Outline Plato’s simile of the ship and two of its possible purposes (15 Marks) Plato’s simile of the ship is used as a retort to Adeimantus’ assertions that philosophers are “very odd birds, not to say thoroughly vicious”, and even their best qualities prove to be completely useless to society. In the simile, each feature represents an element of Athenian society. The ship itself represents the Athenian democratic state. The captain of the ship, who is large and strong, is also deaf and short-sighted, as he cannot what is good for society in the long run, thus represents the currently democratically elected ruler. The crew of the ship represent the politicians. They quarrel amongst themselves, with a desire to seize power of the captain. Alike political parties in the democratic state, they form factions. They will vie against one another, using various underhand means (such as alcohol and drugs)to try to manipulate the captain in order to overthrow him.
When the faction succeeds in seizing control, the cruise becomes a “drunken pleasure cruise” – what is ultimately good for the state is not a concern for the politicians. The navigator represents the true philosopher. He has the ability to bring the ship to its port through his knowledge of the star-maps, skies and the changing seasons (which represent the Forms). This represents the Philosophers ability to bring the state, and its people, to its ultimate destination through his knowledge of the Forms. However, Plato purports that even though the Navigator (philosopher) holds all the necessary knowledge, his voice is only lost and ignored.
One possible purpose of the Simile of the Ship is to further illustrate Plato’s views on the short-comings of democracy. Here, Plato is referring to the corrupt nature of Athens and the reality of democracy. Plato speaks of ways in which the current democracy in Athens is inequitable. Firstly, women and slaves were prohibited to vote. Secondly, 80 days per year, citizens of Athens would gather together in an Assembly where political and social issues were discussed, legal cases were proposed, and vote on decisions that would inevitably affect the state. However, there was only a specific criteria of people who would be able to attend such meetings – the young and the rich, as they were the only people who could afford to take time off to attend.
Thirdly, sophists, trained in the Arts of public speaking, were asked to deliver speeches. However, as they were only interested in wealth and power, they were somewhat easily bribed into speaking and voting in certain ways – subjecting themselves to popular opinion. The voters themselves were also often bribed, and in some cases, threatened. From this, we can infer that Assembly meetings were not ordered events, but instead chaotic and corrupt, with bribery, use of threat, and sophists “smooth-talking” their way to influence the voters decisions. The simile of the ship illustrates this through the crew members (representing the politicians) vying amongst one another to gain power, and alike the sophists, not having any interest in what is good for the state, but instead, just an egotistic interest in wealth and power.
Another personal purpose of the Simile of the Ship, following on from the first purpose, is to illustrate how true philosophers are ignored (alike the Navigator is ignored on the ship) or held in contempt in democratic society when they should be in charge. The Philosopher should be in charge, Plato purports, as the philosopher has true, justified knowledge of the state and also knowledge of the Forms (alike the Navigator who has true, justified knowledge of the ship and also knowledge of the stars, wind and sky representing the Forms). From this, Plato draws to the conclusion that the philosopher should have total control as the he is the only one with knowledge of the Forms, therefore knowledge of the Good.
It follows that he is the only one who could possible know what a just state is, what is good for the state and how citizens in this state should behave. However, Plato recognises that this could not happen in Athenian democracy as acclaim is given to the strongest and the most skilled in the art of arguing. He recognises that society does not understand the true value of the philosopher, which is why they are considered useless. In an already corrupt society, a philosopher’s training in philosophy, to seek truth, will not be able to withstand the constant pressure to do what people want, and will become corrupt by agreeing to popular opinion.