Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: PlatoThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 21 Sep 2020
Plato likened us all to charioteers trying to control two wayward horses. The steeds represent the competing wants and desires that constantly pull us off course and away from a happier life.
Yale professor Tamar Gendler joins Dr Laurie Santos to examine how the ancient Greek philosopher didn't only diagnose the internal tensions we all face, but also offered a cure. The horses can be made to pull in the direction you command... but each must be coaxed in the right way.
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This episode of The Happiness Lab is brought to you by the House of Chanel, creator of the iconic J. 12 Sports Watch.
In 2000, Chanel launched the J 12 and changed watchmaking codes forever. An embodiment of the House allure, the watch transformed ceramic into a precious material, sparking a stylistic revolution. 20 years on, the J. 12 continues to travel through time while preserving its identity, a high performance caliber movement and hardstyle refined basil and crown in brilliant black or intense white. To learn more about the J. 12 watch visit Chanel Dotcom. From the second I opened my eyes each morning, I'm locked in a battle with a persistent and persuasive adversary, someone who seems dead set on preventing me from practicing all of the happiness techniques I teach you about in this podcast.
I want to plan my day so I don't feel time pressured. And I want to meditate and exercise every morning. And I want to do random acts of kindness throughout the day. But my nemesis is right there encouraging me to do the exact opposite, arguing that I should sleep in or I should buy something nice for myself. Or I should add yet one more event to my already packed schedule just to prove to people that I'm a hard worker. Of course, the person sabotaging me is me, or maybe more accurately, a few rogue parts of me once that I really want to control better.
And I bet I'm not alone. The temptations that divert us from doing things that will make us happy are everywhere and they're available 24/7. But the people who first thought deeply about the internal battles we all face lived centuries before smartphones, movie streaming services and calendar alerts. The ancient Greeks and one thinker in particular, Plato, came up with some profoundly important insights about our divided selves more than 2000 years ago. As in other episodes of this mini season of The Happiness Lab, I want to explore some of the wellbeing concepts that the ancient philosophies and great religions got right.
Old school tips that are borne out by the science and ones that have personally helped me and my own quest to be happier. So welcome to Happiness Lessons of the Ancients. With me, Dr. Laurie Santo's. One of the things I've realized is that I am inevitably going to be tempted if I work with my phone next to me, I'll be getting text.
This is my friend and colleague, Tamar Geller. So when I sit down at my desk to write, I actually turn off the Wi-Fi receiver on my computer so that I won't even be tempted to look at the other things while I'm getting the work done tomorrow.
And I often trade notes about how to stay happy and productive as busy academics. But tomorrow brings something very special to these conversations. She teaches a class at Yale called Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature, and Plato's ideas are central to her curriculum. So I asked Tamara to give us Plato one on one.
So Plato was one of the really cool ancient philosophers in Athens who gave rise to the Western philosophical tradition.
And he ran basically a university which was called the Academy, where young men from Athenian families would come and engage in unbelievably intellectually interesting conversations with one another and with Plato and with Plato's teacher Socrates about the deepest questions of the age. And one of the students at Plato's Academy was a guy named Aristotle.
So this was like a pretty legit thing to do. If you were like a rich Athenian guy and wanted to get educated, it didn't have the formal structure of degree granting.
It wasn't that you would go there for four years, but it was the place where people went. If they wanted to understand fundamental ideas, if they wanted to think about literature or philosophy or politics or mathematics, those were the kinds of topics that you could explore at Plato's Academy.
And Plato was kind of the guy to learn from, in part because he thought so deeply about so many different topics. But today we're going to kind of focus in on Plato's ideas for happiness and how we can control the self, which is something he thought about a lot, right? Yeah.
So one of the things that's really interesting about ancient Greek philosophy is that they connected all sorts of topics that we think of as distinct from one another. So the question of how can you be happy was a fundamental question in ancient philosophy, because they were thinking about what's the appropriate relation between the individual and their society and what's the nature of beauty and what's the nature of truth. And so Plato would be teaching all of those things, everything from mathematics to metaphysics to political theory.
But part of the reason for exploring that set of topics was so that you could understand how is it possible for an individual human being to flourish? How can they best align themselves so that they understand the nature of the world and are most receptive to the world's excellence?
And so Plato didn't just think about this, or obviously he was a writer who created lots of influential books on this. So talk to me about the importance of one of the books that we're going to dig into a little bit today, which is The Republic.
So Plato wrote all his books in the form of plates, and they were places where his teacher, Socrates, was the main character. And then various young men who were students at the university were in conversation with Socrates about questions. And so one of the most famous of the dialogues or books that Plato wrote is a book called The Republic, and it has 10 chapters. And it's kind of a theory of everything it describes. What's the fundamental nature of the universe?
How did it come into being? It talks about how mathematics underpins all of physical reality. Then it talks about physics. It talks about how we understand truth. But it does all of that by telling the story of what the ideal society would look like, what would a society look like in which human beings are best able to flourish? That's the question that Plato asks. And it turns out that in order to answer that, he has to explore everything from mathematics to political theory.
And in those stories, Plato tells one of my favorite stories from the ancient Greek times, which is the story of Leon TEUs. What was the story of Lantz and why was it so important for thinking about human nature?
So let me just start by telling the story, using Plato's words from the Republic, and then I'll give you the moral of it. So the story goes like this. Leon TEUs was walking along the north wall of the city. He saw some corpses lying at the foot of the wall. He had an appetite to look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away for time. He struggled with himself and covered his face, but finally overpowered by the appetite he put.
His eyes wide open and rushed towards the dead bodies, saying, look for yourselves, you evil eyes, take your fill of this beautiful site. So Plato tells this story at a point in the republic where he's trying to have his listeners understand that within every human being, there are multiple parts pulling the person in multiple directions. He wants to show you that you, like everyone else, are filled with internal strife. And so the story that he tells is basically the story of a rubberneckers on a highway.
Lantz's walking home, right? He's supposed to go efficiently into the north gate of the city and instead there's a dead body on the side of the city wall. And he thinks like, that's disgusting. Don't look at that. But part of him is just fascinated and curious. And the part of him that's fascinated and curious keeps pulling him towards the wall. And so the story is about the internal tension that Lantis feels his effort to try to control himself and then the phenomenology, the experience that he feels of just giving in.
I can't control my appetite. I can't control my desire to go look at these dead bodies. And as many of us do when we're driving past an accident, he turns his head, he looks at the dead bodies and he slows his walk.
But the reason I love the story so much is that, I mean, it's kind of morbid, but the reason I love the story so much is that this isn't a tale just about rubbernecking. That same internal strife that Plato is talking about is what I experience in the morning when my alarm goes off and I know I want to be committed to getting up and hopping on the elliptical or getting up for my morning meditation. But my appetite wants me to sleep in.
That's what he's talking about, right?
That's what he's talking about. And in fact, the reason he tells the story is that he wants to set himself up to make the general point that human beings are set up inside in such a way that even if their best self wants to do something, they are always going to feel tensions. They're always going to feel pulled in many directions. It can be an email that pops up that sends you down a rabbit hole on the Internet. And Plato's point is that human beings inevitably find themselves in situations that they feel pulled in multiple directions.
One of the reasons Plato was really obsessed with this is that he realized that you can't just be a rational self because we have these other parts of our mind. You actually have to control the rational self to figure this out. And he had this awesome metaphor that I've actually been telling my podcast listeners throughout this whole season about this that involved a charioteer, right?
Yeah. In fact, he uses different metaphors to describe it in different books in the Republic, which is the book that has the Lantis story. He says that a human being is made up of three parts. They're made up of a human being, basically their head. They're made up of a lion and they're made up of a many headed monster. And the idea is that the human being is reason and the lion is the part of you that's kind of proud and that the many headed beast is the part of you that's interested in base passions like food and sex.
But in another one of his books, a book called The Fedrizzi, he gives an analogy that I think is even more vivid. And he says a human being is like a charioteer driving a chariot with two horses.
One is a noble horse and one is a wild horse.
And the noble horse is the part of a human being, the aspects of ourselves that's interested in honor and social interaction and what other people think of us. If I'm supposed to sit home and do my podcast, but I go out because I give in to peer pressure, because I care what my friends think about me, or I spend a lot of time focused on appearance because I want to impress somebody that's the horse of spirit, whereas the wild horse is the part of ourselves that's interested in fundamental desires that we share with other non-human animals, like the desire for food or the desire to sleep or take physical pleasure in things like sex.
It needs to take in nutrition and it needs to ensure that there are future generations. Those are the parts of ourselves that he describes in the chariot analogy.
But the idea is like any journey we're on towards better flourishing, any journey we're on towards becoming happier people. One thing we have to do is we have to deal with these horses that are kind of out of control and running around.
It's not just that we have to deal with these horses. Basically what moves us is the fact that we have fundamental passions and desires. The metaphor is really a powerful one because it says it's not like, oh, if we could just have the person part of ourselves, we'd be done with things.
The story says human beings are the kinds of creatures who are propelled forward by physical desire. And by social desires and the key to human flourishing, the way to move fast on the path through life is to make sure that you are in control of those horses, that the parts of you that are passion and energy are pulling you in the direction that you want to go instead of in some wild other direction that they are being pulled. And so if we want to become happier people, we need to figure out how to deal with this cheeriest system.
We need to get our charioteer to rein in these horses and to let them bring us on our journey in a really productive way. And we'll deal with that question of how we actually do that well when the happiness lab returns in a moment. So Plato was obsessed with this idea that if we really want to be happier people, we really need to rein in our desires and our passions and really use them in the right ways. But how do we do that?
What did Plato figure out and how does that jive with modern science? Let's start by talking about the first horse, the horse of Appetite. What did Plato think about how he could kind of rein in appetite in a productive way?
Plato really took this metaphor seriously. He saw it as illuminating because he recognized what contemporary science has recognized, which is a big part of human beings is non-human beings. That is a big part of ourselves are animals. So Plato basically recognized that the best way to deal with the parts of ourselves that are like animals is by dealing with them in the way that we deal with things that are animals. So imagine you have a dog and you don't want the dog to eat some delicious kind of food.
The best way to keep the dog from eating that food is not to put the food in front of the dog. The second best way might be to put a muzzle on the dog. And your very last choice is going to be to try to train up your dog so that it doesn't give in to that temptation. So Plato had the same insight with regard to human beings themselves. If you want to keep the horse of appetite, the part of yourself that's tempted the best ideas to avoid temptations.
If you can't do that, then when you're in the presence of temptations, you should keep yourself from looking at them and only in the most difficult situations where you can't keep the temptations away and you can't keep your attention away from the temptations. Only then should you try to do it through certain kinds of self-control.
And this is super important, right? Because I think, you know, one of the things that Plato is saying to us is that it's not going to work to try to control our appetite just through reflective processes alone, like just repeatedly telling myself, like, you know, I'm an happiness expert, like I should get up in the morning and like, you know, go work out like that doesn't work as well. Like, I need cues to remind me to workout.
I need to have my shoes out. I need to have my gratitude journal where I can see it. I need to pretend like this appetite part of me is like a dog that I'm basically trying to train in the simplest way possible. Right.
And it is in many ways literally true. That is the things that are attracting you to food that smells tempting are the exact same features of your brain that a non-human animal has that's attracting into food that smells excellent. And in fact, there's a very good reason for it. We've evolved to be responsive to food that provides nutrition to us. And so Plato's point is in many ways, there's nothing you can do about the fact that you will feel tempted.
So your job is to figure out to the extent that you can reduce the temptations, use the cues, and if you can only then do you use the willpower of the charioteer. You don't have enough strength in the reins to do it always by the reins. You've got to get the horse to cooperate.
And what's amazing is that there's like thousands of years ago. But basically Plato is foreshadowing everything that we know about the modern science of habit formation. Like the easiest way to kind of get yourself to, like, control your appetite is to get rid of the thing that you don't want to be tempted by, whether that's the your phone or the Internet or, you know, fattening food or whatever happens to be. It's just to get that out of there.
And by the same token, if there's something you want your brain to do, make it really obvious in the situation. Right. Put your gratitude journal out there, like make your gym shoes available. That's right.
The easier you make it for yourself to do it automatically, the better off you're going to be. In fact, there's a famous Greek story that's in a book by Homer called The Odyssey. And it's the story of this guy, Ulysses. He's trying to get home and he's going past an island where there is really tempting music. And he knows that if you hear that music, you're inclined to jump off the ship and join the singers because the music is so beautiful.
And in the story, Homer tells two ways of getting past that temptation.
The oarsmen who are rowing the boat block their ears so that they can't hear the sound. And Ulysses, who wants to hear the sound but not be able to act on it, has his soldiers tie him to the mast of the ship. So that story is like Plato's story of the horse. The horse is always going to be tempted. So if you have a temptation and you haven't put a mechanism in place either to take it out of sight or to control yourself in the face of it, it's going to be really, really hard to avoid it.
But all of the strategies that you're describing make the alternate activity salient rather than the one you want to avoid or take away. Access, put your phone in a Ziploc bag so you can't touch it, turn off the Wi-Fi on your Internet, don't have chocolate in the house. All of those are exactly the strategies that the ancient Greeks were using in Homer's case. That story, almost eight thousand years old.
All these strategies, even though they're so ancient, like what science is finding is that if you use them, you're going to actually be successful at regulating your appetite.
It is a recognition of something that is so deeply part of human nature and human experience that basically every world wisdom, tradition tries to describe it in some way. The Buddhist tradition has an analogy of a rider and an elephant, and it's the same idea. It's the idea that part of you is pulled in one direction and that there's a huge set of desires and passions which pull in other directions. And many world religions are about building structures that help you regulate those forces and energies.
And a lot of the things that modern science shows to be effective mechanisms are actually there in religious traditions. You build rules around what kind of food you can eat when in a religion. And it's exactly the same insight that you see in the modern science, in addition to the modern science, saying that these are really good strategies. The other thing that we know scientifically is that people who are good at regulating their appetites, they do that because they use these strategies.
Yeah, one of the things that's really interesting is that people who are best at self-control are actually best at setting up situations in which they don't have to exercise self-control. So a kid who's good at doing homework isn't good at not looking at the phone that's right in front of them while they're doing homework. What that kid is good at is setting up their room in such a way that they aren't tempted by the phone in the first place. The more effective somebody is at what we think of as self-control and self-regulation, the more likely it is that they seldom put themselves into situations where they even feel tempted.
And that's why I love the charioteer metaphor and why I keep telling my podcast listeners about it in this mini season is that I get that intuition so much from the metaphor, right. Like it's a pain to be holding on to these reins as this appetite horse is going crazy like that requires a lot of work. But if you just put blinders on, the horse can just help the horse, then you don't have to worry about, like holding on to these reins super hard because the horse is just going to be behaving correctly anyway.
It's exactly right. Set yourself up in situations where you don't have to expend all your charioteer energy controlling these horses.
So that was what Plato thought about the appetite horse, right? This horse that's kind of going for like food and like like all the kind of physical pleasures. But Plato also worried about a different horse, which is this horse of spirit. Right. Which is kind of like, you know, that's the horse that leads me astray every time I'm trying to, like, ease myself off of social media or not react to some dumb famo instinct or so on.
Did Plato also give us some insight about how we could control that horse?
The best way to control the horse of spirit, the horse of honor, is by cultivating habits that are going to become the natural way that that horse behaves. So if you think about it, the horse of appetite is never going to change what it's attracted to. The Horse of Spirit is a trainable horse. And in fact, one of the distinctions that Plato makes when he presents the metaphor is that he says the horse of appetite cannot be controlled except through punishment, whereas the horse of spirit can be controlled through argument and explanation.
And so how does the sort of training work? Like how do we actually train up our spirit horse over time? Yes.
So one of the interesting things about how we train up our spirit horse is that what we try to do is to make it natural and pleasurable for the spirit horse to do the thing that we want it reflectively to do. And one of the nice things about human beings is that we enjoy a certain sort of familiarity, that when we get good at something, we take pleasure in doing it. So if you train your spirit horse actually to take pleasure, you sit down and you write in your gratitude journal every day and you discover actually writing this makes me feel connected to people.
That's a way of coopting the energy of the spirit horse so that it takes you along your pathway without you having to steer it using the reins.
And so Plato really thought that this was something that we could do with the right sorts of strategies. Right. Like did you get a sense that Plato himself did it or that his students did it?
So Plato had this incredible university, right? I mean, it was the first place people came together. And it is true that the academy, it was just. This enclosure outside of Athens, I think what drew people there originally was the possibility of social interaction. It was a kind of high prestige space to be in. All the cool kids were hanging out there and then all the cool kids were hanging out there.
And then Plato taught them some math and then he taught them some metaphysics and then he taught them some political theory. And so there's a way in which the fact that human beings are social beings is what allowed Plato to create this academy where people came together. And then once they were with each other, they could take pleasure in interacting with each other and thinking about ideas. That's cool.
So Plato was basically using the spirit horse of their students to, like, drag their charioteer to the academy and then they could learn all this good stuff.
Exactly. And then the charioteer gets to the academy, it learns all the stuff, and then it realizes that this was, in fact, the tactic that played off its spirit. So as someone who teaches Plato, are there ways that you've used his insight to train your own horses? Oh, I would say just about everything in my life comes from the insights that I've gotten from thinking about the ways in which these habits can structure our lives. So during the quarantine, my family made a habit.
My I had unexpectedly two kids home from school who had been living away. And we just made it a routine that every night at seven 30 we would eat dinner together as a family. And it just came to feel like a fact about the world. It wasn't like we had to think about should we go downstairs at seven thirty? We just made it part of our family's routine. And as a consequence, we spent time with each other and then we remembered we like being with one another.
And then it stopped seeming like something governed by the watch and just started seeming like what it is that we wanted to do. Naturally, we wanted to go down. We wanted to eat together. We wanted to spend time with one another.
It seemed like the Greeks were fantastic at recognizing not just that we have these warring parts of ourselves, but they also gave us some insight into how we could control those different parts over time to flourish a little bit better. Kind of what was the next steps like? What what did the Greeks kind of leave in terms of their legacy for the next thinkers to come around and sort of.
Yeah, so there's real insight if you read Plato and Aristotle about how to control drives in ourselves, but you don't get in Plato and Aristotle explicitly the thought that actually the charioteer can do the same sort of tricks on itself. And one of the things that you start getting in a tradition that starts just a couple hundred years later in writers like Epictetus, is the idea that, in fact, you can control how we eat is that you represent the world to yourself and that you can think about things as being in your control or out of your control.
You can frame something as letting it bother you or not letting it bother you. And that that frame can be self-fulfilling. If you decide that somebody else's disapproval doesn't matter to you, you actually make it the case that somebody else's disapproval doesn't matter to you and you don't find that thought explicitly articulated until you get to this subsequent tradition.
I love hearing Tamar explaining the ideas of the ancient Greeks, their stories are so vivid and a tiny bit gory, too, but as well as being entertaining, Plato's work brings me great comfort. I'm constantly beating myself up about not sticking to my goals and giving in to temptation. Plato helps me understand that my horses are just doing what comes naturally. Once I realized all this, driving my chariot became far less exhausting and a lot more fun. In the next episode of Happiness Lessons of the Ancients, we're going to take tomorrow suggestion and explore a school of philosophy that was built on the foundation of Plato and Aristotle.
So I hope you'll join me next time in ancient Rome. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan. The show was mastered by Evan Viola and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver, special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew, including LaBelle, Kali Migliore, Heather Fain, Sophie Queen McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr. Laurie Santos.