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The Philosophy of Moby Dick

Daniel Sullivan, a writer based in Maryland, studied literature at Washington University in St. Louis and American University.

The serious philosophy that occurs in 'Moby Dick'

The serious philosophy that occurs in 'Moby Dick'

'Moby Dick' Portrays the Dangers of Obsession

Bottom line, at the end of this novel about whaling, the ship goes down, and most of the crew goes down with it. This tragic event occurs after the whaling ship Pequod, led by Captain Ahab, has pursued with reckless abandon the destruction of a single great white whale, that whale being Moby Dick himself.

In Melville's classic, Ahab loses his leg to Moby Dick, and now leads his crew to seek revenge on the beast. But Ahab's obsession with harpooning the whale is about more than what it seems; it is evocative of a tendency we all have to pursue certain outcomes with an intensity that may lead to devastating consequences (as it most certainly does for Ahab and his crew).

The Visionary Novel

The Visionary Novel

Are There Consequences to Our Obsessions?

At times, we all feel we can only achieve an objective if we focus on it single-mindedly. We each have our "white whale" to conquer, whether it is as menial as getting through a pile of work, as seemingly trivial as preparing the perfect dinner party, or as "deep" as understanding the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. There is always some goal for us to achieve, or an obstacle to conquer. What we do not always see is how our single-minded pursuit of an objective can be destructive.

An Alternative Way of Seeing and Being

Now let's get a little more philosophical. Melville wrote this novel as a response to a trend in American thought, in particular transcendentalism. This trend suggested that it was possible, through meditation and other methods, to ascertain Truth (yes, "Truth" with a capital "T").

For years, human beings, particularly those of the Western tradition, have sought single-mindedly to define what is actually True. Problem is, whenever we find a truth, we find another one that discounts it. For example, we once believed the world was flat, and the poor fellow who discovered the world was actually round was imprisoned for presenting a truth that was inconsistent with the generally accepted truth.

Transcendentalism, during and before Melville's time, suggested that we could see, especially through nature, the true handiwork of God, the meaning of existence. For Melville, Ahab's quest for the white whale was a kind of metaphor for the relentless pursuit of truth, and, as well, the dangers of that pursuit. In the world of Moby Dick, truth is elusive; it also contains behind the veil which obscures it a kind of horror, the violence of the white whale.

This is a way of seeing the world that embraces uncertainty, and grasps the beauty and the horror of a truth that can never be fully known. While these may seem like high concepts, they are definitely applicable to the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our lives. Whether we know it or not, we are all chasing our own respective white whales. And we can sink on our quests, or we can adopt an alternative perspective, in which only one of Melville's characters does-the only one who survives the devastation wrought by the white whale.

The Ishmael Approach

Perhaps one of the most famous opening lines of a novel is that which begins Moby Dick, in the words of its first-person narrator: "Call me Ishmael."

  • Ishmael is the only character in the novel who survives the sinking of the ship Pequod into a powerful whirlpool that Moby Dick seems to create by swimming around in circles. Ishmael floats at the edge of the whirlpool and is about to be sucked down, when suddenly a flotation device pops up to the surface, and he grasps hold of it, thus living to share the tale of Captain Ahab's obsession with us.
  • Paradoxically, perhaps, the flotation device is an empty coffin that one of Ishmael's shipmates had been building during their journey together. In this way, we are left with a final image of survival; Ishmael lives by embracing death. He, unlike the other characters, is able to see the flip sides, the multiplicity of truth, and the possible mixtures of single-mindedness and multiple-mindedness.
  • As Moby Dick progresses, Ishmael as the narrator becomes increasingly fragmented. He relates scenes involving other characters in which he is barely a participant, or in which he does not participate at all. He goes into the minds and the thinking processes of the other characters. It is almost as if each character in the story could be representative of an impulse in Ishmael's mind, that Ahab could be the representation of his destructive single-mindedness.
  • At the beginning of the novel, Ishmael tells us that he chooses to go on this whaling journey to resolve some inner conflict about his own life, or even to escape the dull humdrum of existence in the Western world of America near the turn of the century. His resolution, then, is to embrace paradox. He widens the scope of his mind to see that life and death are part of a continuum, and, in so doing, he survives destruction.
  • We can apply this "embracing of paradox" to some of the simpler dilemmas of our own modern (or post-modern) lives.

The Ishmael Approach in Our Lives

Often, our obsessions are based on feeling that things "should" not be as they are (the paradox). And our resolutions embrace things as they are and things as they should be.


Work is most important.

Family is more important.

Embrace family and work.

Life should be fun.

Much of life is boring.

Embrace both aspects of life.

I should be healthy.

I do not live a healthy lifestyle.

Alternate between lifestyles.

Embracing Irreconcilable Truths

This ancient symbol portrays the peace that comes from resolution of paradox.

This ancient symbol portrays the peace that comes from resolution of paradox.

We Can Learn From Literature

Great works of literature, like Moby Dick, often contain within them valuable life lessons. They give us keys that help us open doors, and solutions to riddles. That is the mark of good literature, and that is what draws us back, over and over again, to the same beloved books. We are on a quest for solutions.

In my own life, Moby Dick has had a nearly scriptural role, as I used some of the ideas we have discussed in this article to grapple with the untimely deaths of two cousins and a younger brother. The key, in my mind, is to embrace life in its multifaceted wonder. We cannot understand everything, but we can approach everything with love, and float lightly across the surface of doom.


Daniel Sullivan (author) from Chicago, IL on September 08, 2018:

In response to Peter Sullivan's comment, which makes many sensible points, I would just clarify that I think the monomaniacal pursuit of "health" can itself become as destructive as its opposite.

Ishmael's journey in the novel itself was conceived, by his own statements in Chapter One, as an alternative to suicide. He was already at the brink of self-destruction, but instead of pursuing self-destruction he went on a risky whaling voyage. That risk (far more than smoking cigarettes or eating red meat and butter) proved to be his redemption, and gave him the ability to embrace the impulse for but not complete the self-annihilation that was his desire in Chapter One.

If we look at "healthy" and "not-healthy" as exclusive modes of being, then we force ourselves to place ourselves in one or the other category. But if we look at these on a continuum, as categories into which we may slide but not remain stuck in, then we always maintain our freedom to change and to grow.

There is nothing fixed but fixed desire, which was the downfall of Captain Ahab. So powerful was his fixation that he affixed himself to the white whale with a harpoon. He was consumed by his singular fixation. Ishmael on the other hand bypassed doom by embracing its symbolic representation (the coffin floatation device), an embrace which was not intentional but an accident of fate. He became a master of "going with the flow" of life.

One final note, this idea of embracing healthy and unhealthy lifestyles, or of alternating between the two as part of moving with the flow of the universe, is not without precedent. Throughout history, humanity has alternated between war and peace. Mental health itself is a notoriously turbulent affair, in which an individual may be episodically ill, but, according to my proposed "Philosophy of Moby Dick" need not affix him or herself to "being ill" as a permanent identifying characteristic. And, on a lighter note, one of the most popular and effective weight loss programs in the nation (Weight Watchers) incorporates within its program of eating a healthy diet "splurge days," in which the dieter may consume cheeseburgers and fried chicken galore. In my opinion, as human beings, our "enlightened" state is to move with, through, and in the turbulent flow of the universe, embracing all of the wrinkles and ripples, gliding through the storms.

Peter Sullivan on September 03, 2018:

Peter Sullivan Bravo! A-plus if you were still in school.

We had to read a long excerpt of Moby Dick in high school. Since I grew up in New Bedford Massachusetts, the Whaling Capital of the World, I should have loved this assignment. Instead, I was bored by it. I would have loved the task had you been my English teacher.

That said, I have a technical issue to raise. I think the bottom tier of the tic-tac-tie box needs some editing. The top tiers of the box call for embracing the seeming conflicting values, and presumably, balancing them.

For example, family and work can conflict and the embrace of both requires keeping them in balance. Likewise the fun and boring aspects of life. Too much work and tedium make Jack a dull boy, but too much fun will make him a fool.

The first two tiers pose potentially competing values, both of which have merit, that is they can each be viewed as a "good" worthy of aspiration. There is much about daily life that is boring, but essential (e.g., washing clothes, dishes toilets, paying bills, etc.) But by embracing these chores one can make a virtue of necessity.

In contrast, bad health is not a good. I think what you have pose is not a paradox (seemingly competing propositions than can be reconciled), but irreconcilable propositions.

The desire to be healthy and leading an unhealthy lifestyle can’t both be embraced. The latter always trumps the former. A half unhealthy lifestyle (e.g., half a pack of cigarettes per day instead of one) still leads to a bad outcome even if at half the speed.

I'd humbly suggest that the third tier box be revised to address the foregoing problems. The simplest way to fix the problematic third tier is to delete it and treat the issue of health as adequately covered (at least implicitly) by the examples in the other two tiers.

Look forward to more of your masterful explications of literature and life's persistent questions.