Nephi Sails the Ship of State?

The reception history of Plato’s Republic has obviously been extensive, from Cicero’s De re publica . . . to Augustine’s De civitate Dei . . . to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings . . .  

One of the passages of common interest, perhaps not as famous as, say, the Cave but still well known, is the Ship of State (488a and following). Socrates represents the city-state as a ship, the governance of which is disputed among those on board. The owner of the ship is said to be unlearned in navigation if also somewhat physically incapable. The sailors individually think they ought to be the one steering it but not only do they lack all training, they assert that the skill cannot be taught and go so far as to cut down anyone who says that it can. Disposing of rivals, they tie up the ship owner, so to speak, by drugging him, inebriating him, etc. Then they sail around consuming the supplies. The person who helps them best achieve their mutinous designs they honor as navigator, pilot, and knower of things pertaining to ships. Ignorant as they are of the astronomical and meteorological requirements for proper navigation, should there happen to be a competent person on board, they would think him crazy and useless.

In the context of the Republic, the Ship of State is among other things part of Socrates’ criticism of Athenian democracy and his defense of the type of true philosopher who would be in charge of the ideal city-state, the so-called philosopher-king with actual knowledge of the Good and who does not want to rule but does anyway because it is to the people’s advantage.                

After successfully building and steering the ship that brought them to the promised land, Nephi reluctantly accepts the position of king over his people (2 Nephi 5:17; cf. Mosiah 23:6-13, 29:1-47; Alma 13:17-18; Ether 6:22-30). His competence in statecraft and future as regent is in fact foreshadowed in the episode that takes place on the ship. When he warns his brothers against revelry and forgetting “by what power they had been brought thither” while the voyage goes well, they get upset and say: “We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us” (1 Nephi 18:9-10). With Nephi bound, his brothers see that they cannot steer the ship, as the Liahona stops functioning. It looks as though everyone on board will perish at sea, until Nephi is released and the compass begins to point the way again.

It has been suggested that Tolkien’s translation of old Hobbit records be read on a philosophical level, as an elaborate retelling of the Republic, centered around the Ring of Gyges (359a and following). To what extent, if at all, might the Book of Mormon be read along similar but more theological lines, opening with the Ship of State? Statecraft and warfare occupy not a few of its pages. There are righteous kings, tyrants, and judges. Nephi himself is no philosopher, of course. But he does ascend mountains, whether physical or spiritual, to contact God (the Good?) and thereby possesses knowledge (of shipbuilding, et cetera) that his brothers deny. The other prophets and kings in the Book of Mormon are not philosophers either, though they do contend with antichrist-sophists who say that might makes right and that it is impossible to know of anything outside the visible world. Despite its apparent references to America as the promised land, the Book of Mormon is not particularly democratic. In fact, the ideal form of government may be that of the prophet-king.

8 Replies to “Nephi Sails the Ship of State?”

  1. This is really interesting! I think you’re probably right about Nephi, but I’m not sure I read the Mosiah-Alma treatment of government as a defense of the philosopher-king. (I think prophet-king is a better description of Nephi’s view, as you say.) If anything, the king and even government seem to take the back seat. Not only does the king go away with the rise of the judges, and King Noah is seen as the tyranny that comes with kingship, but when Alma decides he needs to reform the people, he leaves the position of chief judge! Perhaps it is because of the inefficiency of a more democratic system of the judges, though.

  2. g. wesley,

    Hold on a minute, isn’t this a mingling of the philosophies of men with scripture?

    I was recently reading Cicero’s de Officiis and he has kind of an unintentionally funny bit about the ring of Gyges. He says that as he has tried to show people the ethical dilemma that the ring introduces, folks just can’t seem to get beyond the coolness of literally having a ring that makes one disappear. This is vexing to Cicero. I can only imagine the impatience he would feel toward adults today who are still hopped up on Frodos and Gollums.

    Further ship of state language may also be evident in the Alma the Younger episode (a painful ascent from a cave, of sorts) where he continually talks about being “cast off.”

    Do you see Nephi’s internal dialogue concerning the murder of Laban as a daimon sort of thing? It is too bad that the Book of Mormon does not have a scene where the Spirit/daemon permits a character to end his or her life. Had Moroni opened his veins or drunk hemlock in response to his utter despair at the state of his society and as a lasting testimony of his unyielding righteousness, it would have been pretty stunning.

    Also, I can see the constant anxiety in the Book of Mormon over reintegrating the Lamanite and Nephite peoples as the same drive to interweave opposite types of people in order to arrive at the best society with the best sort of leader in Plato’s Politicus.

  3. “Had Moroni opened his veins or drunk hemlock in response to his utter despair at the state of his society and as a lasting testimony of his unyielding righteousness, it would have been pretty stunning.”

    I see the inverse actually. The Nephites have opened their veins (total war) and committed both physical and spiritual suicide. Moroni is the last one standing, forced to wander alone.

  4. when i looked at alma and mosiah on rule by king for this post, there seemed to be a few verses which, if read alone, were pretty thoroughly in favor of the righteous or prophet-king (especially mosiah 23:8, 29:13); others, perhaps more verses, anti-regal and pro-democracy (like mosiah 23:13, 29:38-9), but with the looming caveat that with this form of government comes the risk of the majority of the people turning wicked (mosiah 29:26-27), which of course is what ends up happening. so i wasn’t entirely assertive about the prophet-king as the ideal form of govenment, thinking that perhaps the risks with democracy could be less than those with a king.

    tt’s comment has prompted me to attempt a thumbnail sketch of book of mormon political history. surely this has been done somewhere before and in detail. can anyone say where?

    in the meantime: after the kings there are the judges generally elected democratically (they are nothing like the ot judges). this form of government breaks down as the judges become corrupt and even the majority of the people choose wickedness (helaman 5:1-4). shortly before the resulting widescale destruction at the time of the death of jesus, the democracy is dissolved into a tribal system (3 nephi 7:2-3). after the resurrected jesus appears, we have an ideal classless society holding all things in common and led by jesus’ apostles (4 nephi; cf. acts of the aposltes). class strugle takes hold again, and the people end up wiping each other out. there are secret combinations more or less all along the way, of course.

    on the whole it may be that the ideal form of government according to the book of mormon is neither kingship, democracy, nor communism per se. the point may be that human government of any kind is liable to failure and must be administered by righteous prophets and apostles, if it is to function well.

    still, of the three, i think that democracy gets the most criticism and finds the least support in the book of mormon, notwithstanding the above. if it is difficult to depose an unrighteous king, it is even harder if not impossible to salvage a corrupt democracy. when the people hold the power of government and the majority of them choose wickedness and won’t repent, the only solution appears to be divine destruction.

    the resurrected jesus does not institute a government necessarily, but something like apostolic communism develops among his earliest followers both in the old and new worlds. if the ideal form of government in the book of mormon is not that of the prophet-king, it would probably be this.

  5. It could be fun to carry this in another direction: the use of the “Good Ship Zion” metaphor in the early LDS church, resurrected from time to time by church leaders as current as Jeffrey R. Holland. The difference between the Good Ship Zion and Plato’s Ship of State is that those aboard generally don’t squabble for control. They trust their captain to sail the ship safely to shore, and each works on his own assignment, and only apostates try to wrest control from the captain. Even Brigham Young submitted to the direction of the captain, as in this 1866 statement: “I know enough to let the kingdom alone, and do my duty. It carries me, I do not carry the kingdom. I sail in the old ship Zion, and it bears me safely above the raging elements. I have my sphere of action and duties to perform on board of that ship; to faithfully perform them should be my constant and unceasing endeavor.”

  6. I don’t know whether anybody has written about this. I’ve been collecting references to it — there’s a great related cartoon in the original Keepapitchinin magazine and I thought when I had collected enough references I would write a post featuring that. But whether someone has beat me to it in a scholarly way, I don’t know.

    If you want to contact me privately — AEParshall at aol dotcom — I’ll share what I have.

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