One of the most famous illustrations of Plato’s defence of philosophy is to be found in the section of The Republic dedicated to the Allegory of the Ship (488a-489c) in which Socrates illustrates the negative attitude of his contemporaries towards the true philosopher. On board the ship are the captain, the crew, the leader of the crew and a character called the ‘true navigator’:

1) The captain is described as ‘larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship.’ [488a/b] This is, indeed, a strange description for a character symbolizing political authority and power. The captain may be physically imposing but he is actually vulnerable and not in total control of the ship. He may be associated with a weak democratic leader or an equally weak assembly of the people.

2)The crew is the very image of an erratic, never satisfied ‘demos’ or rabble, split into factions vying for control of the ship. Typically, none of them has the slightest understanding or knowledge of navigation and furthermore, ‘they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can.’ [488b] The crew spend their time plotting against the captain in their attempt to neutralize or dispose of him so that they can ‘help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect.’ [488c] Plato’s view of democracy as nothing more than a ‘drunken pleasure-cruise’ reflects the philosopher’s utter contempt for popular government and its catering for the lowest desires of humanity. Under democratic rule, the ship of state is sailing adrift with no clear destination in sight.

3) The leader of the crew is a politician who, making use of cunning manipulation (‘fraud’) or plain intimidation (‘force’), is capable of subduing the captain and take over the command of the ship without any prior knowledge of seamanship. He is, so to speak, ‘the man of the people’ who is praised by his supporters for his alleged natural qualities of leadership. He may, however, prove to be a demagogue who tells the crowds what they want to hear but may soon turn out to be a tyrant.

4) The true navigator is a lonely figure who does not get involved in the constant quarrels between the captain and his crew, preferring to study ‘the sky, the stars, the winds’, the very objects of knowledge first admired and then studied by the prisoner, once free from the Cave (of Ignorance). He is, of course, the only man on board who is fully qualified to take control of the ship and steer it in the right direction. Instead, he is turned into a figure of ridicule and is, for everyone, nothing more than ‘a word-spinner and a star gazer, of no use to them at all.’[489a] Such is the public image of the philosopher.

Parallels between Seamanship and Politics:

  • Seamanship / Politics
  • Knowledge of the Stars / Knowledge of the Forms
  • Captain / Democratic leader/ people in assembly
  • Divided Crew / People and politicians driven by self-interest
  • Leader of the crew / Unscrupulous, ruthless politician/Sophist
  • True navigator / The Philosopher