The ship of state is a famous and oft-cited metaphor put forth by Plato in book VI of Plato's Republic. It likens the governance of a city-state to the command of a naval vessel - and ultimately argues that the only men fit to be captain of this ship are philosopher kings, benevolent men with absolute power who have access to the Form of the Good. The origins of the metaphor can be traced back to the lyric poet Alcaeus (frr. 6, 208, 249), and it is found in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes before Plato.
Plato's use of the metaphorPlato establishes the comparison by describing the steering of a ship as just like any other "craft" or profession - in particular, that of a politician. He then runs the metaphor in reference to a particular type of government: democracy. Plato’s democracy is not the modern notion of a mix of democracy and republicanism, but rather pure rule by what he terms the poor masses by way of pure majority rule. Plato argues that the masses are too busy fighting over what they consider to be the right way to steer the ship to listen to a true navigator – representing his philosopher-king. Socrates, speaking for Plato, rhetorically asks “Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?” It is ultimately seen, then, that the ship of state metaphor is a cautionary tale against rule by anything other than an enlightened, benevolent monarch-of-sorts.
The ship of state since PlatoIt has been routinely referenced throughout Western culture ever since its inception – two notable literary examples being "O Ship of State" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and by Horace's ode "Ship of State."
Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, used the metaphor in his Letter to the Town of Providence (1656).
More recently, it has become a staple of American political discussion, where it is viewed simply as its image of the state as a ship, in need of a form of government – and conspicuously absent of its anti-democratic, pro-absolutist original meaning.
The term has entered popular culture as well. Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy" contains the line "Sail on. Sail on, o mighty ship of state. To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate."
Beyond the political metaphor, in the 20th century "Ship of State" became a term applied to ocean liners which were built to be floating symbols of a state's artistic and technological advancement; normally flagships of the country's most successful passenger shipping line, and the construction of which was often subsidised by the state government. Examples of liners considered Ships of State are the RMS Queen Mary (United Kingdom), SS Normandie (France), SS Rex (Italy), SS France (France), RMS Queen Mary 2 (United Kingdom), and SS United States (United States).