Summary: Book VI, 484a-502c

Don’t you think that the true captain will be called a real stargazer, a babbler, and a good-for-nothing by those who sail in ships governed in that way?

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Given that only philosophers can have knowledge, they are clearly the ones best able to grasp what is good for the city, and so are in the best position to know how to run and govern the city. If we only knew that they were virtuous—or at least not inferior to others in virtue—then, Socrates’s friends agree, we could be sure that they are the ones most fit to rule. Luckily, we do know that philosophers are superior in virtue to everyone else. A philosopher loves truth more than anything else (“philosopher” means “lover of truth or wisdom”); his entire soul strives after truth. This means that the rational part of his soul must rule, which means that his soul is just.

Adeimantus remains unconvinced. None of the philosophers he has ever known have been like Socrates is describing. Most philosophers are useless, and those that are not useless tend to be vicious. Socrates, surprisingly, agrees with Adeimantus’s condemnation of the contemporary philosopher, but he argues that the current crop of philosophers have not been raised in the right way. Men born with the philosophical nature—courageous, high-minded, quick learners, with faculties of memory—are quickly preyed upon by family and friends, who hope to benefit from their natural gifts. They are encouraged to enter politics in order to win money and power by their parasitic family and friends. So they are inevitably led away from the philosophical life. In place of the natural philosophers who are diverted away from philosophy and corrupted, other people who lack the right philosophical nature, rush in to fill the gap and become philosophers when they have no right to be. These people are vicious.

The few who are good philosophers (those whose natures were somehow not corrupted, either because they were in exile, lived in a small city, were in bad health, or by some other circumstance) are considered useless because society has become antithetical to correct ideals. He compares the situation to a ship on which the ship owner is hard of hearing, has poor vision, and lacks sea-faring skills. All of the sailors on the ship quarrel over who should be captain, though they know nothing about navigation. In lieu of any skill, they make use of brute force and clever tricks to get the ship owner to choose them as captain. Whoever is successful at persuading the ship owner to choose him is called a “navigator,” a “captain,” and “one who knows ships.” Anyone else is called “useless.” These sailors have no idea that there is a craft of navigation, or any knowledge to master in order to steer ships. In this scenario, Socrates points out, the true captain—the man who knows the craft of navigation—would be called a useless stargazer. The current situation in Athens is analogous: no one has any idea that there is real knowledge to be had, a craft to living. Instead, everyone tries to get ahead by clever, often unjust, tricks. Those few good philosophers who turn their sights toward the Forms and truly know things are deemed useless.

All that we need to make our city possible, Socrates concludes, is one such philosopher-king—one person with the right nature who is educated in the right way and comes to grasp the Forms. This, he believes, is not all that impossible.

Analysis: Book VI, 484a-502c

Continuing with the defense of the philosopher, Plato asserts in this section that the philosopher is not only the sole possesor of knowledge, he is also the most virtuous of men. Plato indicates that the philosopher’s association with the Forms determines his virtue. By associating with what is ordered and divine (i.e., the Forms), the philosopher himself becomes ordered and divine in his soul. He patterns his soul after the Form of the Good.

Plato also offers a more intuitive explanation for why the philosopher is virtuous. Since all of him strives toward truth, his other desires are weakened. He has no real drive toward money, honor, pleasure, and so on. In short, he has none of the drives that can lead to immoral behavior. He would never be motivated to steal, lie, boast, act slavishly, or anything else of this sort. His emotions and appetites no longer provide a strong impetus toward vice.