UK National Yacht – Plato’s ‘Ship of Fools’.

The Prime Minister is no mean classicist and will therefore recall Book VI of Plato’s Republic. It contains the famous “ship of fools” allegory, illustrating the problems of governance prevailing in a political system not based on expert knowledge. It is of great relevance not only to the ludicrous UK National Yacht proposal but also to the many other problems we face as a result of poor governance over the last few years – and the unseemly leadership squabble we will inevitably see in the years to come. Of course, as well as a “national” reading of the allegory, one might also see each government ministry (Health, Education, etc.) as a ship in its own right. Plato:

There’s the shipowner, larger and stronger than everyone in the ship, but somewhat deaf and rather short-sighted, with a knowledge of sailing to match his eyesight. The sailors are quarrelling among themselves over captaincy of the ship, each one thinking that he ought to be captain, though he has never learnt that skill, nor can he point to the person who taught him or a time when he was learning it. On top of which they say it can’t be taught. In fact they’re prepared to cut to pieces anyone who says it can. The shipowner himself is always surrounded by them. They beg him and do everything they can to make him hand over the tiller to them. Sometimes, if other people can persuade him and they can’t, they kill those others or throw them overboard. Then they immobilise their worthy shipowner with drugs or drink or by some other means, and take control of the ship, helping themselves to what it is carrying. Drinking and feasting, they sail in the way you’d expect people like that to sail. More than that, if someone is good at finding them ways of persuading or compelling the shipowner to let them take control, they call him a real seaman, a real captain, and say he really knows about ships. Anyone who can’t do this they treat with contempt, calling him useless. They don’t even begin to understand that if he is to be truly fit to take command of a ship a real ship’s captain must of necessity be thoroughly familiar with the seasons of the year, the stars in the sky, the winds, and everything to do with his art. As for how he is going to steer the ship – regardless of whether anyone wants him to or not – they do not regard this as an additional skill or study which can be acquired over and above the art of being a ship’s captain. If this is the situation on board, don’t you think the person who is genuinely equipped to be captain will be called a stargazer, a chatterer, of no use to them, by those who sail in ships with this kind of crew?

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