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Philosophy and Ships: Knowledge, Politics, and the Many in Plato’s Republic

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This paper will briefly considered one of Plato’s many images regarding knowledge and politics in the Republic. The image that this paper will focus on is of a sailing ship, which Plato introduces to discuss issues related to the knowledge of
  1 Presented at the Wright College Faculty Symposium, November 14, 2017 Title: Philosophy and Ships: Knowledge, Politics, and the Many in Plato’s  Republic ”  Author: Justin P. Holt Please cite as an unpublished manuscript. This paper will briefly considered one of Plato’s many images regarding knowledge  and politics in the  Republic . The dialogue contains numerous images of how our knowledge is related to politics. For example, almost the entirety of the  Republic  uses a thought experiment, the image of a city, to inquire about justice. The image that this paper will focus on is of a sailing ship, which Plato introduces to discuss issues related to the knowledge of politics and the problems that politics poses for the use and attainment of knowledge. At 472d the dialogue shifts, temporarily, away from the ideal image of a city and begins to focus on considering the political problems of actual cities. The ship image is introduced by Plato as an introduction to the discussion of politics and philosophy in actual cities. Plato’s images  are used to demonstrate analogous reasoning, which is common to his argumentative style. Analogous reasoning utilizes the commonalities between two, sometimes quite diverse, objects to draw conclusions. Analogous reasoning is commonplace in medical diagnosis. For example, given that you have a set of symptoms this information is utilized by  2 physicians to induce that you have an aliment where these symptoms are usual. The use of the city image, as a larger version of a person, is also an analogous argument by Plato. The ship image is used by Plato to compare two objects and to show the problems that are related to knowledge and politics. The first object is the image of a ship where the characteristics that are relevant are the owner of the ship, sailors, pilots, and the kinds of skills and knowledge that are used onboard the vessel. The second object is a city where the relevant characteristics are the citizens, sophists-politicians, philosophers, and the kinds of skills and knowledge used to rule a city. Here is Plato’s description of the ship image , Socrates is the one who is speaking: “C onceive something of this kind happening either on many ships or one. Though the shipowner surpasses everyone on board in height and strength, he is rather deaf and likewise somewhat shortsighted, and his knowledge of seamanship is pretty much on the same level. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the piloting, each supposing he ought to pilot, although he has never learned the art and can’t produce his teacher or prove there was a time when he was learning it . …  And they are always crowded around the shipowner himself, begging and doing everything so that he’ll turn the rudder over to them. And sometimes, if they fail at persuasion and other men succeed at it, they either kill the others or throw them out of the ship. Enchaining the noble shipowner with mandrake, drink, or something else, they rule the ship, using what’s in it;  drinking and feasting, they sail as such men would be thought likely to sail. Besides this, they praise and call ‘skilled sailor,’ ‘pilot,’ and ‘knower of the ship’s business’ the man who is clever at figuring out how they will get the rule, either by persuading or by forcing the  3 shipowner, while the man who is not of this sort they blame as useless. They don’t know that for the true pilot it is necessary to pay careful attention to year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that’s proper to the art, if he is really going to be skilled at ruling a ship. … So with such things happening on the ships, don’t you believe that the true pilot will really be called a stargazer, a prater and useless to them by those who sail on ships run like this?” “Indeed, he will,” said Adeimantus.   “Now,” I said, “I don’t suppose you need to scrutinize the image to see that it resembles the cities in their disposition toward the true philosophers, but you understand what I mean. ” (Plato, 488a-489a) Each of the characteristics of the ship represents corresponding characteristics in a city. The shipowner represents what Plato calls the multitude or the many. This is the great mass of people who reside in a city who are not rulers. The sailors represent sophists, who Plato understands as teachers of persuasion. In this section of the book sophist are also politicians. The true pilot represents the philosopher. The relationship between knowledge and politics (that the ship image conveys) is that actual politics in not about true knowledge of good rulership. Rather actual politics is about manipulating or forcing the many into accepting the sophists as rulers. There is thus a distinction between the skills sophists have and the skill of rulership. Sophists are adept at convincing people that they have knowledge of rulership, but, in actuality, sophists do not know how to rule a city. This means that what is commonly understood as politics is not the determination of who will be the best ruler. Rather politics is the persuasion of the many. The many can be persuaded  4 because they do not have a grasp of what constitutes rulership. In contradistinction, Plato argues that philosophers have true knowledge of rulership and this knowledge is analogous to the abilities of navigators to steer by star, tide, and season. The skills of rulership that philosophers possess are neither understood nor recognized by the many. As noted in the ship image, rulership by those who do not possess true knowledge results in haphazard and dangerous outcomes. Since the many can be persuaded, one may ask, why do the philosophers not persuade them that they are the best rulers? It appears that it is beneath philosophers to persuade the many that they should rule (489b). Also, So crates’ comment to Adeimantus on the abilities of the many shows Plato’ s opinion on topic: “Then it’s impossible,” I said, “that a multitude be philosophic.”   “Yes, it is impossible.” (Plato, 494a)  This statement by Plato that the many cannot be philosophic is the most important comment on the matter of knowledge and politics in this section. The intention of Plato in this section is to show that the practice of politics is obfuscation, the manipulation of opinion, and the use of force by sophists. The apparent purpose of the dialogue, given its recommendations concerning the best life and the interests of Socrates’ interlocutors, focuses the reader’s attentions on the undesirability of politics as a choice of the best life. As people who live in an age where democracy is commonly considered the only legitimate form of governance, it is shocking to consider that knowledge of true rulership, and an inability to identify people who possess knowledge of true rulership, will escape the vast  5 majority of us. Due to such an undesirable conclusion, Plato’s assertion that the many cannot become philosophic requires deeper scrutiny. The place to begin is to consider the srcin of Plato’s claim that the many cannot gain knowledge of rulership or the ability to discern those who claim to have this knowledge. Plato provides what is called the specialization thesis where the best results are because people practice one art or skill. Socrates is asking Adeimantus the question: “And, what about this? Who would do a finer job, one man practicing many arts, or on e man o ne art?”   “One man, one art,” he said. (Plato, 370b)  If the exclusion of the many from rulership is to be avoided, then the specialization thesis needs to be demonstrated as untrue within the context of politics. The specialization thesis appeals to our common sense, given our everyday acquaintance with the superior workmanship of professionals. Since we can identify finely produced products and services, this leads one to realize that Plato may be wrong about the inability of the many to at least identify good rulership. Non-navigators can readily understand that particular goals signify good navigation, such as speed of travel and safe arrival. We commonly identify many goals that can be associated with good rulership, such as the provision of safety, the availability of employment, and protection of the freedom of conscience. Thus, it seems that Plato is incorrect that the many cannot truly recognize good governance, even if they are non-specialists. This paper has shown that Plato’s consideration that the multitude cannot be philosophic, that is the ability to discern good from bad rulership, is mistaken. In particular, our own ability to
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