Cultural History: “The Ship of Fools”

March 12, 2017 in General

I’ve had some questions about what the “Ship of Fools” (Latin: stultifera navis) referred to within the main Politics and Religion section actually was. Ponder no more.

The metaphor in question originated from Book VI of Plato’s Republic, specifically this section:

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?

German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) then expanded the concept, penning Das Narrenschiff in 1494. In this book, he made much parody and humour out of the foibles and popular habits of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. One particular character, Saint Grobian, becomes the fictional patron saint of vulgarity and coarseness. The book consists of 112 satirical commentaries in all. Later, the artist Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516 ) also used the concept, seemingly inspired by Brant’s treatise. In this adaptation, currently on display in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the surviving painting is one panel of a triptych that was cut into several parts. The Ship of Fools was depicted on one of the wings of the altarpiece, and is about two thirds of its original length. Art Hazelwood, Dušan Kállay (fr), István Orosz, Richard Rappaport and Brian Williams have all made artwork for more contemporary editions of Brant’s work. Since then, the underlying concept has been revived by contemporary authors such as Greg Normantin, and the classic theme still appears in genres as diverse as poetry and science fiction.


Sebastian Brant and Edward Zydel: The Ship of Fools: New York: Dover Publications: 1991.

Greg Normantin: The Ship of Fools: London: Sceptre: 2002.


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