"Ship of Fools": Democracy and Religious Performance in Melville's The Confidence-Man*

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In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, Socrates, illustrating a thought experiment, describes a mutiny aboard a ship. During the mutiny, every member of the crew begins to jockey for the position of captain, and each sailor makes his case despite his apparent unfitness for the job. Without true steerage, or any qualified captain for the job, the ship drifts aimlessly. The sailor who might actually be able to command the ship—one who is attentive to the wind, stars, and other minute details of navigation—is never considered. Instead, Socrates explains, his fellow shipmates regard him as “a real stargazer, a babbler, and a good-for-nothing” (Plato 162).

This analogy of the “ship of fools,” which functions as one of Plato’s more potent critiques of democracy, provides an interesting way into examining Herman Melville’s famously difficult 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade. Plato lends his focus to his “true captain,” intending his audience to consider the qualities he believed a leader should possess. Yet, in his novel—even invoking Plato’s “ship of fools” in Chapter Three—Melville takes the opposite tact. Rather than emphasize democracy’s failings by denouncing groupthink and the tyranny of the majority (as Plato does), Melville examines the philosophical viewpoints of democracy’s “fools” in order to better understand the drifting political institution they inhabit. In particular, Melville is interested in using the variety of religious and political opinions aboard his “ship of fools” to investigate the role that religion plays in American democracy, here figured as a steamship travelling the Mississippi River (on April Fool’s Day) ironically named Fidele. Through this, Melville echoes the political philosophy of Alexis de Tocqueville, as he goes about dramatizing Tocqueville’s observation that “when authority in the matter of religion no longer exists, nor in the matter of politics, men are soon frightened at the aspect of this limitless independence” (418). Melville’s novel seems an extended proof of Tocqueville’s assertion that democracy and secularism are mutually exclusive ends, as Melville explores the implications of what occurs once we throw the philosophical baby out with the bathwater.

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