Benjamin Bestgen: The ship of fools

Benjamin Bestgen

In the second of his jurisprudential primers, Benjamin Bestgen invokes Greek wisdom in thinking about the merits of democracy. See part one here.

Likening statecraft to captaining a ship goes back to the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene but was made famous in Plato’s Republic.

For a ship to be sailed properly, maintaining the right course, good health and morale on board are vital. Each person needs to know their role, be able and willing to perform it to their best ability and be equipped for the job.

The allegory of the Ship of Fools illustrates what happens if the ship is manned by a dysfunctional crew. Conceived in 1494 by German satirist and academic Sebastian Brandt (himself a Doctor of Laws), it became a cultural motif across the Western world:

The shipowner is stronger and bigger than everyone in the ship, short-sighted, hard of hearing and inexperienced at sea. The sailors quarrel amongst themselves as to who should be captain. Various individuals try to persuade, bribe, cajole, distract or immobilise the shipowner so they can take control. Sometimes other sailors kill the ones who successfully managed to get appointed captain. They also praise individuals who are particularly skilled at persuading or duping the shipowner, claiming that such persons have what it takes to be captain.

Persons who are not successful at this or who try to learn about the proper skills for captaining a vessel are threatened, ridiculed or ostracised. It is even claimed the necessary skills for captaincy cannot be learned and anyone who claims otherwise is shouted down. Throughout, the sailors gorge themselves on the ship’s supplies. Therefore, the ship sails in a haphazard and dangerous manner, as can be expected from such a crew.

Socrates and Plato used the shipping metaphor as a point against democracy. It was argued, amongst other things, that democracy favours short-term decision-making, is often disorderly and confused, caters to popular instead of necessary things and is usually run by people who are both ignorant of statecraft and don’t have the right character or temperament to wield political power.

For all their shortcomings (there are many), the Greek thinkers emphasised the value of education and expertise in matters of political rule and pursuing the common good in a society. They feared that in a democracy, the voices of people both educated and temperamentally fit to govern would be drowned out by the noisy, irrational, ill-motivated and foolish.

Interestingly, we tend to impose much more stringent requirements on the education and temperament of our physicians and judges than our politicians or media. We demand that those who wield great power over our health, liberties, property and life must be people of quality, high standards and training. But we also seem often resigned, cynical or complacent when it comes to the qualities of those who make our laws, govern and inform us. This is a point to ponder, in particular in a time of crisis and what should come after.

What kind of captain and crew do we want and what kind of shipowner would we like to be?

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

Related posts