Socrates and the Sophists: the Philosopher King and the Corrupting Influence

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In the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates attempts to convince and prove to the others the best and most ideal type of person to lead and rule over society is not someone chosen to rule exclusively through birthright or a military or political victory but rather a philosopher. Socrates believes that a true philosopher possesses all traits necessary to be a good leader and does so in a just and fair way that benefits all members of society.

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A true philosopher inherently has a steadfast zeal for the pursuit of truth and justice.


Unveiling Plato’s Vision

Unlike most rulers, and most people for that matter, a true philosopher king would have no interest in worldly desires and thus has no capacity to be corrupted by them. They can see past these worldly desires because of their pursuit of knowledge and the universal truths of the universe, which is what a true philosopher desires. This leaves them open to pursue these truths unencumbered by desire and without the risk of corruption and pursuit of their own personal gain or agenda at the expense of their citizens. Because of their pursuit of knowledge and justice, a philosopher also possesses a great amount of courage and temperance, both traits paramount to a good ruler. A philosopher is also a very quick learner and of a superior intellect when compared to most ordinary people giving them the ability to think rationally under pressure as well as make decisions that result in the ideal outcome for the citizens of his nation, always being concerned with justice, his soul untainted by desire, naturally inclined to not just understand things but understand how they should be understood.

However, while Adeimantus agrees with Socrates that this hypothetical philosopher would no doubt make a great leader and live a just life, he argues that a philosopher of this nature doesn’t really exist. He argues that most philosophers in the real world aren’t adept at dealing with people and that rather than contributing to the many facets of society, they tend to isolate themselves in pursuit of intellectual truths. Furthermore, he argued that pursuits don’t necessarily translate to anything substantial – that knowing something and acting with that knowledge are two different things. Moreover, even if they did translate to something more substantial that they (true philosophers) aren’t necessarily appreciated enough by society as a whole to be accepted as a leader or figures of high authority. Socrates offers a counter-argument to Adeimantus in the form of an analogy.

The Analogy of the Ship: Understanding the Philosopher King

Socrates tells Adeimantus that a city is like a ship, and the pilot of the said ship is the ruler, a philosopher ruler of society. The ship’s captain is “larger and stronger than any of the cream but a bit deaf and short-sighted and similarly limited in seamanship.” On the ship, the crew is arguing amongst themselves on how to navigate the ship. Each crew member thinks that he should be the one in control of the ship rather than the captain or the other members of the crew. However, not a single member of the crew has not “learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it to them.” The crew members go on with their bickering, and all agree that spending time learning the art of navigation would be a fruitless task and a waste of time, believing that such a thing can not be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can be living them foolish and arrogant. The crew splits into groups, and each spends time around the captain, trying to coherent him to give up the helm. However, if one of the groups gets too powerful or is successful, the other groups believe that that group would surely kill the others, “lay out the honest captain with or drink,” and take control of the ship’s helm and help themselves to whatever is on board of the ship, indulging themselves in their worldly desires.

The Challenge of Philosophy in Society

However, instead of allowing these events to come to pass, eventually, the crew decides to “reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless.” What the crew doesn’t understand is that a true navigator, a good navigator, must study the seasons, the sky, stars, winds, the natural forces of the Earth, and all other subjects in a way that deepens his knowledge and ability to perform his profession well. But the crew thinks it’s impossible to gain the professional skills needed to maintain such control and continues to deny the existence of the art of navigation. Socrates ends this analogical story by saying, “With all this going on aboard, aren’t the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all?’ The “pilot’s” crewmen get angry because they feel as if they can do a better job than him because the crew feels as if they are able to do a better job than the pilot. The crewmen fight each other to get to the top and capture the pilot and take over as the captains. They consider themselves the captains even though they are not managing the ship well, which can be seen as a parallel to people who want to be leaders of cities but do not do it well. This analogy is certainly a lot to unpack and lays out a very interesting argument, but the main point Socrates is trying to get across here is that people don’t understand all the knowledge conducive to being a good leader, just like the crew of the ship doesn’t understand all the qualities needed to pilot the ship. Just because people don’t fully understand something doesn’t make it unimportant. Without proper preparation, being a good leader is impossible. Furthermore, it’s not that a true philosopher’s knowledge and ability are useless to a city; it’s that the city, or rather the people in it, don’t know how to use their philosophers. Philosophers are generally viewed in a negative light, and this is somewhat justified as the institution of philosophy has become corrupted, and Socrates sights a very specific group as the cause of this corruption. The sophists.

Socrates has a lot of issues with the Sophists and believes that they’ve corrupted the institution of philosophy. A group of teachers and philosophers in Athens, the sophists, would charge money for their services, indicating a desire for monetary gain in exchange for imparting knowledge to their students. This is the exact opposite of what a philosopher is meant to be. A philosopher is supposed to seek and spread the gift of knowledge for the betterment of all members of society, not just those with a coin in their pockets. The sophists would also use physical punishments on their students, essentially punishing them with beatings for not understanding something.. Worst of all, though, is that the sophists would act and teach on baseless opinions and impart them as wisdom. The sophists would base their “wisdom” on what was popular rather than the truth, essentially pandering to form large crowds, inflating their ego and their pockets rather than imparting true wisdom for the benefit of everyone. Socrates believes that all sophists do try and seem as if they are very knowledgeable without actually seeking the truth behind d the things they say. He believed them to be smart but arrogant, used to being complimented by everyone to fuel their ego, and because they are so used to being flattered all the time, they do not take criticism well. As a result of the standard set by the sophists as well as their teachings and actions, most people who stoned to study philosophy never become true philosophers for these reasons. And because most people don’t have the capacity to become true philosophers, the sophist’s spread of falsehoods just encourages people to try to become a philosopher and ultimately sets them up to fail, and thus people that actually become philosophers are seen in a negative way, much like the sailors from the previous analogy thought of those who practice the art of navigation.

Sophistry: The Corrupting Force

With the previous information presented in mind, we, like Socrates, can make the assessment that a philosopher’s superior viewpoint reveals to him how flawed/incorrect the rest of humanity is. Due to their uniqueness, as well as their intellectual superiority, their self-isolation is understandable. Furthermore, because the average person doesn’t understand a philosopher, people are unsupportive. They don’t value a philosopher, which only increases isolation. Because cities and states don’t encourage philosophy, this leads to bad philosophers better adapted to the populace’s opinions/ the aforementioned sophistry. The optimal city would be one founded by philosophers because it would support the growth of philosophy. If philosophy was encouraged, a philosopher’s gifts would help everyone and extend beyond himself. While many would view the notion of a true philosopher ruler as impossible, to Plato, the idea of having a city led by a philosopher would be very improbable but certainly possible.

In the book, Socrates says that all men should, instead of studying philosophy at a young age, do whatever young people do recreationally; men shouldn’t start devoting all of their time to philosophy later in life when they have gained some meaningful life experiences and have the capacity to receive and understand the truths of the universe. Many of Socrates’ fellow scholars disagree with his idea of having a completely philosophical city, but Socrates credits this belief to the fact that no one has ever seen anything like it, and humans, even philosophers, have a hard time conceiving of and having faith in an idea or society that they have never experienced.
Socrates concludes by saying one good philosophic ruler could change a whole city for the better because of the qualities he possesses. Socrates adamantly believes in his idea and chalks up those who do not agree with him as having an incorrect understanding of his idea. He believes that once everyone fully understands what a true philosopher is, they will agree with the plan. The final and arguably most important point made by Plato in this book is that goodness, how goodness is defined, and what role it would play in a philosophical city.

The Path to True Goodness and Just Leadership

In order for a philosopher to be a true philosopher and a good leader, he must possess goodness, have an understanding of justice, and have the capacity for knowledge. But what is goodness? What is it really? Well, for Socrates, he feels as if this is a very difficult thing for people to truly understand. Socrates believes that many people are confused about what goodness truly means. Many people share the false belief that what is pleasurable is what is truly good.

However, most likely, as a result of the sophists preaching a similar idea without giving a basis, they can’t exactly provide any further explanation for this. This idea that all these people share is literally the textbook definition of hedonism, and this is troubling to Socrates. He believes that every human has the ability, capacity, and ultimate goal to seek out what is truly good, but this goal isn’t easy for people to achieve. It takes a lot of work and knowledge, and as a result, the responsibility falls to the leader of the city to treat their citizens in a kind way with respect in order for them to fully understand true goodness.

If a person can gain an understanding of goodness, only then can they truly act in a fair and just way; understanding goodness, acting justly and fairly, and knowledge all go hand in hand in order to produce well-minded, productive, and prudent members of society. A society can only benefit from the growth of this nature. As we said before, the definition of good is very complex, so when Socrates begins to explain his definition of good to the group, he reminds them that there are physical things that we experience and see with our bodies and things that can only be experienced or seen through thought. This lays the basis for his definition of good. He goes on to explain his definition through the following analogy: Light allows us to see objects, and where does light come from? The sun. The sun itself doesn’t have the capacity to grant us sight. Rather it enables us to see. Socrates draws similarities between the relationship between the sun and sight and the relationship between intellect and the good. Goodness allows you to know the truth and power of the world. Therefore things like justice, truth, etc. Are not goodness itself but are similar to it. They are mutually exclusive. Justice can’t exist without goodness.


Furthermore, the sun is the source of physical life; it allows for the growth and development of living things in the physical sense. The good act in the very same way. It allows and enables the growth of knowledge. Only through goodness can one obtain knowledge, and only through the willingness and capacity to learn and grow as a person can one obtain an understanding of goodness. Goodness shines light and gives life to knowledge, new ideas, and universal truths. And it is through that knowledge that makes that light of goodness brighter, breathing life and giving us the capacity to delve into even deeper ideas enabling us to eventually truly understand the truth of the universe. It is through this process and only through this process that an ideal ruler is born, and an ideal society can come to fruition.


  1. “The Sophists: An Introduction” by Robert Wardy 

  2. “The Cambridge Companion to Socrates” edited by Donald R. Morrison

  3. “Socrates and the Sophists: A Brief Introduction” by Shiu-Hing Lo

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Socrates and the Sophists: The Philosopher King and the Corrupting Influence. (2023, Aug 15). Retrieved from