What does it take to wield political authority effectively? Plato used a powerful allegory, often called the “Ship of Fools,” to justify his answer to this question, This article begins with a discussion of the purpose behind the allegory, before moving on to set the allegory out in detail. We will also explore Plato’s political theory more broadly, along with some of the possible objections to the conception of politics which Plato conveys using the “Ship of Fools”.
The Ship of Fools: Plato’s Political Allegory
The Ship of Fools is an allegory we find in Plato’s most famous dialogue, The Republic. In The Republic, Plato attempts to describe his ideal city and to explain some of the values which inform his conception of this city.
The Ship of Fools goes a long way to encapsulate some of the central presuppositions Plato makes in the construction of his theory of politics. It offers an exemplification of the basic urges which, Plato thinks, overwhelm those states in which the masses (or even a limited subset thereof) are given too great an opportunity to exert influence on affairs of state. It is a powerful, although evidently debatable, defense of the value of expertise as set against one’s talent for acquiring power as a mark of competent leadership.
The allegory goes as follows. Plato asks us to imagine that there is a ship in which each member of the crew is continually vying for the helm. The captain is himself not much good as a pilot. Loyalty among the mutinous crew is determined sheerly in terms of self-interest. When the crew does take command of the ship, they use up the supplies liberally and fail to prosecute the most basic elements of good seamanship. The allegory ends with Plato observing that, on such a ship, one who wanted to focus not on his own personal gain, but on implementing the various practices which would, in fact, allow the ship to function smoothly, would be seen as perverse and feckless by his crewmates.
Plato’s Anti-Democratic Politics
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Plato’s theory of politics is as oft-recited as it is misunderstood. In particular, being a theory that relies on the total, undemocratic authority of the state, the thrust of Plato’s theory – the purpose behind it – is indelibly marked by the dismal failure of various totalitarian experiments in the 20th century, and the continued damage done by such governments today.
Plato’s system is a system of totalizing politics. It sees the state as intrinsically linked to the construction of society. Equally, Plato was – clearly – not a democrat. He thought Athenian democracy was dysfunctional. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasizing how far elements of Plato’s thought have some plausible application (if only an interpretative application) to ways of doing politics that are more democratic and more liberal.
Few, if any, modern states even attempt to prosecute most of their functions with wholly elected officials. In most Western countries, the number of civil servants and advisers, who are unelected and chosen above all for their expertise, vastly outnumber the elected politicians. And indeed, the emphasis on expertise in public office is certainly one of the central elements of Plato’s political theory, which we have adopted thoroughly.
Politics and Metaphysics
Equally, the right of the state to constitute social environments is far more common than even Plato might have expected. It is now the state which undertakes the education of most children, and regulates everything from best agricultural practices to the repayment of private loans. The bureaucratic architecture of the modern state is as ambitious, baroque, and extensive as Plato might have wished for.
None of this is to say that Plato’s vision is not at odds with Western, liberal-democratic politics. Constitutional democracies are often bound to use the state in ways that protect various individual rights and liberties. The power of the state is used against itself. Undoubtedly, the present system of government in China more keenly reflects Plato’s vision of good government, and few would argue that the differences between the Western and Chinese models are superficial or minimal.
The Republic is where Plato’s theory of government is elaborated, but it is also where we find one of the most extensive treatments of his Theory of the Forms, which is (among much else) an attempt to characterize reality itself and how we can come to know it. This is a sophisticated and exceptionally difficult theory of reality that would require too much space to be explained thoroughly. What is worth emphasizing for our purposes is that it is a theory that stresses a strict separation between how things appear and how they really are. Moreover, the theory holds that the ability to appreciate and understand things as they really require specialist understanding: philosophical expertise. It is not possible to simply intuit how things are.
A Political Education
By the same token, it is not possible for the uneducated, the poorly prepared, to make good political decisions. Indeed, some degree of education won’t be sufficient. The kind of education Plato thinks is necessary in order for one to demonstrate good political judgment is highly selective. This is, in effect, also an argument against democracy: why allow those with a weak grasp of political reality any political authority?
There are many plausible objections to Plato. One can, of course, simply deny the system of values implicit in Plato’s theory. One can, in other words, deny that the most effective government is of necessity what we should desire above all others. Equally, it is possible to suggest that Plato has misconstrued the skills required to govern effectively. Expertise as such matters very little when it is wielded by those motivated by self-interest or malice rather than a sense of civic duty.
Yet at the same, it is far from clear that democracies are especially good at preventing these figures from finding their way into office. Indeed, Plato might reply, without the requisite understanding of political issues, how is one to identify self-interest or malice correctly? It seems that one is bound to hold that the relevant political understanding – at least that required of the voter – is not, contra Plato, extremely sophisticated.
Voters and Experts
Perhaps this general claim could be put more specifically, and elaborately, in the following way. For any one person to know exactly how the state should be run, it would require extensive education, training, and specialist knowledge. Few people can claim such expertise.
However, what we are asking of a voter, or one who participates in the political process without actually acquiring a position of responsibility, is far less ambitious. In fact, one might argue that what we want from a voter above all is not their judgment on political matters from a neutral perspective, but from their perspective above all. That is, we might think of democracy as an invaluable process of aggregating information. Perhaps all we are really asking is for people to make a judgment about whether or not their lives have improved since the last time they were asked.
There are, of course, a number of straightforward objections both to this as a way of conceptualizing the value of democracy, and of the value of this information outright. We might well, for instance, argue that this information represents only a snapshot of a dynamic system, and is, therefore, almost intrinsically misrepresentative. We might, especially if we agree with Plato’s characterization of the nature of the uneducated masses in the Ship of Fools allegory, similarly suspect that the answer people will give to the question of whether or not their lives have improved will be determined on petty criteria, rather than a more holistic or sophisticated sense of what constitutes improvement.
The Ship of Fools and Political Knowledge
Clearly, the defense of democracy given above is but one plausible defense and does not represent all that matters about democracy. However, we might hold that this particular defense of democracy goes some way towards explaining what is wrong with the conception of political knowledge implied by the ‘Ship of Fools’ allegory. In particular, we might wish to suggest that certain elements of political expertise are not like certain other forms of knowledge, for which our model of the most knowledgeable possible entity is a single individual, who is both naturally intelligent and well-educated.
Perhaps the model we should draw on instead is more collaborative, akin to the way in which scientists do their work than the philosopher does his. That isn’t to say a more “scientific” approach to government is what’s needed in other contexts, but it is to suggest that Plato’s emphasis on the ideal ruler elides the question of whether political leadership is, by necessity, a solitary endeavor.