Eye on the Ideal


The phrase “ship of fools” is pretty common, being the title of a few different books and songs, as well as a play that the Unabomber wrote while in prison. It originates, however, with Plato, who intended it as a criticism of democracy. If you were to ask leaders in the Western world today what the most advanced form of government was, they’d probably say it was democracy with a capital “duh.” Well, at least they all CLAIM to love democracy, but then take bribes from lobbyists.

Both Plato and his teacher Socrates, however, weren’t too fond of the idea. As this article explains, this was after the Peleponnesian War, which led to the Spartans installing an oligarchy to replace the established Athenian democracy.

The Athenians eventually restored the democratic government, but it was much weaker than it was before. Some time after the Athenians had put Socrates to death on trumped-up charges, Plato wrote this allegory, comparing democracy to a ship not headed anywhere in particular. It once had a qualified captain, but every member of the crew held himself to be just as good a navigator, so they mutinied and ran the ship to suit themselves. Those who claim to be skilled at piloting a ship will end up taking control, even though they really have no knowledge in the area, hence the boat never really gets anywhere.

In other words, the common people (or those who counted as the common people in Athens, who really were a minority of the actual population) don’t choose those who are best suited to rule, but rather those they think will further their own ambitions, and the state suffers because of it. Plato’s preference was for philosopher-kings, educated people who would wield absolute power.

Figures that he’d choose his own profession as the one that should be the most powerful. I think this is interesting in light of our current society, where intellectuals are often scoffed at. I mean, how many Americans think their local pastor knows more about biology and climate change than actual scientists? And it seems like some of George W. Bush’s popularity came from the fact that he didn’t come across as all that smart, and hence wasn’t seen as threatening in that respect. Then again, he DID go to Yale; I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how Republicans try to present Ivy League universities as liberal brainwashing institutions, yet the ones who went to them are still really proud of the fact. There’s no figuring these things out sometimes. And we can’t forget how much influence people like Karl Rove, very intelligent and also very mean, had over the Bush presidency. Just because someone is smart doesn’t mean they’re going to do a good job of leading, or that they don’t just want the power.


I was actually thinking of Plato for another reason recently, specifically his Allegory of the Cave and Theory of Forms, which I’m sure many of us remember learning about in college. The example I see all the time is that of how a table is really only an imitation of the ultimate table, or the Form of Tableness, so to speak. Really, though, what makes a table ideal? I can certainly imagine a table that never breaks or wears out, but in other respects it’s more difficult. For instance, what color is the ultimate table? What wood is it made out of? I don’t think too many people these days actually consider the whole Form thing to be valid. In fact, I don’t think too many people in Plato’s time did either. Still, I find echoes of it in the search for perfection that’s all the rage. What comes to mind is how we’re always seeing magazines with Most Beautiful People stories, as if that isn’t totally subjective. Granted, there are certain things that the human brain tends to find attractive, like symmetry and neatness, but there are no real absolutes.

That’s even a problem I find with religion. How can God be perfect if we don’t even really know what perfection is? But then, philosophy is all about trying to come to terms with things we can’t possibly understand, isn’t it? It just seems to me that the idea of absolutes is somewhat harmful to our perception of reality, because we have to understand that everything is flawed. Not that I’m exactly qualified to discuss reality, mind you.

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2 Responses to Eye on the Ideal

  1. I don’t think the Form was ever intended to be something that COULD be replicated. It’s more a concept, the basic essence– what MAKES something a table? Every table contains within it the essence of Table, so it’s not like imperfect things are failing at being a table at all– quite the opposite. And the Platonic Form of a person isn’t a “perfect” person by some arbitrary human standard, but the very idea of Personhood. Bringing it more specific and a bit new-age-y, the Platonic Form of YOU is your own Essence, the unchanging things that make you you.

    It’s funny, I mentioned the “platonic form” of something to someone on the internet the other day and was surprised for a moment when they had no idea what I was talking about. I forget we didn’t all take Honors Core!

    • Nathan says:

      I’ve always thought there was a bit of the Theory of the Forms in the Gnostic idea that only the human soul is real, as opposed to the unreal material creation of the Demiurge. I seem to recall coming across the Allegory of the Cave prior to college, but it was definitely Honors Core where I learned the most about it. I was rather amused to come across words like “tableness” used to describe the Forms in multiple places; I had sort of thought of that as more of an inside thing.

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