Is the Philosopher the best possible ruler? (Part 2 of the Allegory of the Ship)

In the Allegory of the Ship, Plato fails to raise some critical points regarding the aloof attitude adopted by his philosopher:

1) By choosing not to intervene in the various quarrels raging between the different popular factions, he is implicitly condoning any attempt to topple the captain of the ship and endanger the future of the crew itself. The philosopher’s silence underlines his rejection of the inevitable clashes taking place in democratic regimes. In fact, he seems totally detached from public affairs and does not seem prepared to have anything to do with them, if he can avoid it.

2) By sitting tight and refusing to put himself forward and propose his services to the crew, he is not making use of his philosophical skills and is letting dangerous men take control of the ship. By not drawing attention to himself, he is only reinforcing the prejudice shared by the crew that he is a ‘useless article’, lost in his star-gazing.

3) Plato does not consider the possible negative role that his philosopher may play in the unfolding drama taking place on the ship. Granting that his knowledge of seamanship is second to none does not, in the least, guarantee that he is the best judge of what the captain, the crew, or for that matter, the leader of the crew, actually wants to do, next. His knowledge of the sea, the stars and the winds refers to his ability to steer the ship as expertly and safely as possible. It can also be argued that his knowledge of what is best for everyone – that is, his knowledge of the Good – entails the best possible decision for everyone concerned. So, it would appear, after all, that the philosopher is not only the best judge of the overall political situation (where the ship should go, next) but also the most impartial and best qualified person to understand and alleviate the divisive passions at work on the ship.

The allegory of the ship tells us more about the chronic dysfunction of democratic rule than about the self-imposed isolation of the philosopher in a society seemingly at war with itself. Plato compares democratic Athens to a chaotic ship, sailing out of control into unchartered waters. Yet, it is the same democratic Athens which attracted the best thinkers and debaters of the Greek world and gave rise to the early Sophists and the generations of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy was born out of open discussions by men defending strong contrasting opinions on the nature of knowledge, ethics or politics. Plato’s Republic is itself a dialogue searching for the nature of Justice. In the allegory just discussed, the ‘true navigator’ prefers to remain silent than initiate a fruitful dialogue with the rest of the passengers, in the way Socrates has just engaged his friends into a philosophical discussion. There is little doubt that the silence of ‘the true navigator’ can easily be mistaken for a calculated aloofness which anticipates the total absence of dialogue between the Guardians and the population of the ideal state.

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