Ship of Fools, the Enduring Metaphor
(Ship of Fools, WikiCommons)
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.