Ship of Fools, the Enduring Metaphor

I stumbled upon our society’s most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called “Ship of Fools”.

But these weren’t six different versions of one song. “Ship of Fools” was not a classic cover song, like “Dancing in the Streets” or “Hallelujah”. Rather, six different songs called “Ship of Fools” were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato’s Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering — every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato’s analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase “ship of fools”) resembles the same philosopher’s famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato’s ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We’ve mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The “fools”, who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus’s similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant’s book gave Gutenberg’s newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book’s popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn’t help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant’s book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant’s Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler’s Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship’s passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he’s never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing “Ship of Fools”, basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant’s book of verses, this movie doesn’t appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of “locos” in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that’s only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato’s original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer’s “Ship of Fools” woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called “Ship of Fools”. It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn’t discovered even half of the artists who’d created distinct songs titled “Ship of Fools” — Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called “Ship of Fools”, listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.

14 Responses

  1. Should not the foolish words
    Should not the foolish words within our minds be listened to as well, perhaps uppermost..? For the ramblings of our fools may be brought on by our own insistence to do better… to be better. Better than what..? Better than we desire to become, of course.

    How many aboard the ship are there for the pleasure of the cruise..? The news is not many for the chattering Mind disallows for the pleasures of being, having taken control of being… simply being in a cognizant state of awareness, with nary a desire but that of remaining within that state of Being.

    Drop the mind and find the world of peace within… the empty boat in which to float, simply Being at One with the river’s flow.

  2. Good questions, Mtmynd. I’m
    Good questions, Mtmynd. I’m thinking based on your response that maybe you are not a Platonist. Which is fine … neither was Aristotle.

  3. A very interesting post. The
    A very interesting post. The one thing I remember about the “Ship of Fools” movie is the statement made by the complacent Jewish salesman. It went something like this, and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing it: “Listen, my friend, there are a million Jews in Germany alone. What are they going to do, kill us all?”

  4. Great article, many many
    Great article, many many thanks…I have become finally convinced that the “Ship of Fools” theme is one of those great metaphors Jung saw, a foreshadowing of the 21st Century…when every helmsman is a narcissistic toad (think Trump, think Putin, think Kim Jong-Un); where rationalism and decency and humanism and science have been dismissed as worthless Shibboleths by obscene greed and Mammon. I am dying of cancer, but I grieve for the world, on behalf of my children and grandchildren.

  5. Very Interesting. I was just
    Very Interesting. I was just listening to the great Ship of Fools rendition by Robert Plant. It got me thinking there must be a meaning behind this song. Well as we look at the predicament we are all in today (April 7/2020) it seems to me we need a new captain, that being, the President of the United States. I realise he is doing his best however our ship full of the human race is going down. These are the hours and days when we have great freedom to shape our future. We best get at it as the bottom is in our sights.

  6. I listened to Seger’s version about 10 times or more driving from Maine to Mass. The song was like a nightmare for a sailor who doesn’t know what the rest of the crew is doing. Lost boat, ghost ship…the sailor ends up like Ishmael in Moby Dick…a lone survivor because he “possessed the tools”. Very strange, distinctly Seger except for the weird topic of the song…certainly not old time rock & roll, great rhythm though.

    Despite the stellar cast, the 1965 Movie, based on Porter’s book, doesn’t really do much. It becomes a series of vignettes, stories, about the crew and passengers. Too bad for such a cast of actors.

  7. Great blog post. I’m reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation at the moment and in the opening chapters he writes at length about the ship of fools, a boat to where the ‘mad’ of society were dispatched and then transported from one place to another. It’s a beautifully written chapter in which Foucault maps out the shift of literary and artistic representations of ‘the insane’ and how these ships, on which the mad were embargoed, were metaphors for liminality. “Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms … to that great uncertainty external to everything.” Of course, there is a multiplicity of literary and cinematic connections between the sea and madness, not least Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. And, more chillingly, there are parallels between the ship of uncertainty and the contemporary tragedy of people drowning in migrant boats … Not fools, but innocents placing their faith in a world that has deserted them. All this got me thinking about Robert Plant’s song which led me (ha, no pun intended) to your site.

  8. I enjoyed your post so much. An eye opener. Thank you for taking me on your ship through history, literature, music, cinema and theater.
    I mean politics.

  9. This post and those who have contributed to it are proof in many ways that those who can see the foolishness of the ‘powerful’ characters in any era may perhaps be the qualified captains to steer us beyond (above?) a maelstrom of civilization. Noting that Tucker Carlson of Fox News in 2018 released a book titled “Ship of Fools” adds more food for thought. It also is how I discovered this site (searching for a piece that observed the irony of this title for Carlson’s work as an author — alas, none yet has surfaced).

  10. Great writing! oh gosh too much to say about how i got here… bosch’s “cutting of the stone”, reading wikipedia about how humanity may have historically dealt with mental illness prior to the pill mill… trepanation, lobotomy, yikes!

    Bosch wiki linked me to all sorts of oddities, historical religious sects such as the adamites, hussites, gnostics, mandeaists, manichaests,

    Had read summary of history of the mormons as well within the last week. All this really to try to make sense of my own ship of fools.. decode how and why people i care about seem to have become slowly brainwashed and ceased to care about things that history tells us it is quite perilous to not care about.

    popular entertainment and media seems to be the culprit (the “fools” in question seem to all be tv addicts, some endlessly watching TCM and gunsmoke (and now “ship of fools” is on my “must watch with daddio” list) others it is netflix and the new line guard of media moguls with often dark dark content that seems to aspire to be the wikipedia page for lobotomy… but falls shortbut none very educational… just basically dark soap operas…

    Anyway the link between entertainment media (including music ofc) and religious sects, seems somehow very strong!! There seems to be a very strong undercurrent of alternative faith that has taken root and the commercial potential has not escaped notice.. as the ship of fools becomes more crowded the need for bread and circuses has come to dominate, and the rich history of odd religious sects, specifically those containing the “human being learns and “levels up” to godhood” trope… it worked over and over historically to lure people in, often to their deaths… but it worked.

    Anyway gunsmoke or game of thrones they all seem to try to put some message in nowadays almost like a disclaimer… it seems most strong in cinema, and least in literature… music maybe halfway inbetween.

    (Sorry if my writing is “dumb” i am laying down, it is late at night, im half asleep)

    I was struck dumb reading that Alec Guinness held a low opinion of the starwars franchise (i loved it as a youth). Relating this to my sister she instantly vilified him similar to how socrates described “if he didnt like it he must have just been a goodfornothin”

    i realized however that he had-been correct. Having grown up in the probably much more frightening era of mystics, hypnotists, seances and the like… with less entrenched science to keep people rational… the “human learns to become god” trope did not resonate with him, it rubbed him the wrong way unless i misread.

    Then theres music… the dead following were and pretty much still are a religious sect by all definition and i love their music, “i cannot share your laughter, ship of fools”

    anyway a lot of this seems to have one thing in common. The messianic figure who wants to rescue people from the mundane unenlightened mainstream. history indicates that the fools dont spontaneously appear on the ship, someone leads them there… often this person claims that the ship of fools (the main-sequence) is being left behind rather than being boarded.

    So it seems the concepts here are really dissidence and escapism.

    In Socrates example they were trying to escape from the fact that they lacked knowledge…

    Ok wrapping this up!! I have got some tunes to jam it seems! Top of the list is the doors itll be new to me… then seger

    I think the ship represents technology. Most especially once again in the socrates example this seems true. Within myriad works of art and fiction… the ship may be many things.

    the issue of technology becoming central to functionality but that the knowledge of its workings is not widespread creates the ship of fools.

    i am imagining this playing out over and over throughout the long history predating the greeks… with much more primitive technology than a ship, namely fire and stone and bone tools…

    Imagine an impatient hunter or tress who does not wish to invest time in diligent toolmaking.. the ones who wish to invest time are overruled by the hungry many… when they face the great bear… well at least one of them gets got! maybe they all freeze because the skill of firemaking gets somehow dumbed down to the point that it is ineffective in extreme weather like a blizzard.

    This all sounds a bit like a greek myth in its irony…

    Moving forward as technology diversifies the issue seems to become less “does the individual know basic use of available technology” and more “is this particular technology worth mastering especially if i can just call a specialist” and even “does this technology or method which seems to have become institutionalized have any purpose at all”

    In essence technology has a tendency to take on a central role functionality wise, mesmerizing and occupying peoples time to the exclusion of learning

    The fools are lured to the ship not just by the captain (good or ill), but of course by the bling bling and the “new ship smell” etc.

    the technologically advanced ship creates the fools… they cant keep away… if they had designed and built their own ship from the ground up as a team you see…

    Yep!! Thanks for reading! best wishes. I hope my efforts to flesh out this age old paradox (longwinded and at least half personally motivatred: yolo!!!) are appreciated tedious and dimwitted as they may seem.

  11. I have always wondered about the distinction between the ship of fools upon which the “insane” have put themselves, and the ship of fools upon which the insane have been sent away by others. The first would be Plato’s, the second Foucault’s. Strictly speaking, the first might include those keelhauled or otherwise impressed into service. A college roommate once said that the Doors song referenced the second type, though looking at the lyrics today, the song strikes me more as a predecessor of Modest Mouse’s “Lampshade on Fire” warning. Somewhere swirling through all of these aesthetics would be the movie, “The King of Hearts” – in which occupants of an insane asylum are freed by the ravages of WWI and take peacefully to the shell of the town the war has swept through. It was decades ago that I saw that movie, and I’ll cling to my remote impressions of it, thank you very much, rather than watch it again. 🙂

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!