The ship of fools is an allegory ascribed to Plato that describes a captainless ship drifting at sea, carrying deranged and disoriented passengers entirely oblivious to their course. In the medieval ages, when insane asylums were not yet available, lunatics were sometimes forced aboard a pilotless vessel and put out to sea. People believed the ship would arrive at the paradise for fools. In reality, however, the passengers kept wandering in uncharted, hostile waters until they were shipwrecked and met a watery death.
The ship of fools has always been a favorite literary device of writers who want to depict a wayward country of foolish, frivolous and oblivious people who lack a good leader. In 1962, Katherine Ann Porter published a bestselling novel entitled, “Ship of Fools,” in which she sharply criticized a world that could not prevent World War II. In her eyes, the whole world at the time was like a ship of fools, hopelessly sucked into the destructive maelstrom of war.
Quite a few countries have indeed become shipwrecked because their citizens were foolish and were led by incompetent or deranged leaders. Those who were forced to board the ship of fools suffered enormously. Those who willingly boarded the ship, blindly supporting their lunatic leader, did not realize they were sailing right into a deadly vortex, until it was too late.
There were times when Korea, too, was compared to a ship of fools, hopelessly lost in the vast, perilous international seas, and sailing in the wrong direction thanks to its incompetent leaders. Today, however, South Korea has emerged as a flagship nation proudly leading its fleet in international waters. Nevertheless, the danger that it may turn into a ship of fools again, unless we chose the right leader who can steer us in the proper direction, is ever-present.
Speaking of fools, we often see foolish politicians who ruin their bright careers by taking bribes from corporate moguls. Indeed, we recently witnessed our politicians caught accepting kickbacks from a businessman who later committed suicide during the subsequent investigation. Watching our prime minister resign and seeing the embarrassed, guilty faces of our politicians, we cannot but ask, “Why did they do it? Are they fools?”
There are other types of fools. Take our politicians and professors, for example, whose careers were ruined by charges of sexual harassment. Not only did they lose their jobs, but also their dignity and honor, not to mention their family. In an instant, they lost everything because of their imprudent behavior. How could they do such a stupid thing, unless they were incorrigible fools?
It seems that such people seriously lack a sense of honor, professionalism and decency. You would not harass a woman sexually if you were a decent man who valued humanity, respected others’ dignity and took pride in your profession. A decent, honorable man would not take advantage of his position either. For example, a professor is not supposed to harass his female student because she may be unable to protest out of fear of academic repercussions. Likewise, a boss is not supposed to harass his female staff because she may not be able to protest, as her professional career is at stake.
The other day, I went to a stag party where we discussed the recent incidents of sexual harassment on campus and at work. “Suppose a boss goes on a business trip with one of his female staff,” I asked. “Isn’t it the boss’ responsibility to protect the woman, instead of taking advantage of the situation?” Immediately, people sneered at me, “You fool! If you let go of the golden opportunity, you’re not even a man.” We all laughed, and I knew they were joking. Yet, I also know men often have such an attitude.
Listening to them, I was momentarily confused. Who is the real fool between a decent, responsible boss who protects his female staff and the one who ruins his career and loses respect by sexually harassing her? By the same token, who is the fool between a politician who has never taken bribes and is prosperous, and the one who receives bribes and ruins his career? If the former is called a fool and the latter a smart man, I would rather live in a country of fools.
We also tend to think that we can spend public or government money freely, in stark contrast to how we spend from our private purse. For example, companies customarily raise their prices significantly as soon as they discover that their work has something to do with a public or government institution. When you protest, you are told, “You’re a fool. It’s not even your money.”
Once again, if that is the case, I would gladly live in a country of fools. There are two types of fools in our society. Who is the real fool between the two? Those who do not know the answer are fools, too.
By Kim Seong-kon Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.