Ship of fools

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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, about a ship with a dysfunctional crew:

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 the 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 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, 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?[1]

Use in other media[edit]

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.[citation needed]

The Grateful Dead picked up on the idea of a ship in a state of mutiny in the song "Ship of Fools" from the 1974 studio album From the Mars Hotel. Written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, the song is a slow ballad.[2]

British alternative rock band World Party released an original song, "Ship of Fools", as the first single from their 1986 debut album, "Private Revolution". The song was written, sung, and produced by World Party frontman Karl Wallinger, and charted in many countries, peaking at #4 in Australia, #27 on the US Billboard Top 40, and #42 on the UK charts.

British synth-pop band Erasure released the original song "Ship of Fools" in 1988.

Philosopher Michel Foucault cited the Ship of Fools metaphor at length in his Madness and Civilization.

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, authored an essay titled "Ship of Fools".[3]

The Doors recorded a song called "Ship of Fools" for their 1970 album Morrison Hotel.

John Renbourn recorded an album titled John Renbourn's Ship of Fools in 1988 with Maggie Boyle, Steve Tilston, and Tony Roberts, where track 9 is titled "Ship of Fools", and was written cooperatively by all four members of the group. The song is sung from the perspective of a narrator who boards a strange ship, finds a woman who is the captain, and spends the next seven years bound to her and the ship.

Robert Plant recorded a song titled "Ship of Fools".


  1. ^ Plato. "VI". Republic. Translated by Jowett, Benjamin.
  2. ^
  3. ^