Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Plato's Ship of State Parable -- how democracies can fail (a sobering lesson from history)

In the Republic, Book VI, Plato's Socrates put on the table a telling parable on how Democracies can fail. Athens, c 400 BC being case study 1. And while Plato is most often seen here as promoting elitism and as anti-democratic -- which has a point, in balance we must also face the fact that democracies can and do fail and Plato here captures one of the ways that happens. (Later, below, I will initially point to how we can stabilise democracy so that we retain freedom without going over the cliff.)

Over the cliff:

Or, more analytically:

This parable, then, can be understood as a case in point on how the lessons of sound history were bought with blood and tears. So, if we are to avoid paying the same coin over and over, let us learn. (And here, Acts 27 may be also very useful indeed. Later.)

Let me clip the parable:
>>Plato’s Socrates spoke to [the failure of democracy] in the ship of state parable in The Republic, Bk VI:
[Soc.] I perceive, I said, that you are vastly amused at having plunged me into such a hopeless discussion; but now hear the parable, and then you will be still more amused at the meagreness of my imagination: for the manner in which the best men are treated in their own States is so grievous that no single thing on earth is comparable to it; and therefore, if I am to plead their cause, I must have recourse to fiction, and put together a figure made up of many things, like the fabulous unions of goats and stags which are found in pictures.
Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain [–> often interpreted, ship’s owner] who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. [= The people own the community and in the mass are overwhelmingly strong, but are ill equipped on the whole to guide, guard and lead it; cf. here the story of the Peloponnesian War and especially Athens' ill advised invasion of Sicily.]

The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer [= selfish ambition to rule and dominate], though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them [–> kubernetes, steersman, from which both cybernetics and government come in English]; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard [ = ruthless contest for domination of the community], and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug [ = manipulation and befuddlement, cf. the parable of the cave], they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them [–> Cf here Luke’s subtle case study in Ac 27].
Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion [–> Nihilistic will to power on the premise of might and manipulation making ‘right’ ‘truth’ ‘justice’ ‘rights’ etc], they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.
Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Of course, said Adeimantus.

Then you will hardly need, I said, to hear the interpretation of the figure, which describes the true philosopher in his relation to the State; for you understand already . . . . 
(There is more than an echo of this in Acts 27, a real world case study. [Luke, a physician, was an educated Greek with a taste for subtle references.] This blog post, on soundness in policy, will also help)
World-roots is always a relevant subject when we get into seemingly intractable, deadlocked deeply polarised ideological confrontations. But the point is, that too often, the things we need to cut through the tangled thorny thickets to get to the heart of the matter are exactly the things that are most unwelcome.>>
In my view, successful democracy became possible after the rise of printing, the mass circulation of the Bible, the Reformation and linked ferment that interacted with an increasingly literate public. In that context, newspapers became a very important means of public education. Indeed, sound newspapers are the people's college.

Accordingly, I have developed a model:

Okay, more to follow. END