Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes , Rebirth of the Goddess, and the widely used anthologies she co-edited with Judith Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. She has been thinking about the black horse in relation to the online course she is teaching on Ecofeminism in the Women’s Spirituality Program at California Institute of Integral Studies.
“The driver…falls back like a racing charioteer at the barrier, and with a still more violent backward pull jerks the bit from between the teeth of the lustful horse, drenches his abusive tongue and jaws with blood, and forcing his legs and haunches against the ground reduces him to torment. Finally, after several repetitions of this treatment, the wicked horse abandons his lustful ways; meekly now he executes the wishes of his driver, and when he catches sight of the loved one [i.e. his master] is ready to die of fear.”
I can’t seem to get this image from Plato’s Phaedrus quoted in Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature out of my mind or my body these days. The other day I tried to read the above passage to a friend and my body became so tense that I accidentally cut off the phone connection—twice. Now while I am writing my muscles are tight, and I am beginning to get a headache. I cannot get the image of the black horse out of my mind because “she” (I know that Plato’s horse was a “he”) has lived in my body for as long as I remember. She probably first took root in my body when I began to fear my father’s discipline. She became bigger and stronger every time someone or something in culture told me that my body and the feelings of my body were bad, that I as a girl or woman was unworthy, that the things I cared about were not important, that my thoughts were wrong.
I ask you to read this passage aloud and to register how it makes you feel. Does the black horse live in you too?
Plato intended this image as an allegory for the relation of mind or soul to body and nature. Feminists and ecofeminists are well aware that the hierarchical dualism enshrined in this image is one of the main roots of sexism, racism, colonialism, and the environmental crisis. Plumwood asks us to notice the violence inherent in the relationship between mind or soul and body or nature as posited by Plato. She tells us that this is model of “radical exclusion” in which the “other” is violently subdued and its powers to do anything other than submit to and be used by the “master” are “negated.”
The charioteer symbolizes reason which must overpower nature. Plato does not picture this relationship as “natural” but as one that can only be achieved by force, violence, and fear that are sometimes coded as “love.” The horse and charioteer also represent that struggle within “man” to control his own body and the feelings and passions that arise from it. Plato tells us that this too is not a natural state of affairs: the mind must beat and subdue the body into submission. Plumwood asserts that in this image Plato is alluding to the procedures of “military discipline” which through fear and humiliation root out a young man’s natural desires for “life” and “love” including sex and replace them with a desire to “serve” and to ‘kill.” As many of us know all too well, military discipline becomes a model for child-rearing practices that scare or beat children into submission. Ascetic traditions which Plato admired idealize violence against the body (self-flagellation) as a way to ‘beat” the body into submission. The horse and charioteer also represent the relationship between man and woman in patriarchy and the ever-present threat that women who resist their roles can be beaten and raped into submission. Finally the horse and charioteer also represent the relationship between master and slave. Slaves in Greece often came from Asia Minor or Africa and were darker-skinned. In this image we see the demonization of everything black or dark, of blackness itself. The bruised and bleeding black horse represents all that can and must be controlled by the mind of the dominant man.
I have often asked myself how western philosophy got it so wrong, and why these ideas continue to perpetuate themselves. Plumwood suggests that “The great accomplishment of Plato and the key to the enormous influence his system exerted was the creation of an intellectual framework for an otherworldly identity which claimed to cancel death.” I would expand this profound insight and say that Platonism offered an otherworldly identity which claimed to cancel finitude or limitation, dependence or interdependence, and death. Platonism offered the illusion of complete control over life.
Feminists, ecologists, and people of color sometimes quarrel over who was the first oppressed and who became the model for the oppression of others. As I struggle to comfort and to free the battered and bruised black horse in my own body, I begin to realize that the first oppressed was not the other but the self. Platonism offered dominant males the devil’s bargain: subdue, repress, and root out your own feelings and you can control anything, you can even beat death. The kicker is that once you have lost your ability to feel, the power to dominate others seems like a good deal.