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6.3: The Uselessness of Philosophers

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    See 487b-491a. Can it be, Adeimantus wonders, that Socrates is serious in suggesting that philosophers – not mere dabblers in philosophy, but people for whom understanding the essential nature of things is their primary concern – should be political leaders? Many would object that serious philosophy renders people “useless to the city.” Socrates agrees that cities as they are typically constituted (without temperance) do render philosophers useless. But this is not to say that philosophers would be useless if they were entrusted with the authority to rule. He likens the city to a ship whose owner, though big and strong, is not particularly bright, and is unable to manage the vessel himself. This owner represents the common citizens. The sailors, politically ambitious people, quarrel with one another about who should run things, each of them thinking “that he should captain the ship, even though he has not yet learned” how to do it well. Only one person, the philosopher, is fit in truth to be captain of the ship, for only he pays “attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft.” The quarrelsome sailors have no appreciation for this craft but care only about what is involved in gaining and keeping control of the helm. And so they ignore the philosopher, calling him “stargazer,” “useless babbler,” and “good-for-nothing.” Why doesn’t the true captain assert himself, push his way through the sailors and beg the owner and the other sailors for a chance to prove himself at the helm? Just as “it is not natural for the captain to beg the sailors to be ruled by him,” and not natural for physicians to beg sick people to submit to their care, it is not natural “for the ruler – if he is truly any use – to beg the subjects to accept his rule.”

    • What does Socrates mean when he says it isn’t “natural” for ship captains, physicians, and politicians to beg to help those they are able to benefit? Is his point that begging is undignified? Or that people can only be helped if they themselves seek help? Or is it something else?

    • Can someone be wise enough to rule a city well and yet not know how to acquire political power?

    • Do the people who would make the best political leaders have a moral obligation to their communities to enter the fray of politics?

    This page titled 6.3: The Uselessness of Philosophers is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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