Plato and the Ship of State

Plato introduces the famous Ship of State simile (Rep. VI.488a7-489a6) to explain why true philosophers are not honored in cities. He claims that a true philosopher in a polis like Athens is like a skilled but disrespected steersman aboard a ship that has been high-jacked by its unruly crew and whose helm has been placed in the hands of a sailor who knows nothing about steering. If Plato regards a ship with an unruly crew and an incompetent steersman as a good image of Athenian democracy, then by extension he must regard a ship with an orderly crew and a competent steersman as a good image of a well-governed polis. These two parts of the simile, the high-jacked ship and the orderly ship, relate to each other as do the two parts of the more famous Cave simile, a fire-lit region inside a cave and a sun-lit region outside. In both similes the unusual or abnormal symbolizes the normal, and the normal in turn symbolizes the ideal. As a fire-lit region inside a cave symbolizes the sensible realm of ordinary objects (and their images), a high-jacked ship symbolizes Athenian democracy; and as a sunlit region outside a cave symbolizes the intelligible realm of Platonic Forms, a competently managed ship symbolizes Plato’s ideal polis. Just as the one simile encapsulates Plato’s metaphysics, the other encapsulates his political philosophy. The Ship of State simile differs from the Cave simile, however, in being not only an analogy, but an argument from analogy. So it is worth considering the important disanalogies between a competently managed ship and Plato’s ideal polis, of which there are at least two. The selection of a steersman and, once selected, the basis of his authority differ importantly from the selection of a true philosopher-king and the basis of his authority.

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