Plato’s Socrates: The Parable of the Ship

  Famously, Socrates has told Glaucon and Adeimantus in Book V of Plato’s Republic (488a-489a) that there would be no rest from ills in the cities unless philosophers rule as kings. Not knowing what philosophy is, or what philosophers are, someone, a Harvard man, has also famously said he would rather be governed by any of the first 20 names selected from the Boston phone book! The point is well taken, especially if these could manage to deliberate together for the common good, especially since we do not happen to have a wise man or woman, nor do we know how to find a genuine philosopher. But through books Five, Six and Seven, Socrates undertakes to explain what a philosopher is, and in doing so, also has occasion to explain the good, or rather the child of the good, as distinct from, but necessary in order to know, the just.

   Socrates explains who the real philosophers are through three images, called the ship, the line and the cave. This, we say, is the peak of all human writing, though certain things written by the apostle John, and perhaps Ezekiel, the Sermon on the Mount, and Genesis, written perhaps by the hand of Noah, Enoch, Abraham and Moses, are also contenders for the highest writing we have.

   As translated by Allan Bloom, Socrates explains:

…So hard is the condition suffered by the most decent men with respect to the cities that there is no single other condition  like it, but I must make my image and apology on their behalf by bringing it together from many sources- as the painters paint goatstags and such things by making mixtures. Conceive something of this kind happening on either many ships or one.  Though the shipowner surpasses everyone on board in height and strength…

The shipowner is the people, or the whole polity.

…he is rather deaf and likewise somewhat shortsighted, and his knowledge of seamanship is pretty much on the same level…

That is true of both the many poor and the few rich, in every city and so in every nation…

…The sailors are quarreling with one another about the piloting, each supposing he ought to pilot, although he has never learned the art and cannot produce his teacher or prove there was a time when he was learning it…

These are the politicians, almost without exception, and the political parties, promoting partisan opinions. Most have never read their own Constitution or the writings of their founders, or this work of Plato on justice, though some have even owned universities. Some have used universities to defraud the elderly, while teaching such topics as real estate scams for profit, calling this virtue and knowledge, provided it is accompanied by good fortune, or luck. And they honor the gambler if he wins or cheats and gets away with cheating, not to mention other ways of making money regardless or law or ethics. And this they call “education.” They hold to the strangest standards of merit regarding rule, such as wealth, good lineage of ancestry, management ability, concern for the many and ability to bring gifts and pleasure, all of which are at best partial.

…Besides this, they claim it isn’t even teachable, and are ready to cut to death the man who says it is teachable…

This is not an exaggeration. Nothing is more common or more comforting than the teaching such as relativism, that there is no knowledge regarding justice or what is right to do, let alone what is right for man or the best way of life and the hierarchy of ends according to nature that is the basis of the right priorities. Socrates was put to death in a case of judicial murder, as told in another of those greatest books, Plato’s Apology. He describes this elsewhere as being like the trial of a doctor by a pastry chef before a jury of children.

…And they are always crowded around the shipowner himself, begging and doing everything so that he’ll turn the rudder over to them. And sometimes, if they fail at persuasion and other men succeed at it, they either kill the others or throw them out of the ship. Enchaining the noble shipowner with mandrake, drink, or something else,…

We have just suffered a very strange Oxy or opioid epidemic, which quite suspiciously has prepared our nation for the subversion of our constitution, and could not have been better devised to that end if it were a conspiracy, as it not only has made us unable to think so as to paralyze our ability to respond, it has fueled the heroin trade and organized crime with the money needed to further the enterprise of taking power.

…they rule the ship,, using what’s in it; drinking and feasting, they sail as such men would be thought likely to sail. Besides this, they praise and call “skilled sailor,” “pilot” and “knower of the ship’s business” the man who is clever at figuring out how they will get rule…

At a certain point about twenty years ago, political science became the study of elections and how to win elections, a sophistry or rhetoric like the subjection of the study of law to forensics, or how to win arguments, even making the weaker argument appear stronger, as promoted by our “adversarial” court system. This study of the campaign adviser took over politics, in part because, it was thought, one would then be employable, assuming this, an illiberal goal, was the end of all education. Those who think this way are indeed like materialists in discussions of metaphysics, as though they do not see the mystery of form at all, or those in politics who can only deliberate ad hominem, arguing that such a person or motive is not worthy of being not be heard. These do not have access to the starting of genuine education or deliberation, and so the resort is power.

…either by persuading or by forcing the shipowner, while the man who is not of this sort they blame as useless. They do not know that for the true pilot, it is necessary to pay careful attention to year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that’s proper to the art, if he’s really going to be skilled at ruling a ship. And they don’t suppose it’s possible to acquire the art and practice of how one can get hold of the helm whether the others wish it or not, and at the same time to acquire the pilot’s skill…

Knowledge and rule tend in opposite directions, which is part of the reason that wise rule, or the best regime, is for almost all practical purposes impossible. And as Prospero himself learns, rule requires a great deal of experience, as we have statesmen starting out in the states, while working at this, while necessarily neglecting what would be the necessary studies.

So with such things happening on the ships, don’t you believe that the true pilot will really be called a  stargazer, a prater and useless to them by those who sail on ships run like this…

   Shakespeare’s The Tempest opens with a ship in a storm, and there one sees the legitimate king subjected by the pilot and boatswain in a futile attempt to avoid disaster.

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