Philo of Alexandria, in his essay on agriculture (De Agricultura), points out that there is a difference between an ordinary tiller of the ground, and an actual farmer; and that there is also a clear difference between a shepherd and someone who just tends to sheep. In the same way, he tells us, there is a great difference between a rider of a horse and a true horseman.
This difference exists not just in the experience and habits of he who sits atop the horse; the difference lies in their respective carriages, manners, and degrees of ability to control the animal carrying them along. Along these lines, Philo says:
Therefore the man who gets on a horse without any skill in horsemanship, is correctly called a rider, and he has given himself up to an irrational and restive animal, to such a degree that it is absolutely inevitable that he must be carried wherever the animal chooses to go, and if he fails to see beforehand a chasm in the earth, or a deep pit it has happened before now that such a man, in sequence of the impetuosity of his course, has been thrown headlong down a precipice and dashed to pieces. But a horseman, on the other hand, when he is about to mount, takes the bridle in his hand, and then taking hold of the mane on the horse’s neck, he leaps on; and though he appears to be carried by the horse, yet, if one must tell the truth, he in reality guides the animal that carries him, as a pilot guides a ship. For a pilot too, appearing to be carried by the ship which he is managing, does in real truth guide it, and conducts it to whatever harbor he is himself desirous to hasten. [XV.67]
So we have this analogy of the rider and the horseman. But to what purpose, this analogy? It is clear that he intends us to see this as a description of the soul. “The horses are appetite and passion…of a slavish disposition, and rejoicing in all kinds of crafty wickedness…And the rider and charioteer is one, namely, the mind.” When a man mounts a horse with competence, confidence, and ability, he is a horseman; when he does so with inexperience, carelessness, or lack of respect for the horse, he is then nothing but a rider. An incompetent cannot keep control of the reins; they fall from his hands, and the horse wanders this way and that. The rider may even be thrown off, injured, or trampled, or dragged along to his death behind the horse.
In this analogy the horseman represents the mind, and the horse represents the baser passions and appetites. He who can make use of his mind correctly, can control his baser instincts, and thereby steer his mount in ways that are productive. But the undisciplined fool, who lacks experience, does not guide his appetites: he is guided by them, and these quickly lead to his own ruin. We see this truth played out with inevitability all the time; all we have to do is look around, and observe.
Now we are often told that a man’s choices in life are indicators of his fate. What is often not mentioned, or what is mentioned obliquely, is that what we choose not to do, is often more important that what we affirmatively choose to do. What we avoid can be of momentous consequence. For you will often find, as you go through life, that many others around you will try to pull you into their habits and schemes. You will be encouraged to let your horse–that is, your appetites and passions–roam free. You will be told that you do not need to become a horseman, and that being a plain rider is good enough. Others will try to make you a participant in their dramas, going so far as even to try to clothe you in their costumes, and write your stage dialogue, as if you were some sort of Elizabethan dramatic actor.
For corruption and frivolity love association; they cannot exist except by drawing others into their nets. But in allowing this to happen, you set the stage for your own ruin. Every ship, caught in the grip of a tempest, can only sustain the force of so many waves; and after this, it will become upended and sink below the waves. Philo quotes an ancient writer–he does not say who it is, and I cannot locate the source of the quote–who advises:
I will never engage in such a contest as that in which he who wins is more dishonored than he who is defeated. [De Agricultura XXIV.107]
The meaning of this quote is made very clear: “Do you, therefore, my friend, never enter into a contest of evil, and never contend for preeminence in such practices, but rather exert yourself with all your might to escape from them. And if ever, being under the compulsion of some power which is mightier than yourself, you are compelled to engage in such a strife, take care to be defeated without delay.” The man who desires to live well must refuse to participate in contests of evil. He must refuse to follow paths of iniquity and evil that he has been encouraged to follow. The prisons, the asylums, and all the miserable corners of this earth are populated with souls who were either unable or unwilling to refuse such invitations. They voluntarily chose to follow destructive paths, either through indiscipline, ignorance, or foolishness; and they were forced to endure the consequences, just as the inexperienced horse rider found himself thrown off his mount and crippled.
So you must refuse to participate in such evil contests and games. To be “defeated” in them is an honor; and he who is so defeated is actually a conqueror. Those who “win” at such games are no more than fools living on borrowed time; you should imagine the crown of laurels on his head to be composed of nothing more than the excrement of a beast. Your conduct should announce to the world, “I do not participate in contests of evil and corruption. Crown these other men your Kings of Corruption, praise them to the skies, and observe how goes the trajectory of their lives!”
So abandon all these unworthy contests: they are pursuits not worth pursuing. Direct your energies towards finding worthy endeavors for your time and effort; and although the path of virtue is a constant effort, know that it is the path of true freedom. Although no man is an island, he yet finds it necessary, in this modern age, to dig entrenchments around his fortress, and to man his own watch-towers: for no one else will perform this function for him. No man can escape his confinement within himself, and so therefore must acquire the skills to master himself, and become a true horseman, instead of a rider.
I find it relevant, in this context, to close with a few lines from a song mentioned by Boswell in his Tour of the Hebrides:
Every island is a prison
Strongly guarded by the sea;
Kings and princes, for that reason,
Prisoners are, as well as we.
Read more in On Duties: