Plato’s Seasick Steersman: On (Not) Being Overwhelmed by Fear in Plato’s Laws

In Olivier Renaut & Laura Candiotto (eds.), Emotions in Plato. Brill. pp. 147–168 (2020)
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In Book i of Plato’s Laws, the requisite quality of the leader of a symposium is illustrated through the contrastive example of the seasick steersman. The qualified steersman and the symposiarch should be ‘imperturbable’ (ἀθόρυβος) in the face of the perils of their tasks. Such people are not at all easy to find; yet they are essential if the Athenian’s provocative claim that the symposium is beneficial for paideia is to stand up to scrutiny. In order to illuminate the rare quality of resistance to seasickness, this contribution offers an examination of the metaphors of seasickness and θόρυβος. Both seasickness and θόρυβος can be used as an analogy or metaphor to conceptualize fear, and sources suggest that seasickness is thought to disappear with experience. The challenge is therefore to find people whose experience makes them undaunted to govern the symposium. These, it turns out, are the senior members (50 plus) and law guards of the Dionysiac chorus, which coincides with the symposium. Through their more advanced paideia, they are exposed to the consumption of wine and acquire the necessary familiarity with the practice. Since the symposiarch represents the law guard, it is no surprise that the description of the nocturnal council recalls that of the Dionysiac chorus, including the internal fault line between junior and senior members. The experience acquired by the law guards in the context of their education in the Dionysiac chorus and the nocturnal council therefore effectively rules out the possibility of a seasick steersman.



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Myrthe Bartels
University of Pisa

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