Welcome to the Ship of Fools, a philosophical no-expenses-paid cruise where we never reach our destination and never get to the point!

One of my favorite works by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) is “The Ship of Fools” (Het narrenschip c. 1490-1500). It depicts a motley crew of medieval revellers having the time of their life, making music, enthralled by a pancake. The “ship of fools” is an allegory reminiscent of a number of sources, the most important being Plato’s Republic Book VI. Plato tells of a ship in which rather than having a competent captain navigate, each crew uniquely unqualified crew member dubs himself the captain and only pays attention to those who agree with him. In such a ship, it never enters anyone’s mind that authority should be joined to skill and that what makes someone authoritative is that they know what they’re doing.

The Ship of Fools reminds me a lot of the Catholic Church’s image of itself as an Ark of Salvation. Bosch was a product of the late medieval Netherlands, but the satirical religious imagery in his paintings is obvious. Religious people, myself included, often claim to know what they are talking about. But to the rightfully sceptical outsider, our fixation on other things (also in Bosch paintings) like naked people and animate food items, is clear.

The allegory reminds me a lot about my own academic discipline – philosophy – and my main interest – philosophy of religion. As a grad student in philosophy, my many conflicting interests and commitments have made my studies very like a dysfunctional ship.

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