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 The 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.
Sound 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.
But where is the ‘Captain’ of the human soul? For Socrates and Plato, the ‘True Ruler’, that ought to be making decisions, would have to be that part of the mind which absolutely knows, beyond any mere opinion, the difference between good and evil − the part of our soul that is capable of unerringly discerning ‘the Good’. Does such a place exist? Plato thought so. He called this part of the soul Nous.
Nous is that special place in our intellect – beyond the confines of imagination, belief, and even reason – that arrives at knowledge by sudden, uncontradictable, insight. Such an insight (we have all had them) may follow in the wake of a long and painstaking period of questioning and pondering, or it may appear inexplicably out of the blue, but when it arrives it arrives in a flash. In general, these are rare and involuntary events, for this is a potential human faculty that usually lies dormant. But Socrates believed that it is possible for this faculty to become conscious and deliberate. In fact, ‘awakening Nous‘− not merely studying or thinking − is the highest task of anyone who wishes to perfect his or her soul. It is possible, even easy, to have a keen and clever mind, to know a great many facts, and to be filled with practical and theoretical knowledge, and yet to have no authentic Wisdom because one’s Nous (the “Eye of the Soul”) has never awakened. Such a soul is always like that ship whose captain has been narcotized, a ship which is either in a state of endless anarchy, or which has been taken over by one or another tyrannical usurper: some harsh or foolish passion, appetite, belief or prejudice, which ‘rules’ and ruins one’s life.
For Socrates, then, Wisdom is not about knowing many things or understanding difficult ideas. It is always and only about awakening one’s soul to wonder and insight.