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In book VI of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates strives to explain why philosophers are the subjects of scorn and hostility in ordinary cities. To illustrate these unjustified but understandable reasons, Socrates uses the image of the ship of state. On the ship the philosopher is represented as a stargazer, the man with the knowledge necessary for navigation. Despite his knowledge, he is incapable of becoming helmsman of the ship as he does not partake in vying for the favor of the shipowner. This tension, among others, reveals both the reasons for the marginalization of philosophers and the repercussions of the absence of them and their knowledge. Overall, the ship of state image illuminates the rift between philosophers, rulers, and the ruled as well as the consequences of that separation.

The ship of state metaphor as used by Plato in book VI revolves around a shipowner, sailors, and the true helmsman. The sailors “are divided against one another”, and vy for the attention and favor of the shipowner who is “a little deaf and… somewhat shortsighted” as well as lacking in complete “knowledge of seafaring skills” (VI.488b). These competitive efforts are aimed at convincing the shipowner “to turn over the helm to them”, a position that would put the winning sailor in control of the ship’s steering (VI.488c). The helmsman in the “true sense”, however, stands apart from these sailors and their competition (VI.489a). Socrates identifies him as the man who stands to the side and keeps his gaze fixed on the sky to monitor the “times and seasons” as well as the “stars and winds” (VI.488d). He is the true helmsman because he is the individual with the knowledge necessary to steer the ship, knowledge that he has gained through his studying of the sky (VI.488d). Despite being the individual most suited to the art of helmsmaning and navigation, this individual will never become the helmsman of the ship  because he is unconcerned and uninvolved with both the other sailors and their competition.

This is the tension that Socrates is attempting to highlight in the Ship of State metaphor – the individual most suited to and knowledgeable about navigating the ship is the least likely to enter into the position of helmsman. Furthermore, the activity that makes him singularly suited to being helmsman of the ship is also what guarantees that he will not be. It is because he spends his time studying the weather patterns and movements of the stars that he does not participate in the competition among the other sailors by “using either persuasion or force on the shipowner” (VI.488d). As such, his studies directly impede his chance of becoming helmsman. If he were to enter the fray, he would likely be entirely incompetent at the competition as he has no experience with the skills needed. This is another pointed issue raised by the metaphor. The skills needed to become helmsman of the ship are entirely distinct from those needed to steer the ship. Due to the nature of becoming a helmsman, the skill the sailors endeavor to perfect is the skill of gaining control of the helm, namely “begging” and manipulating the shipowner, even going so far as to use “mandrake or liquor” to incapacitate him in their favor (VI.488c). These are hardly skills that contribute in any way to the navigation of the ship or that qualify an individual to be a guide and leader of his peers.

The metaphor  of the ship to politics in a democracy is very apt, then, as this competition between fellows and begging and manipulation of the ruled in order to be elected to a position of political power is necessary. The qualification of being elected is not political skill or knowledge but electability. Prospective politicians must use their time and focus their dedication on learning what is necessary to become elected and then implementing those techniques. To an extent, this is entirely incompatible with committing the necessary time to learning “everything pertaining to the art” of being a good and “skilled ruler” (VI.488d). A further issue is the drastic measures highlighted in the Ship of State metaphor. The sailors manipulate and maneuver the shipowner, the ruled in a city, and these unscrupulous measures combined with the time and energy needed for the competition indicate that the sailors have an immense desire to acquire power given that the process is so difficult and even corrupt. As such, if the desire to acquire power is so prominent, it is likely that that desire overshadows any desire to serve as a good helmsman to the ship and leader to the sailors. Instead, when they acquire this power “they rule the ship and make use of what’s in it” for themselves, sailing not for the good of the ship or the shipowner but for their own enjoyment and benefit (VI.488c). Effectively, both the skills and desires of the sailors are incompatible with what is necessary to be a good ruler.

If the requirement of being the true helmsman is to look vertically, it is necessary that he abstain from looking horizontally at the sailors. As such, the truer the helmsman is the less opportunity he has to actually implement his knowledge, and it is perhaps a necessary condition of the truest helmsman that he not desire to be the helmsman at all. If so, in some bizarre sense it seems that none of the individuals in the Ship of State metaphor are at all interested in steering the ship. The sailors only want to gain power, and the true helmsman only wants to study the heavens. Moreover, the possibility of change seems unlikely. The true helmsmen is both out of the competition and mocked by the other sailors for being “a stargazer and a windbag and useless” as the other sailors do not view observation of weather and stars as a viable qualification for being helmsman. Additionally, the sailors are incapable of changing and learning the art of steering simply because “they claim it’s not even teachable, and they’re ready to cut someone to pieces for even saying it is” (VI.489a, VI.488b-c).

If the ship were an ideal one, the squabbling sailors would notice the true helmsman standing away from them, and decide to use his guidance and expertise to sail their way home. However, this is thoroughly unlikely, and in an actual city the state of these true helmsmen would be perhaps even worse than simply being ignored and “[reviled] … as useless” (VI.488d). The philosopher, the true helmsman, in the city not only “keeps quiet” and “minds his own business”, the early definition of justice, but he also must take shelter (VI.496d). The image provided by Socrates is that of a “storm”, with the philosopher taking shelter from “dust and spray” by protecting himself behind “the shelter of a little wall” (VI.496d, VI.496d). This image of the philosopher characterizes his separation from the city and politics as being motivated not just by an incompatibility between studying the universal and the particular or by being deemed useless, but also because “he’d get himself killed” (VI.496d). Such a blatant reference to violence towards the philosopher is absent from the ship of state metaphor, but it’s inclusion later on in book six is nevertheless important in understanding the tension between politics and philosophy. Moreover, this is a radical departure from the city in speech. In one the philosophers “rule as kings in their cities”, and in the other they are forced to take cover (V.473d).

Overall, what the image seems to call for is an integration of philosophy into politics. The philosopher is needed to explain the relationship between what doesn’t change and what does, between being and becoming. Only the philosopher, who has studied the universal and transcendent looks of things such as justice and goodness, is capable of identifying those things when “they make their appearance everywhere in common with actions and bodies and one another” and “[appear] as many” (V.476a). The only way to identify a course, action, or direction as virtuous is to understand the way in which particular things are related to the unchanging realities of those virtues, and how those unchanging realities are expressed. As such, it is up to the one who is a “lover of the sight of the truth” and who has studied unwaveringly those things that are above and beyond the world of becoming, much as the true helmsman studies “the sky and the stars” above and beyond the activities and concerns of his fellow sailors (V.475e, VI.488d).

The question arises, however, if this is at all possible. The proposed solution is, of course, to have rulers be as philosophers or to have philosophers be rulers, but this too seems to be problematic in its own manner. On the ship philosophers are characterized by their unwavering gaze fixed on the sky, and earlier in the Republic a true philosopher are described as one who “goes toward learning gladly and in an insatiable spirit” and is a “desirer of wisdom” (V.475c, V.475b). To become involved in the political arena of the city would necessarily be a departure from these things. The rulers or guardians of the city in speech would have to keep their focus on the citizens and their activities, not on the studying the good in order to fulfill their function as preserving and protecting the city. Wisdom would still be important to the guardians, but it is not the truth that they are to love; instead, they are to maintain “their opinion that they ought to do what’s best for the city” (III.412e). As such, wisdom for the rulers seems to be a goal to obtain a specific true opinion, not an active and enduring love of learning and seeking the truth. The rulers would certainly be wise and ruled by wisdom, but they would not be lovers of wisdom in the truest sense.

Socrates sets up the ship of state image to explain why the role of philosophers is so disparaged and misunderstood within the city. The errors and misunderstandings behind this are elucidated, yet the tension of how philosophers could ever be involved in the political activity still remains. While becoming rulers may allow philosophers to serve in and guide the city, it is not clear if there is any room in the city for true philosophy. When serving as king or queen the role of the philosopher is preservation, not questioning or examining, a far cry from the conception of the true philosopher, from Socrates himself, and from the stargazer aboard the ship. It is that image on which the ship of state metaphor concludes, the image and affirmation of the real philosopher as an individual driven by a love that can only be fulfilled by communion with true being.

 

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