Navigating the Modern World: Plato’s Ship of State

James Shields

Recently I have been reading Plato’s Republic, and I found the famous ship analogy in Book 6 particularly thought-provoking:

“Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and doesn’t know much about navigation. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they know no navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can.

They spend all their time milling round the captain and trying to get him to give them the wheel. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and behave as if they were on a drunken pleasure-cruise.

Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and other professional subjects, if he is to be really fit to control a ship; and they think that it’s quite impossible to acquire professional skill in navigation (quite apart from whether they want it exercised) and that there’s no such thing as an art of navigation. In these circumstances aren’t the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a gossip and a stargazer, of no use to them at all?” (Republic Book 6, 488a–489d)[1]

Democracies of today are distantly removed from that of Ancient Athens, yet can we really say that the flaws in our society that Plato illustrates in this analogy have changed? It’s true, democracies are much more inclusive today: while it was the case that any citizen had a vote in Ancient Athens, only a relatively small group of men were included under their definition of a citizen; also, measures are in place to limit the power of today’s politicians without the need for more extreme solutions such as ostracism (although the effectiveness of these measures is a discussion for another time…). All the same, in reading this analogy in 2022, I can’t help but sense something familiar in it. In some ways, it even seems more relevant.

Plato’s Academy, as depicted in a mosaic from the the House of T. Siminius Stephanus (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Today’s sailors may refrain from violence and murder, but they do still battle for the attention and praise of the captain. The sailor who scores the most points against the others gains the captain’s admiration. Those who are the best at this, and can subdue the captain with vague and empty promises to “Level Up”, or with idealistic claims of a society “For The Many, Not The Few,” are given the helm. They are even hailed by some as the great navigators of our time. Yet these statements do not bear any evidence of the wisdom or ability to command or navigate a vessel.

Those with that wisdom and knowledge are still sidelined or often ignored altogether; see, for example, the claim by the politician Michael Gove during the lead up to the UK’s Brexit referendum that “the people of this country have had enough of experts…”. Having spent their time studying the “seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and other professional subjects,” they have not had the time to develop rhetorical skills to match those of the other crew members.

Today this analogy may even go further. When the ship runs aground owing to the sailor’s inability to steer the vessel, the blame often lands on the navigator. The rhetorical abilities of the sailors are often strong enough to convince the near-sighted captain to blame the navigator, leading to his holding them further in contempt or even at times dismissing them from the crew entirely. Yet without a navigator at all, the ship would surely be doomed.

The shipwreck, J.M.W. Turner, 1805 (Tate Britain, London).

How can this state of affairs be remedied? The solution Plato proposes is that the navigator should be given the helm (though he acknowledges the extreme difficulty of doing this). But there are problems here as well. Yes, clearly the navigator is far better equipped to guide the ship, but human nature dictates that they cannot be perfect.

What happens if they reach uncharted territory? A single navigator can make a guess, but cannot be sure of the decision. What if the navigator falls ill, dies suddenly or is momentarily incapacitated? Do the sailors, with their lack of navigational ability, take over? Surely that could lead to disaster as before? Does the captain recruit a new navigator? But what happens when the same misfortune befalls this one? Or what if the previous navigator recovers? Which one should carry on as the navigator? Is the captain, with his or her lack of navigational knowledge, even fit to judge the merits of a potential replacement? Surely, a captain without this knowledge (such as the one in Plato’s analogy) could easily be fooled by those who claim to have the knowledge required to be a navigator (perhaps they attended a prestigious navigational course) but are, in fact, similarly inept at navigation and, much like the sailors, are just trying to get the captain to “give them the wheel”.

Another issue is that even an expert can’t know everything. Although both are scientists, a chemist and a physicist don’t share an omniscient grasp of all scientific fields. They have distinct specialisms and areas of expertise. Similarly, no single navigator has complete and total knowledge of every navigational method and every possible route through every sea or ocean. They probably will have a stronger grasp than a layperson would, but still can’t be perfect decision-makers in their weaker areas.

The Siren Vase: decoration of an Attic red-figure stamnos depicting Odysseus tied to the mast by his crew in orderto avoid disastrous distraction from the singing Sirens, 470s BC (found in Vulci, Italy, and now in the British Museum, London).

There is also the problem that spending too long at the helm and having the sailors follow their every command may corrupt the mind of any navigator. The ability to get whatever they want and have their every whim seen to may well draw their focus away from the job at hand. Plato himself avoids this problem by saying that the true navigator (or the Philosopher King) is one with dialectical knowledge of the eternal Forms and the Good (and therefore wouldn’t fall victim to moral corruption), but given that the theory of Forms has been shown to have various issues in the years since the writing of the Republic (see Plato’s own Parmenides, Aristotle, or Nominalism),[2] it is difficult to accept fully the argument that he proposes.

Instead of following Plato explicitly here, let us instead interpret the analogy in isolation from the rest of the Republic. As we can see from the above examples, the analogy itself does still appear to hold true in the modern world. Where we depart from Plato is in the interpretation of the navigator’s skills. The ‘true navigator’ is, as Plato says, one who has studied “the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and other professional subjects,” or in short, the skills necessary to navigate and lead a vessel. In the case of politics, he or she is someone who has studied the “professional subjects” required to lead a country. Let us from here onwards take this to mean the subjects and skills involved in effective governance: philosophy, logic, economics, politics, etc.

Clearly, simply having a single navigator guiding the vessel is not a solution to the problem, as Plato suggests. His diagnosis may be sound, but looking back I do question the validity of his suggested treatment.

The storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633 (stolen by some bastards from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, USA, in 1990).

How do we rectify this? Whilst I agree that a navigator is clearly the most qualified to take the helm, I also think that they should not do so alone. Why must there be only a single navigator steering the vessel? A better solution would be a team of expert navigators working in tandem. In uncharted territory, their wider pool of knowledge greatly increases the chances of coming up with a better solution. When one is ill, the others could take up the slack or if need be decide on a suitable replacement based on their advanced knowledge. It would also allow them to combine their areas of individual expertise in order to widen drastically the scope of expert knowledge onboard the vessel.

One could make the case that having a group of navigators with different areas of expertise may lead to difficulties in reaching agreement or consensus. This is a valid claim. However, I would argue that, as these people should have a sound grasp of logic and reason, they should be able to utilise those skills to help reach consensus, or at least majority agreement, much more efficiently. I do think that the potential for slower decision times and an occasional lack of consensus will be a problem in any non-autocratic system, but it is one that could well be tamed if those in the group are all true navigators as we have outlined.

Another issue involves the sailors and captain. Even if the navigator is allowed to guide the ship, if the captain and crew have no (or very limited) knowledge of navigation, they may well make mistakes, misunderstand directions, or just refuse orders based on their own misinformation. Simply putting a navigator or even a team of navigators at the helm does not rectify this. What can be done about it?

The shipwreck, Joseph Vernet, 1772 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA).

There are two solutions I would propose. The first addresses the issue raised by Plato that the captain is “a bit deaf and short-sighted, and doesn’t know much about navigation.” I would suggest that this could be remedied by the captain gaining a greater education in the skills involved in navigation. Not necessarily to the expert level of the navigators, but at least to a level of basic comprehension. It should be obvious to every captain that the empty and vague promises of the sailors are indeed hollow. An informed captain can understand why the navigators are much better suited to the role of helmsman than the sailors. It also means that, in times of crisis, the crew have a much better chance of covering for the navigators should they need to. The captain would also be much better equipped to select which navigators truly know how to perform their art well.

An educated captain would also allow for my second suggestion, that the captain only allow sailors into their crew who also have a solid fundamental grasp of navigation. A crew that understands navigation will be able to follow the directions of the navigators far more efficiently and with far less chance of error or misunderstanding. Again, this would equip the ship with at least a basic level of skill to weather the storm should a crisis befall the navigational team.

The raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault, 1818/19 (Musée du Louvre, paris, France).

In short, we all need a grasp of navigation if the ship we are on is to have a real chance of a successful voyage. What’s needed is a deeper reading into the subjects relevant to governance (philosophy, politics, law, economics, oratory, etc.), ideally from a young age. It is worth noting here that having an education (i.e. completing a course) is not necessarily equivalent to being educated. This is evidenced by the apparent ineptitude of politicians and other ‘leaders’ who have completed (notably fairly short and exclusive) courses claiming to provide them with the skills of a navigator. It is also worth noting that the proposal here is not to educate only the navigators or the sailors, but all onboard the ship (and most importantly the captain).

This education should ideally be spread over a much longer time-frame than current courses (beginning with primary and secondary education and then ideally encouraged as a lifelong study) and also be a part of general education for all (i.e. not exclusive to specific groups in society). The idea is that a populace with a higher base understanding of these fields would be better able to judge who is best suited to guide the ship, and thus be better able to judge the true abilities of the sailors that claim to have the required knowledge. In essence, this would fix the problem highlighted in Plato’s analogy of a “short-sighted” captain who “doesn’t know much about navigation”.

A captain with greater sight and greater understanding of navigation is much less likely to fall victim to the sailors’ fraud and misdirection. The captain would be able to judge more properly the merits of the navigator and be more likely to promote them to the appropriate position onboard the vessel. It would also create a ship in which it is untrue to say that the sailors “know no navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it.” This would require some serious reform and refocus of current educational systems, not just in the UK but across the world, in order to be widely implemented, but that doesn’t stop us from starting individually first. Perhaps reading Plato would be a good place to start?

I am a recent graduate of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (MMus – Music Technology), a professional musician, and an English teacher with a lifelong passion for the Classical world. Since moving from the UK to Japan, I have been spending more and more of my time studying the Classical world in order to gain a deeper understanding of both it and today’s world that spawned from it. 

Further Reading

The obvious place to start if you haven’t already is The Republic itself, perhaps alongside Laws. These are Plato’s most detailed writings on political philosophy, although their length can make them a difficult read for those who aren’t used to Plato’s dialogue form. For those who are new to Plato and, (quite understandably) want to start with works of a much lower page count, one of the best places to start is the Symposium. This is one of the most relatable and accessible of Plato’s works that is also often considered one of the most readable. Meno is another good place to begin, as it features a lovely demonstration of Socrates’/Plato’s dialectical method and is also a very short work.


1 Translation by Desmond Lee; the text of this passage can be read in Greek here, and in the translation of Paul Shorey here.
2 Some of the issues with the theory of Forms include those such as the Third Man argument or the extent of the Forms. These are discussed in detail in Parmenides, although a rather helpful overview can be found on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website by Samuel Rickless. For some of the Nominalist arguments against Platonism, see the entry Nominalism in Metaphysics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra.