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 Plato,[1] that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory or parable depicts a vessel without a pilot, taken over by force or persuasion by those who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, and seemingly ignorant of their course. This mob is willing to kill anyone in the way, and to drug the captain if necessary. The true pilot, that knows the stars, the wind, and how to stay on course, is considered useless by the mob. 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 Hieronymous Bosch's famous 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]

A 1962 novel of the same name by American writer, Katherine Anne Porter, set in the autumn of the year 1931, also uses the device of the allegory, and can be seen as an attack on a world that allowed the Second World War to happen.[2] The novel was the basis for a 1965 film starring Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin.

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.

Ship of Fools is also the title of a 2002 science fiction novel by Richard Paul Russo where the Ship of Fools is, not surprisingly, a space ship on which no one knows the destination.

In addition, Ship of Fools was used as the title of 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.

Theodore Kaczynski, more commonly known as 'The Unabomber', wrote a play Ship of Fools while in prison, which uses the allegory for the state and advocates violent revolution on environmentalist grounds.

The alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, portrays a 'caravan of fools' composed of outcasts, criminals and liberals, whose clashes with Muslim ideologues prompt them to abandon their lives in newly recolonised Al-Andalus and form new settlements in modern-day France.

Critical Theory[edit]

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, scholars such as Jose Barchilion have found Foucault's words on the subject very insightful. In his introduction to Madness and Civilization, Barchilon writes of the Ship of Fools as if it were 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.
  • World Party also released a "Ship of Fools" song, in 1986.
  • 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; 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".
  • 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.
  • 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. ^ See Philosophy Now for a one-page summary of Plato's original 'Ship of Fools' argument against democracy (link to article), accessed March 2014.(subscription required)
  2. ^ "Katherine Anne Porter". Educational Broadcasting Corporation. September 2002. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  3. ^ "Prog Archives". Retrieved 3 April 2012.