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Socrates criticizes Democracy

Plato, The Republic, Book 6

Given that only philosophers can have knowledge, they are clearly the ones best able to grasp what
is good for the city, and so are in the best position to know how to run and govern the city. If we
only knew that they were virtuousor at least not inferior to others in virtuethen, Socratess
friends agree, we could be sure that they are the ones most fit to rule. Luckily, we do know that
philosophers are superior in virtue to everyone else. A philosopher loves truth more than anything
else (philosopher means lover of truth or wisdom); his entire soul strives after truth. This
means that the rational part of his soul must rule, which means that his soul is just.

Adeimantus remains unconvinced. None of the philosophers he has ever known have been like
Socrates is describing. Most philosophers are useless, and those that are not useless tend to be
vicious. Socrates, surprisingly, agrees with Adeimantuss condemnation of the contemporary
philosopher, but he argues that the current crop of philosophers have not been raised in the right
way. Men born with the philosophical naturecourageous, high-minded, quick learners, with
faculties of memoryare quickly preyed upon by family and friends, who hope to benefit from their
natural gifts. They are encouraged to enter politics in order to win money and power by their
parasitic family and friends. So they are inevitably led away from the philosophical life. In place of
the natural philosophers who are diverted away from philosophy and corrupted, other people who
lack the right philosophical nature, rush in to fill the gap and become philosophers when they have
no right to be. These people are vicious.

The few who are good philosophers (those whose natures were somehow not corrupted, either
because they were in exile, lived in a small city, were in bad health, or by some other circumstance)
are considered useless because society has become antithetical to correct ideals. He compares the
situation to a ship on which the ship owner is hard of hearing, has poor vision, and lacks sea-faring
skills. All of the sailors on the ship quarrel over who should be captain, though they know nothing
about navigation. In lieu of any skill, they make use of brute force and clever tricks to get the ship
owner to choose them as captain. Whoever is successful at persuading the ship owner to choose
him is called a navigator, a captain, and one who knows ships. Anyone else is called
useless. These sailors have no idea that there is a craft of navigation, or any knowledge to
master in order to steer ships. In this scenario, Socrates points out, the true captainthe man who
knows the craft of navigationwould be called a useless stargazer. The current situation in Athens
is analogous: no one has any idea that there is real knowledge to be had, a craft to living. Instead,
everyone tries to get ahead by clever, often unjust, tricks. Those few good philosophers who turn
their sights toward the Forms and truly know things are deemed useless.

All that we need to make our city possible, Socrates concludes, is one such philosopher-kingone
person with the right nature who is educated in the right way and comes to grasp the Forms. This,
he believes, is not all that impossible.
Conceive this sort of thing happening either on many ships or on one: Picture a shipmaster in
height and strength surpassing all others on the ship, [488b] but who is slightly deaf and of
similarly impaired vision, and whose knowledge of navigation is on a par with his sight and
hearing. Conceive the sailors to be wrangling with one another for control of the helm, each
5 claiming that it is his right to steer though he has never learned the art and cannot point out his
teacher or any time when he studied it. And what is more, they affirm that it cannot be taught at
all, but they are ready to make mincemeat of anyone who says that it can be taught, [488c] and
meanwhile they are always clustered about the shipmaster importuning him and sticking at
nothing to induce him to turn over the helm to them. And sometimes, if they fail and others get his
10 ear, they put the others to death or cast them out from the ship, and then, after binding and
stupefying the worthy shipmaster with mandragora or intoxication or otherwise, they take command
of the ship, consume its stores and, drinking and feasting, make such a voyage of it as is to be
expected from such, and as if that were not enough, they praise and celebrate as a navigator, [488d]
a pilot, a master of shipcraft, the man who is most cunning to lend a hand in persuading or
15 constraining the shipmaster to let them rule, while the man who lacks this craft they censure as
useless. They have no suspicions that the true pilot must give his attention to the time of the year,
the seasons, the sky, the winds, the stars, and all that pertains to his art if he is to be a true ruler of a
ship, and that he does not believe that there is any art or science of seizing the helm [488e] with or
without the consent of others, or any possibility of mastering this alleged art and the practice of it at
20 the same time with the science of navigation. With such goings-on aboard ship do you not think
that the real pilot would in very deed be called a star-gazer, an idle babbler, a useless fellow, by the
sailors in ships managed after this fashion? Quite so, said Adeimantus. You take my meaning, I
presume, and do not require us to put the comparison to the proof and show that the condition we
have described is the exact counterpart of the relation of the state to the true philosophers. It is
25 indeed, he said. To begin with, then, teach this parable to the man who is surprised that
philosophers are not honored in our cities, and try to convince him that it would be far more
surprising [489b] if they were honored. I will teach him, he said. And say to him further: You
are right in affirming that the finest spirit among the philosophers are of no service to the multitude.
But bid him blame for this uselessness, not the finer spirits, but those who do not know how to
30 make use of them. For it is not the natural course of things that the pilot should beg the sailors to be
ruled by him or that wise men should go to the doors of the rich.