The Ship of Fools by Socrates EXPLAINED

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The Industry Of How To

There is an industry that purports to tell you how to do it.

The truth is that there are talkers, thinkers, and doers. The how doesn't matter when they why is big enough.

Self-Improvement is often an excuse for inaction, inaction which itself is an excuse for fear, fear being the first of the four enemies of a person of knowledge (Castaneda).



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?

- Plato. "Book 6, 488b-489a". In Ferrari, G R F (ed.). The Republic. Translated by Griffith, Tom. Cambridge University Press. p. 191-192.

The Ship of Fools by Socrates EXPLAINED

The Ship of Fools by Socrates is still relevant today because the issues he raises are not specific to his time, and are applicable to any civilization that is self-conscious of its own existence. It can be read as a commentary on the human condition, or it can be read as a guide to living in a modern civilization. The issues he raises are universal.

The issue I will be looking at is the idea that we can be wise even if we are surrounded by fools.

The book begins with Socrates telling us that no one knows anything, and that what we call knowledge comes from the people we trust. This is a key idea in the book. There is no such thing as knowledge; we can only have opinions. If we are surrounded by fools, if our teachers are full of holes and our society is a cesspool, we can still know and even be wise.

The first question Socrates asks his students is “whether it is possible to have a wise man without a teacher”. If you answer yes to this question, you would have to ask “who’s teaching?”, and “where?”. For a philosopher to be wise, they must not be teaching other philosophers. They must be able to see the world around them, and live as if it were the first time they encountered it. This is the kind of person the sophists are not. They are not philosophers, they are teachers.

The Sophists are the first examples in the book of people who are wise even though they are surrounded by fools. Socrates says that even these sophists are not very wise, and they are not very good, because they are only teaching themselves, not teaching anyone else.

If you have someone who is teaching you what to do, but he is also teaching himself what to do, then who is teaching whom? In a society, there is a hierarchy. There is no point in a master being wise if he is only wise to himself, and a student being wise to himself. Wisdom cannot be a self-serving act; it can only be a self-aware act. The teacher must be wise to his students, and the students must be wise to their teachers.

The second question Socrates asks is: “If a wise man cannot be taught, neither can a fool”. If we are able to learn from wise people, then we can also learn from fools. What I think this shows is that the ability to be wise is not something that is dependent on one’s environment. It is a skill we can learn through education.

This can also be extended to the question of how we become wise. In The Ship of Fools, Socrates mentions that if we are not educated, we are not only unable to learn, but we are also unable to be wise. A person who has not been exposed to the ways of the world, and the world’s ways, will not have the ability to distinguish between good and bad. Socrates is not talking about wisdom as in “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but more like “Know thyself”.

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