All at sea – on a ship of fools

INSPIRATION strikes us in odd and random ways. The prompt for our new series of quotations is pretty obvious – (Easter) Sunday is April the 1st, All Fools Day. There are plenty of witty and highly relevant quotes to choose from, and we chose a selection, from Shakespeare to cowboy actor Will Rogers to illustrate, as Puck puts it, “what fools these mortals be.”

The idea for the month’s Nine Things, continuing our series focusing on women’s achievements in the centenary year of women’s franchise in Britain, came from Google, and its acknowledgement of the 310th birthday of Hannah Glass, writer of the first recognised cookbook, and hence the precedent for our roll-call of great women food writers.

Looking at quotations about All Fools Day and fools in literature and history set us wondering about “ship of fools” and the origins of this phrase. We were hugely impressed a few years ago by a brilliant dramatisation of a version of the story by the students of Arts University Bournemouth. Their sources included the medieval story of the Ship of Fools, by a writer called Sebastian Brand, which was also the inspiration for one of the astonishing, detailed, apocalyptic, complex (and unexpectedly small) paintings by Heironymus Bosch; (it’s in the Louvre, and is the surviving section of an altar triptych from around 1500).

Brand was a German theologian who published his book of verse, The Ship of Fools, in 1494; in German it was called Der Narrenschiff or Stultifera Navis in Latin and it had illustrations by the great German artist Albrecht Durer. The book, which was very popular in its day and inspired not only Bosch but subsequent literary and artistic creations, takes the metaphor of a ship—an entire fleet at first—which sets off from Basel, bound for the Paradise of Fools. Over the next 200 years or so, the turbulent period of the Reformation, the ship of fools became a motif to parody the ‘ark of salvation’, as the Catholic Church was styled.

More recently, you will find a 1962 novel, by Katherine Anne Porter, an allegory tracing the rise of Nazism and looking metaphorically at the progress of the world. In turn this became a 1965 film by Stanley Kramer, starring Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, José Ferrer and Lee Marvin. There is a satirical Christian website called Ship of Fools and a track on the 1974 album From The Mars Hotel, by the Grateful Dead, (and that’s just one of several songs of the same name – different songs, not different versions).

But you have to go back more than two millennia to find the origins of Ship of Fools, which was first described around 380BC by Plato in Book VI of The Republic. Wikipedia describes this passage as “an allegory of a ship with a dysfunctional crew.” Perhaps because so many things are now described as dysfunctional this seems to somewhat understate the significance of Plato’s writing.

When you dig a bit deeper, go back to Plato’s actual words (not in the original Greek, I’m afraid), you discover that, like so much of the philosopher’s writing and thought, this truly is a book for all times, and prophetically for our times, chaotic as they are. In Book VI of his collection of Socratic dialogues, Plato’s thesis is of a city in crisis, where men of a philosophical mind are persuaded by parasitic family and friends to enter politics, in order to win money and power. (Yes, it is all men, but this is 2,000 years ago, and besides, Theresa May and Angela Merkel aside, how much has changed?)

Plato/Socrates compares the situation to a ship on which the ship owner is deaf, almost blind and has no sea-faring skills. The sailors quarrel about who should be captain, though they know nothing about navigation. Lacking either skill or experience, they use brute force and clever tricks to get the owner to choose them as captain. Whoever is successful at persuading the ship owner to choose him is called a “navigator,” a “captain,” and “one who knows ships.” Anyone else is called “useless.” The sailors have no idea that there is a craft of navigation, or that there is knowledge that must be learned to be able to steer a ship. In this scenario, says Socrates, the true captain – the man who knows the craft of navigation – would be called a useless stargazer.

In the ideal city, Socrates argues that a true philosopher will facilitate harmony and co-operation between citizens. The philosopher-king must be intelligent, reliable, and willing to lead a simple life. Socrates/Plato recognises that these qualities are rarely manifested on their own, and must be encouraged through education and the study of Good. He explains that just as light comes from the sun, so does truth come from goodness.

Wherever we turn, 2,400 years after Plato’s Republic, we see nothing but greed, corruption, ignorance, bigotry, cowardice, bullying and hypocrisy in power. The two men who see themselves as the unchallengeable rulers of their nations probably have little or no knowledge of Plato (or Socrates) as they compete for headlines and approval from their fans. The rest of us can only hope that this ship of fools doesn’t founder on the rock of their arrogant aggression.

Fanny Charles