The Horse and the Rider
The only book I kept from my years in high school was my notebook from a subject called Ethics. It wasn’t part of the national curriculum in Kenya, so I think I was quite lucky to even come across something like it.
The first half of the course was called “Personal Ethics,” and it was all about virtues, or ‘good habits’ as we described them at the time. I remember the end of my high school years thinking to myself that this was probably the only subject I did which was worth learning in all those four years.
But it took me a two decades to finally “get” that speaking about virtues is nothing other than speaking about desires. The two are intimately connected. In fact, desire is the substance of virtue. What drove me to this realisation was a quote that I heard from a Catholic theologian, who described virtue as “the imprint of rationality on the emotions.”
That’s what got me thinking about the horse and the rider.
The Horse And The Rider
The relationship between your mind and your emotions is like the relationship between a rider and his horse. The mind is the rider, and the emotions are the horse. At first, the horse is crazy, wild and untamed. It wants to run down whatever path strikes its fancy, chase the wind, and be “free.” The challenge with a wild horse though, is that its unlikely to do anything really useful. In steps the rider. The rider breaks the horse, trains it and directs it towards a sensible goal: either to get to a specific destination, to carry a load, or provide entertainment at the races or polo games.
Desires are exactly like the wild horse. When they are allowed to rule, they will take you down paths that feel great, but that, at best, lead nowhere, and at worst, lead to disaster. It’s your mind’s role to step in and direct that desire towards a well-considered destination. And once that horse has been tamed, and is being ridden and directed, it’s name changes from “desire” to “virtue.” Our immediate, raw desires are like a mustang. Our reason-filled desires, or virtues, are like an Arabian thoroughbred. Virtues are desires that have been trained by reason, and as a result are more mature desires. They are graceful, beautiful, well-developed, less prone to injuries, stronger and faster.
The horse is desire. The rider is reason. The horse and rider combination is virtue. Hence we can say virtue is an desire with (a) reason. “The imprint of rationality on the emotions.” Suppressing the desire is like shooting the mustang because it cannot be tamed. And ignoring reason is like throwing off the rider and running off into oblivion.
Harnessing That Wild And Crazy Horse
Let’s say you find it hard to get out of bed on time every morning. Whenever that alarm goes off, the feeling of “attraction” kicks in. You are more attracted to sleep than you are to getting out of bed. That’s the crazy horse - the feeling of attraction. It is raw energy, untamed and wild. In an instant, you think to yourself, “Listen, sleeping in is attractive. But I want to take that attraction and direct it towards ticking things off my to do list, making my clients happy and making some money today. All those things are also attractive. In fact, they are more attractive because they are more sensible, even though they are not immediate.” It’s the same emotion, but now you’ve directed it towards a greater good. And so it acquires a different name. It’s name is fortitude. This doesn’t mean that the attraction towards sleeping in will ever go away. It won’t. You’ll always want to sleep in. But over time, the redirection of this attraction towards things that are better than sleeping in will become automatic. This is virtue. This is taming the horse to run along the track, and to get us going in the direction that our mind wants us to go. The horse directs its raw energy and rippling muscles down a well considered road, and eventually gets us to a worthwhile destination.
Take another example. You are at the mall and you see a very attractive woman. You experience desire. You want that woman. That desire is the wild and crazy horse. It’s begging for the mind to step in and say, “Listen, that woman is attractive. But so is my wife. And her beauty is a participation in God’s beauty, beauty itself. So I’m going to take this wild energy and direct it towards thinking about my wife’s beauty, or thinking about God’s beauty." The crazy horse stops rearing and bucking, and proceeds down a road that’s worth travelling. And over time, it transforms from being a mustang into an Arabian thoroughbred.