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.