The Philosophy of 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).
'Moby Dick' Suggests a Way of Seeing Life
Are Their 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 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, which only one of Melville's characters does-the only one who survives the devastation wrought by 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."
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 of 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 which 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, the possible mixtures of single-mindedness and multiple-mindedness.
- As Moby Dick progresses, Ishmael as 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, 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
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
An Unlikely Lifesaver
Ahab pursued the singular white whale, while Ishmael held fast a coffin.
The Pequod’s crew now are buried in a sea.
Ishmael floats on the surface of that doom with death as his lifesaver.
- Original Poem by Dan Sullivan
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, 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.