Plato’s Parable of the Ship

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Sailing ship
Sailing ship,
originally uploaded by pedrosimoes7.

Long ago, Socrates knew that nations (like souls, to which he compares them) are not very well-ordered: few citizens do what they are best suited for, everyone wants to interfere with everything, and only buffoons are typically in charge. In Republic, Socrates narrates a wonderful parable to demonstrate his point.

“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew…. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering – everyone is of the opinion that he has the right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation…and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces anyone who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard…. [Finally, having put the noble captain out of commission] with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship….”

After this, the sailors “make free with the [ship’s] stores”, and “eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as may be expected of them.” They love and compliment whoever approves of their behavior, and accuse all others of being fools and good-for-nothings – including of course, the captain.

Sounds familiar. Of course, if Socrates is correct, this is also the condition of our souls: The rightful authority has been narcotized, the staff has mutinied and is running amok, and the elements of wisdom and conscience are belittled, ignored, or even destroyed.