Myrthe Bartels

Myrthe Bartels

Title : Plato’s seasick steersman: on (not) being overwhelmed by emotions in Laws


In Republic Book I, Socrates distinguishes between the ruler (arkn) and the ruled (arkhomenoi) by means of a series of tekh-analogies. The ruler is qualified to rule in virtue of his expert knowledge (epistēmē and/or tekh)—a stock claim not only in the Republic but in the Platonic corpus at large. It therefore comes as a surprise that in Laws Book I, where the anonymous Athenian draws on a series of similar analogies (an army general, a steersman, and a doctor) these demonstrate the insufficiency of expert knowledge for ruling. The steersman who is knowledgeable yet prone to seasickness, or the general who is an expert yet also a coward would make worthless leaders. The analogies therefore hint at the need for an additional quality for the ruler, that is as important, or perhaps even more important, than expert knowledge. What could this quality be? The passage itself merely hints at the insufficiency of knowledge and does not explain what kind of quality or qualification is implied by the ‘absence of seasickness’.

We get a clue in the subsequent discussion of the symposion: the ruler of this kind of rowdy congregation, more than anything else, has to be ‘imperturbable’ (athorybos). He must be emotion- proof, so to speak; he must not be overwhelmed by his emotions. Though there is some intellectual hint to be found in the additional stipulations that the symposiarch must be sensible, clever, and not too young, the decisive importance of expert-knowledge has been replaced by the ability to maintain control of one’s desires and emotions, whereby self-control is evidently not assumed to follow from, or to coincide with, expert-knowledge. The qualification of the symposiarch, ‘having control of one’s emotions’, is mirrored in the characterization of the ruled, the participants in the symposion. For the symposion is a training ground for self-control: here the participants are supposed to learn to master and curtail their more violent affections under the supervision of the symposiarch.

This paper addresses the prominence of the emotions in Plato’s representation of the qualification of the ruler in Laws. It analyses: (1) what this additional quality (‘the absence of seasickness’) might be; (2) whether this shift implies a change in the conception of emotions from Republic to Laws; and (3) what the prominent role of the emotions implies about the possibility of acquiring virtue. I argue that Laws’ notion of virtue as roughly ‘having control of one’s emotions’ makes the distinction between ruler and ruled much less obvious and implies a more egalitarian picture than the sharp distinction in terms of having or lacking knowledge. Yet the isomorphism between the virtue of the ruler and the virtue of the ruled raises a conceptual problem: the problem of how the ruler himself has acquired his virtue, that is, what qualifies him to be the ruler. The final part of the paper addresses the question of how Plato deals with the ‘blind spot’ which results from the resemblance of the ruler’s virtue to that of the ruled.

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