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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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WHY PHILOSOPHERS ARE CONSIDERED BAD SORTS (487b-497a)

Adeimantus interrupts the discussion to accuse philosophers of misleading people who are inexperienced in "the game of question and answer." He voices the common man's suspicions of philosophers. Aren't philosophers more concerned with winning arguments than with reaching true conclusions? Don't they employ their superior powers of speech to distort the facts? Are the majority simply cranks and rascals?

Unlike what you may expect, Socrates agrees with Adeimantus' charges. Most people called philosophers are corrupt, he says, and those who aren't are, at present, useless to society. But there are good reasons for this deplorable situation. Socrates explains the reasons for the bad reputation of philosophers in two ways: 1. in the Parable of the Ship of State he shows why philosophers are considered useless (488a-489c); and 2. he discusses the ways in which potential philosophers become corrupted by the state (489d-497a).

1. The Parable of the Ship of State is the first of several images to come. Socrates uses images to help his audience understand complex ideas.

In this image the state is compared to a ship. The captain represents the people of the state. Like the multitude of people, the captain is big and strong but somewhat deaf, shortsighted, and with little knowledge of navigation, of how to govern a ship. The sailors, who represent the ambitious politicians of a democratic state, perpetually fight for control over the helm. Sometimes a sailor gains control by killing another sailor, sometimes by casting another into the sea. This struggle for power seems to be an end in itself.



Among the sailors there is a "true pilot" who understands the art of navigation and who should be the ruler of the ship. But the true pilot is not interested in the political quarrels, and so is ignored. He is considered an idle stargazer (after all, to navigate well a pilot must know the stars) and useless to the political intrigues of the sailors.

Socrates compares the true pilot to the philosopher. The philosopher is at present useless to society. But this fault, says Socrates, lies not with the philosopher; it lies with the public's attitude toward the role of philosophers and toward the democratic process.

Socrates says that the people should ask the man who knows how to govern to be the ruler. Doctors don't knock on people's doors to see if they are sick; the sick go to doctors for help. Likewise, philosophers can help the state to become healthy, but first the people must realize their need for knowledgeable rulers.

NOTE: The purpose of this parable is to create an image of a society (Athens) caught up in the game of political struggle. Such a society does not perceive its need for true guidance, and hence the philosophers helplessly watch the fray without being able to make any changes. Because of their wisdom and moral character, philosophers cannot enter the political arena, filled as it is with deceit, undignified begging for power, and instances of outrageous inhumanity. Because philosophers are not political contenders, and because they concentrate on universal truths rather than the popular issue of the moment, they are perceived by the public as useless.

2. "True pilots" of the state are few in number. But the state is not without many gifted young men who are potential philosophers. Why do the majority become corrupted and turn away from philosophy?

One reason, according to Socrates, is that the virtues themselves often corrupt the young. Adeimantus wants an explanation for this paradoxical answer. How can such good things as bravery and sobriety be the cause of bad things?

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