Set Sail on the “Ship of Fools”

What started out as an allegory from Plato has turned into a concept co-opted by novels, movies, and music.

Set Sail on the “Ship of Fools”

The term “ship of fools” refers to a vessel whose passengers represent various types of vice or folly, none of who care about their destination. These days we just call it a booze cruise.

Okay, so it goes a bit deeper than that. An allegory crafted by Plato, the concept has peppered Western art and culture for centuries, everything from books and paintings to film and music. Jim Morrison and his rock band, The Doors, turned it into lyrical poetry for a ditty on Morrison Hotel; director Stanley Kramer scored a couple of Oscars for his big-screen effort based on the idea. Read on for more about the pit stops the ship made through the ages.


The Republic, by Plato  (Philosophy)

 Plato_RepublicThe ship of fools allegory can be traced to book six of Plato’s The Republic, in which Socrates describes a poorly managed vessel filled with self-interested, ignorant individuals lacking a strong hand to guide it. This stood for an argument against groupthink.

Download The Republic on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.


Das Narrenschiff, by Sebastian Brant (Verse)

Das Narrenschiff by Brant Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (1494)—translated to English by Alexander Barclay as The shyp of folys of the worlde in 1509—was the first formal reference to the term and offered a satirical take on European society, with characters based on powerful figures of the day.


Artwork by Albrecht Durer (Woodcuts)

P15195COLL15.P14Durer’s woodcuts illustrated many of the verses of Brant’s Das Narrenschiff. 


“Ship of Fools,” by Heironymous Bosch (Painting)

512px-Jheronimus_Bosch_011Painted circa 1500, this canvas – only one section of Bosch’s original triptych – depicts a stalled boat filled with a motley crew representing the human condition. It now lives in the Louvre museum in Paris.


Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter (Literature)

Porter_ShipOfFoolsKatherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel uses the allegory to examine the passions and prejudices that sparked World War II. (In August 1931, an ocean liner bound for Germany sets out from Veracruz, Mexico. As it journeys across the Atlantic, the incidents and intrigues of several dozen passengers and crew members come into focus. The result is a richly drawn portrait of the human condition in all its complexity and a mesmerizing snapshot of a world drifting toward disaster.)

Download Ship of Fools on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.


Ship of Fools, directed by Stanley Kramer (Film)

Ship of Fools Movie PosterPorter’s book inspired an Academy Award–winning film directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Vivien Leigh in her final role.


“Ship of Fools,” by The Doors (Music)

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