How can one describe and explain the significance of the “Image of the Ship” in Plato’s Republic.

Expert Answers
davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most people are aware of the metaphor of the ship of state used in reference to governance. It implies that the state is on a journey and needs to maintain a steady course to get it safely through the storms and choppy waters it will inevitably encounter on its never-ending voyage.

In Plato's Republic, Socrates uses the metaphor as a justification for his view that government, like the sailing of a ship, is something that requires special skills and knowledge. Socrates sets out the metaphor in a tale told in response to Adeimantus, who simply cannot understand why government should be in the hands of philosopher-kings when Socrates has already said that philosophers are considered useless members of society.

Socrates also uses his tale as a critique of democracy. We should bear in mind that democracy in Athens was radically different to the representative democracy that exists today in the West. It was a system of government in which each free male citizen had a direct say in how the government was run. To the likes of Socrates and Plato, this was a dangerous way of governing; it was little better than mob rule, in which power was placed in the hands of people who lacked the special skills necessary to govern.

In Socrates's tale, the people are likened to a strong, but shortsighted captain. He is in charge of the ship, but he does not really know where it is going. Socrates is effectively saying that the people lack an understanding of the bigger picture. They lack the necessary strategic vision for steering the ship of state. They are strong, but they are also prone to emotion, which can lead to mistakes.

The ship's crew are like demagogues or politicians who pander to the mob. In the tale, the crew are always milling about, trying to get the captain to let them steer the ship. They frequently fight amongst themselves and in some cases even kill one other. They sometimes drug or even kill the captain. This is a reference to how demagogues would often bribe the people in order to gain power in Athens or, failing that, overthrow the system of democracy altogether and establish an oligarchy in which they wielded absolute power.

The navigator of the ship is the philosopher. He is dismissed as an idle stargazer by the ship's crew. They think they know how to steer the ship, but they really do not. Good seamanship, like the governance of the state, only comes from years of study. Many different factors need to be taken into account if the ship is to be steered safely through storms and crashing waves—the sky, the stars, the winds, and the seasons of the year. All these components of the navigator's craft need to be studied carefully if the ship is to be steered successfully. Although philosophers will still be derided by the ship's crew, only they have the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out this vital task.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The image of the ship in Plato’s Republic is a metaphor that is meant to show what is wrong with democracy.  Socrates is portrayed in this work as being in favor of rule by a philosopher king and being opposed to the sort of democracy that existed in Athens at that time.  In the metaphor of the ship, he explains why he is opposed to democracy.

In the metaphor of the ship, Socrates tells the story of a ship that has a captain who is really not competent.  The captain is a bit deaf, can’t see very well, and knows very little about navigation.  His crew competes to be given the right to steer the ship since the captain cannot.  The problem is that the sailors who are competing to steer don’t know anything about navigation either.  They are not going to be appointed to steer because of their abilities.  Instead, they are going to get appointed because they are the best at drugging their captain and because they are the best at killing their rivals.  Once they take the ship over, they run it very badly.  They use all of its stores for their own benefit.  They promote their friends and they have no use for the people who actually know about sailing and navigation. 

This ship is, in Socrates’ mind, analogous to a city-state that has a democratic form of government.  Socrates is arguing that leaders in a democratic government are not chosen because of their knowledge of how to run a government.  Instead, they are chosen because they can fool the people who vote (the captain in the metaphor) and they can outdo their rivals in dirty tricks.  Socrates says that these people will not know how to run the government.  Instead, they will just use it to enrich themselves and their friends.  Socrates says that this is not how government should be run.  Instead, government should be run by a philosopher king.  This would be analogous to the one sailor in the metaphor of the ship who actually knows how to navigate and to steer.  This person is clearly the one who should be navigating and steering the ship in the analogy and the government in real life. 

In this metaphor, then, Socrates is trying to get us to understand why he thinks that democracy is bad and why it would be better if city-states were run by philosopher kings who had more knowledge of how to run a government than everyone else.