Ship of fools

The ship of fools is an allegory, originating from Book VI of Plato's Republic, about a ship with a dysfunctional crew. The allegory is intended to represent the problems of governance prevailing in a political system not based on expert knowledge, such as democracies.

There’s the shipowner, larger and stronger than everyone in the ship, but somewhat deaf and rather short-sighted, with a knowledge of sailing to match his eyesight. The sailors are quarrelling among themselves over captaincy of the ship, each one thinking that he ought to be captain, though he has never learnt that skill, nor can he point to the person who taught him or a time when he was learning it. On top of which they say it can’t be taught. In fact they’re prepared to cut to pieces anyone who says it can. The shipowner himself is always surrounded by them. They beg him and do everything they can to make him hand over the tiller to them. Sometimes, if other people can persuade him and they can’t, they kill those others or throw them overboard. Then they immobilise their worthy shipowner with drugs or drink or by some other means, and take control of the ship, helping themselves to what it is carrying. Drinking and feasting, they sail in the way you’d expect people like that to sail. More than that, if someone is good at finding them ways of persuading or compelling the shipowner to let them take control, they call him a real seaman, a real captain, and say he really knows about ships. Anyone who can’t do this they treat with contempt, calling him useless. They don’t even begin to understand that if he is to be truly fit to take command of a ship a real ship’s captain must of necessity be thoroughly familiar with the seasons of the year, the stars in the sky, the winds, and everything to do with his art. As for how he is going to steer the ship - regardless of whether anyone wants him to or not - they do not regard this as an additional skill or study which can be acquired over and above the art of being a ship’s captain. If this is the situation on board, don’t you think the person who is genuinely equipped to be captain will be called a stargazer, a chatterer, of no use to them, by those who sail in ships with kind of crew? [1]

Use in other media

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.

Thomas Newbolt created an artistic depiction of the Ship of Fools.[2]

Katherine Anne Porter released her novel Ship of Fools in 1962. Published by Little, Brown, it was a best-seller and was made into an Oscar-nominated film, directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1965.

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.[3]

John Cale released his composition Ship Of Fools on the 1974 album Fear.

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 book Madness and Civilization.

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, authored a short story titled "Ship of Fools".[4]

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

Bob Seger recorded a song called “Ship of Fools” for his 1975 album “Beautiful Loser”.

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".

Journalist Tucker Carlson released a book called "Ships of Fools."

The avant-garde music band Secret Chiefs 3 included a song called "Ship of Fools" in their album from 2001 Book M.

"Ship of Fools" was track one on the concept album Lucky Leif and the Longships, a 1975 record album by Robert Calvert, produced by Brian Eno.


  1. Plato. "Book 6, 488b-489a". In Ferrari, G R F (ed.). The Republic. Translated by Griffith, Tom. Cambridge University Press. p. 191-192.
  2. Newbolt, Thomas. "Ship of Fools". Trinity College, Cambridge. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
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