to do so, he must control both horses. One horse is white and of noble breed, the other is dark and difficult to control. The white horse represents the emotional aspect of our motivation; it is fierce but readily aligned with reason. The dark horse represents our animalistic desires. It is difficult to govern, but it must be tamed if the charioteer is to gain control.
Reference to these thinkers has always been popular. People like turning to ancient figures as the ultimate authorities on questions of the mind. We can see this trend renewed in the recent popularization of Stoicism as a way to address modern anxieties and problems.
Michael Tremblay is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Queen’s University. He is interested in ancient philosophy as a way of life. For more information, visit his website: Why something like the allegory of the chariot is still helpful today:

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