In this paper we will discuss the various aspects of the ship-city analogy as depicted in Plato’s Republic. It is important to understand first why it is that Plato brings up this analogy to begin with. Plato sets forth the responsibility that the philosopher should have to his or her society. We will examine two passages in particular from the Republic, namely, 488a-489a and 519c-521b, to see what these responsibilities consist in. In a society riddled with the evils of vicious people and unscrupulous leaders, it is the task of a true philosopher to rule the society so that it ascents to the good and to the benefit of all.
Plato asserts that evil will not end until philosophers rule in them, but why should philosophers rule if they are seen as being merely useless? At this point of the dialogue the answer is explained by use of the ship-city analogy.
In the simile we are told to see “that the ships resemble cities and their attitude to the true philosophers” [489a]. The simile begins with the story of a ship owner who is more powerful than the rest on board but that is deficient in certain areas. The sailors in the ship attack one another as they strive to convince and compel the ship owner to give them the responsibility of “navigating the ship”. They all claim that navigating the ship is an “un-teachable” craft, and will exact punishment to anyone who claims otherwise. Of course, it is the philosopher who claims that the craft is teachable and can be mastered. However, everyone in the ship, that is, everyone the city, will view the true captain, that is, the philosopher, as nothing more than a “real stargazer, a babbler, and a good-for-nothing” [488e]. Thus it is the responsibility of the philosopher to navigate the ship having mastered the craft of navigating and ruling.
Once the philosopher ascents to the good, Socrates thinks they shouldn’t be allowed to “refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors” [519d3-5]. At this point Glaucon interjects by inquiring whether an injustice is being done against the philosopher who can be living a better life outside of the cave [519d6]. Socrates then responds surprisingly by saying that the polis’ objective does not aim to privilege any one class, not even its elite, rather, it aims to achieve a harmony amongst the different classes by “spreading happiness” all throughout the polis. If Socrates thought that it would be to the best interest of the philosopher to return to the cave, it is a bit surprising why he didn’t respond in a direct manner to Glaucon’s observation. Rather, the first thing to come out of Socrates’ mouth is the concern of the well being of the polis and not the individual. Socrates then claims “the law produces such people (true philosophers) in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the city together” [520a]. Clearly Socrates doesn’t treat these ruling philosophers as free agents, allowing them to do whatever they want; instead he seeks to exploit their wisdom as a practical tool for the benefit of the polis. This seems to be in direct conflict with the idea that exercising justice is to one’s best interest, since the philosopher is restricted to do as he pleases. Consequently, Socrates believes it is the true philosopher, or captain, who’s job is to steer the ship, or polis, to its most appropriate course.
In actual cities, they are not related in the way in which we just described the ship-city analogy. Socrates holds high praise for the true philosopher, the one who should be the leader of the polis and ship. Socrates thinks that an injustice is not being committed against the philosopher even though they are being compelled to rule. Part of his reasoning for this is simply that these potential philosopher kings have been educated and nurtured by the polis and that it would only be fair for the beneficiaries “to share the labors of the city” [520d]. Glaucon’s response to Socrates is that the philosopher’s ruling though a just requirement, is in fact compulsory, “for we’ll (the law) be giving just orders to just people (philosophers) ” [520e]. This seems to be a weak defense for arguing that simply because the law requires such and such and deems it just, that abiding to such a law, as fair as it may be, will be to one’s best interest. Socrates surprises us once more with the interesting remark that it’s a good thing that philosophers are the least eager to participate in politics, since it prevents any potential civil war.
Although Socrates makes some convincing connections regarding the ship analogy, there are certain aspects of the analogy that can be challenged. Firstly, he misses to make a crucial connection between the general population of the polis with the ship analogy. It seems to me that just as certain governors may become mutinous and regard the true philosopher as being useless, so it seems that the general population can also be connected with these “sailors”. Second, it seems that one can make a more convincing set of connection by creating a different analogy, insofar as the nature of politics and ruling applies. For example, we can compare the city to the dynamics that occur in a sport. In most sports, there is a team captain and the players. It is the team captain duty to direct how the game must be executed, and in this sense the team captain can be said to govern the players of the team. Rather than connecting the players of the team to governors who are constantly looking for ways to rebel against the team captain, as Plato’s ship analogy would have it, the team members will listen to the captain so long as they perceive the captain to be capable of the task at hand.
Ultimately, it is the sole responsibility of the philosopher to rule a city, or steer the ship, as he or she possesses the required knowledge and mastery in just such an art. The analogy is suppose to show that the people of the polis, much like the sailors, do not respect or display honor to the true philosopher who can best rule just like the way they would regard the captain as a useless good-for-nothing stargazer. Plato wants to show that the true philosopher would encounter great difficulty in ruling, simply because the present governors would not bestow any kind of honor to them, and in fact would claim that they are useless. Plato believes that the true ruler does should not have the need to beg those who are governed to be governed by him. But this seems to be how the city actually functions, namely, the sailors, i.e. the ill-equipped politicians, are the ones who try to convince others that they should be governing. Truth must be the captain Plato asserts, and truth can only be achieved through the wisdom and temperance of the true philosopher.
Plato. The Republic. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve