Who is the Shipbuilder?
One of the main conceits of Plato’s dialogues is “the one who knows”, and who therefore should rule. He put this doctrine in the mouth of Socrates; an unlikely location, given Socrates’ disbelief that anyone knows anything – except of course Socrates, who at least knew that he knew nothing.
Though Socrates himself did not think himself the one who knows, some of his friends thought that of themselves; particularly Alcibiades the treasonous narcissist, and Critias the ruthless tyrant. They thought they should rule; but neither proved worthy to the task.
But who is the one who knows? Let us specify matters to clarify the question. Therefore imagine a ship being built, in some ancient Greek city-state. The ship is being built; someone knows how; that someone is the shipbuilder; but who is the shipbuilder?
Is the sailmaker the shipbuilder? No. His work is vital to the ship, but it is not the whole of the ship; and were he to pretend to knowledge of rudder, or command, or provisioning, or design, then it would take a Socrates little time to prove that knowledge hollow.
Is the rudder-carver the shipbuilder, then? No, for the same reason. Nor is the provisioner. Nor is the future captain; he will utter commands, but it will not be up to him to know how to carry them out; nor did he build what he shall command.
Not even the man called ‘shipbuilder’ is the shipbuilder! For though he designed the ship, and took the money, and hired the laborers, it is not his hands that put the ship together, nor his wit that put them together right. He’s the contractor, but he’s not the maker.
The man called shipbuilder was not the shipbuilder, but he was part of the ship-building, and therefore part of the shipbuilder. So was the sail-maker, and the rudder-carver, and the provisioner, and even the future captain. They worked together; thus the ship was built.
This cooperation is called community; a natural expression of the city-state, or polis. Therefore the polis is the shipbuilder.
The polis also built the dock, the roads, the homes, workplaces, temples, theaters, marketplace, armory and forum. The polis built itself, for it knows itself. The polis is the one who knows; therefore the polis should rule itself.