Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

The ship of state

The old comparison, drawn from a boat and its pilot, continues to instruct citizens on their duties and their rights. First comes the sensible remark that a captain is not chosen on account of his birth but on account of his knowledge. Through this we are liberated from one kind of servitude, but only too quickly fall into another, for it’s the person with most knowledge who’s captain. Once he’s proved this, there’s no more to be said. Prompt obedience, prompt and silent, is what’s left to us. It’s not that an ordinary sailor will always understand; and the captain is no teacher; he doesn’t have the time. But better still, let’s suppose that there is a captain, a well known one, among the passengers; it’s still not obvious that he would have the right to open a discussion and to explain to the sailors that the manoeuvre in which they are taking part is perhaps not the best, nor the only one possible; for one acts badly if one thinks of two things, one of which excludes the other. So a reasonable sailor should persuade himself that he has to believe the one who’s at the tiller and, while the reef is being avoided, that this is no time for discussion. And as it’s not for the sailor to know where the reef is, what the risk is, and at what moment the ship is safe, it’s never the time for discussion. In irons then that freethinker who argues; in irons the sailor listening to him. Now think of this voyage, endless and always dangerous, that we all take on the great vessel; think that there is no port. Always this storm of money, this storm of work, this storm of war!  ‘Don’t speak to the captain!’.


Rembrandt (1606-1669): The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633


It’s true that we do judge the captain who has lost his ship and also the chauffeur who has hit an obstacle. Similarly, we want to judge the general who’s attacked recklessly; and the colonel who, a little too quickly, has had men shot, men who perhaps made a mistake and did what everyone was doing. But this kind of trial leads nowhere; for no one says that those with the most knowledge will never make a mistake. And what’s more, it’s quite easy to show that the skilled man did his best. In short, if we really want to prove that the mistake could have been avoided, it must be possible to begin again and do better. But one can never begin again. The wave is different, the fog is different. A situation never recurs.

Here the citizen often goes awry, and even turns away from such irritating thoughts. But we should follow up the comparison. The ship’s captain is the judge of the means; he’s not a judge of the end. It’s the ship owner who says where the boat is to go. Similarly, it’s the citizen who says where to go. But, replies the tyrant, there’s no doubt about that! You all want riches and power. To which Socrates replies: ‘Not riches and power first; but justice first’. Power gives a kind of security; justice gives another kind, which satisfies the lower part of human nature just as much, and also the other part. And if one wants to maintain that human beings remain indifferent before massacres, tortures, imprisonments, suspicions, this would make people laugh. But, even better, there are a good number of people who grow indignant at these things, all fear put aside, and these are not the worst. And it’s still the case that many would follow these people if they didn’t let themselves be numbed by well paid speeches, which always make a case for the powers, and not without strong reasons, which I’ve sought to bring together above. All things examined, I conclude that one must make the case against, and awaken the citizens as much as one can, and hold tight to this idea that the powers are our servants, and not our masters. ‘Either power first, or justice first’. And it’s not for the pilot, however much knowledge he may have, to reply.

(Propos 11/6/27)

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

To read the French version on this website.


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