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The True Pilot

In book 6 of The Republic, the components of a true philosopher are established. A philosopher can be either a man or a woman and is basically described as a perfect human being. He or she is “by nature a rememberer, a good learner, magnificent, charming, and friend and a kinsman of truth justice, courage, and moderation” (6.487a). One could easily conclude that a man or woman who possesses all these positive qualities would make a great ruler, undisputed by the people. However, when further evaluating the philosopher’s ability to successfully rule a city, flaws surface. Through the image of the ship, one can see that sometimes the most qualified leader is not always the preferred choice.
Socrates decides to demonstrate the problems that arise with philosopher kings to Adeimantus, who is confused as to whether the philosophers are useless or beneficial to a city. Adeimantus is reluctant to listen to Socrates’ description of an image, drawing a contrast between the values of sight vs. hearing, but agrees to consider the ship. Socrates dedicates the image to “decent men” who are also “greedy for images”(6.488a) alluding to one’s need to picture situations as a type of handicap men use when they cannot grasp a concept simply with the use of words alone. To create this image, Socrates must pull information and experiences from many sources. He likens this need to painters painting goatstags and other things that synthesize multiple forms into one.
Socrates’ image begins with the introduction of the shipowner who is described as deaf, shortsighted and lacking in knowledge of seamanship. Right away, one can see the parallel of the shipowner to common citizens in a city, specifically in a democracy, that are in need of someone to guide them. The shipowner is flippant and readily gives control of the rudder to those who can persuade him either by words or force. He is healthy and able to perform tasks within his means, but does not posses the skills to pilot his ship. He accepts his role of inferiority to the sailors, who believe themselves just as qualified as the next to pilot the ship.
The sailors’ only concern is who can gain control of the ship and each vies to be in command. One can see many similarities between the sailors and politicians. Their actions are ruled by their opinions; they do not and cannot understand that the art of piloting is a skill that must be learned. The sailors believe that the “true pilot” is “the man who is clever at figuring out how they will get the rule” (6.488d). They praise this man, and for a short time obey and respect him, until he can be overpowered or outmaneuvered by another.
Socrates lists the requirements of a true pilot, the character most like a philosopher, “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 is really going to be skilled at ruling a ship” (6.488d). However, the sailors of the ship disregard the true pilot as a stargazer and do not give him any attention or authority on the ship; he is considered useless.
Socrates rationalizes their behavior by pointing out that it is unnatural for the other sailors of the ship to view the true pilot as a ruler. This is because the sailors do not feel they need a navigator, their obedience follows the man who can gain control of the ship. Socrates equates this tendency to that of a sick man,
The truth naturally is that it is necessary for a man who is sick, whether rich or poor, to go to the doors of doctors, and every man who needs to be ruled to the doors of the man who is able to rule, not for the ruler who is truly of any use to beg the ruled to be ruled (6.489b).
A true pilot is too busy navigating to worry about commanding the ship. A philosopher is too concerned with knowledge to worry about ruling a city. Both are encompassed in their own wisdom and have no desire to worry about others’ opinions.
Through the image of the ship, Socrates leads Adeimantus to the realization that it is not necessarily the philosopher’s fault he is not able to successfully rule. Rather, the blame should be placed on the city’s “disposition toward the true philosophers” (489a). Therefore, the uselessness should be associated with the many, not the philosophers. If a multitude had the ability to be philosophic, one could argue that the sailors would convince the shipowner to give the rudder to the true pilot. Unfortunately, this will never be the case and as a result, not only will the true pilot never gain control of the ship, but he will also become a source of blame for the sailors to cast their failures on.

20 Responses to “The True Pilot”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Some good thoughts here. A lot of what I have to say about this I have already mentioned in class, in one form or another, but some points bear a bit more reflection.

    I think you are right to suggest that the sailors on the ship are not going to see stargazing as a viable reason to steer the ship. From their perspective, nothing looks less related to ruling that looking at the stars. But of course the point, as you rightly point out, is that sailing the ship well actually requires examining the stars and things like that. So one important issue is simply that the city will never appreciate philosophy properly; it will be seen as vicious or useless. But that isn’t the philosopher’s fault, as Socrates reminds us.

    Another problem is how exactly to convince the owner of the ship to relinquish the tiller. I think you are right to say that the philosophers have no desire to steer the ship (i.e., rule). However, remember that Socrates says that we aren’t going to allow them to pursue their private desires utterly (in the Cave image); we will have to compel the philosophers to come back into the cave and rule. So somehow, if we try to fit the ship and the cave images together, we have to persuade the people to allow the philosopher to rule AND we have to compel the philosopher to rule at all. These seem like two distinct tasks, unless persuasion is in fact a form of compulsion in the end.

    It seems to me that the Cave problematizes the Ship image instead of clarifying it. Socrates suggests that, when the philosophers return to the Cave and upon adjusting to the darkness again, they will be superior to everyone else when it comes to differentiating the shadows. (We don’t seem to be given much argument for this claim, and it is far from self-evident.) At any rate, thinking about the ship, what would this mean? Clearly astronomy will help navigation, but navigation can’t be the analogue for examining shadows in the cave, can it? Examining shadows isn’t ruling/navigating. So it’s pretty unclear to me how these images fit together (assuming they are meant to, although I think that’s a reasonable assumption).

    Re: your final point–it does seem like it would never be the case. And yet Socrates insists repeatedly that these things are possible in principle, at least, doesn’t he? So is there a reason to be more optimistic?

    KH

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