Ship of fools

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For other uses, see Ship of fools (disambiguation).
Illustration by artist Albrecht Dürer in Stultifera navis (Ship of fools) by Sebastian Brant, published by Johann Bergmann von Olpe (de) in Basel in 1498.
The ship of fools, depicted in a 1549 German woodcut

The ship of fools is an allegory, originating from Book VI of Plato's Republic. "Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain [ναύκληρον] 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 quarrelling 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 [μανδραγόρᾳ ἢ μέθῃ ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ], 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 aids 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, [ναυτικὸν μὲν καλοῦντας καὶ κυβερνητικὸν καὶ ἐπιστάμενον τὰ κατὰ ναῦν] and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing [ἄχρηστον]; 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?" (Benjamin Jowett translation). The allegory is compared to how a philosopher is rejected by the state.

The concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch's painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel, bound for the Paradise of Fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the 'ark of salvation' as the Catholic Church was styled.

Literary use[edit]

  • 1980 : In Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide series, the Golgafrincham civilization uses myths of impending planetary doom to cast three Ark ships into the void of interstellar travel. Into the A ship would go all the leaders, scientists and other high achievers. The C ship would contain all the people who made things and did things, and the B ark would hold everyone else, such as hairdressers and telephone sanitizers. They sent the B ship off first, but of course the other two-thirds of the population stayed on the planet and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. The useless Golgafrinchans crash-land on prehistoric Earth, and displace a slowly developing primate culture to become the ancestors of modern humanity.
  • 1999 : a short story Ship of Fools by Theodore Kaczynski, more commonly known as 'The Unabomber',[2] while in prison, which uses the allegory for the state and advocates violent revolution on environmentalist grounds.
  • 2002 :
  • 2009 : Ship Of Fools, How Stupidity And Corruption Sank The Celtic Tiger, a book by the Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole on the causes of the financial crisis in Ireland, the metaphor being used to describe the Irish political establishment and their self-deception regarding the economic situation in the country.
  • Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization, saw in the ship of fools a symbol of the consciousness of sin and evil alive in the medieval mindset and imaginative landscapes of the Renaissance, though this critical angle conflates myth, allegory and history. In his introduction to Madness and Civilization, Jose Barchilon seemed to regard it as an example of actual societal practice:
"Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then 'knew', had an affinity for each other. Thus, 'Ship of Fools' crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors."

In popular music[edit]

  • Experimental Irish folk group, Dr. Strangely Strange, recorded a song titled "Ship of Fools" on their debut album Kip of the Serenes (1969).[3]
  • The Doors, John Cale, Grateful Dead and Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band have all had a song called "Ship of Fools" in their respective albums Morrison Hotel (1970), Fear (1974), From the Mars Hotel (1974) and Night Moves (1976).
  • Van Der Graaf, the late 1970s incarnation of Van der Graaf Generator, had a song called "Ship of Fools" that was the opening track on the live album Vital and a studio version of the song was the B-side on the final single released by the band.
  • Cris Williamson wrote and recorded a song called "Ship of Fools" on her 1980 album "Strange Paradise".
  • Starship mentions "Don't tell us you need us, cause we're the Ship of Fools looking for America, coming through your schools" in its 1985 song We Built This City.
  • The first single by the band World Party was entitled "Ship of Fools"; it was released in 1986 and was a Top Forty hit in the United States in 1987.
  • In 1986 the band Tuxedomoon released a mini-album titled "Ship of Fools".
  • The 1986 Wang Chung song Everybody Have Fun Tonight mentions "the Ship of Fools is sailing on" at the end of its bridge.
  • Robert Plant recorded a song by this name in 1987 for his album Now and Zen, with accompanying music video; in the same year Erasure also released a song called "Ship of Fools".
  • Ronnie James Dio explored the idea of the Ship of Fools when he wrote and recorded "All The Fools Sailed Away" in 1987 with his band Dio. The song appeared on the band's 1987 album Dream Evil.
  • In 1988 John Renbourn's Ship of Fools released an eponymous album which featured a group composition entitled "Ship of Fools".
  • The German band Scorpions released a song "Ship Of Fools" in their twelfth studio album Face the Heat in 1993
  • Progressive rock group Pink Floyd included a reference to the Ship of Fools in their song "A Great Day for Freedom" on their Division Bell album (1994).
  • Secret Chiefs 3 released "Ship of Fools (Stone of Exile)" on their 2001 album Book M.
  • Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force recorded a song named "Ship of Fools" for their 2003 album Attack!!.
  • Californian punk band The Briggs' 2008 album Come All You Madmen features the song "Ship of Fools".
  • Heavy Metal band Iron Maiden's fifteenth studio album, The Final Frontier was released in 2010. It features a song named "El Dorado", about the lost city of gold with the same name, and describes how the narrator has deceived "fools" into looking for what does not exist and then watches as "This ship of fools is sinking as the cracks begin to grow".
  • Canadian punk band Fucked Up uses the Ship of Fools metaphor in the song "Ship of Fools" from 2011's David Comes to Life.
  • Pert Near Sandstone released a 7" vinyl titled Ship of Fools in 2013. The title song "Ship of Fools" was written by the bands mandolin/ fiddle player Nate Sipe based on the renaissance era fable. The band simultaneously released an animated music video to supplement the song with a story-line also written by Nate Sipe, animated by Emily Fritze.
  • Brandon Flowers released a single entitled 'Can't Deny my Love' in 2015 with the lyric 'or are we sailing on a ship of fools.'


  1. ^ "Katherine Anne Porter". Educational Broadcasting Corporation. September 2002. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Prog Archives". Retrieved 3 April 2012.