By John Murphy 


Much of the scholarship on Moby Dick has focused on the ways in which Melville criticizes the American church. What has often been overlooked is that Melville also provides a solution to the issues he sees and it comes in the form of a character, Ishmael. In Ishmael’s epistemological pursuit Melville argues that the ideal seeker of knowledge will balance truth-seeking ambition with open-minded humility. I will be focusing primarily on the ways in which Ishmael is exemplary epistemologically (how he goes about believing) rather than focusing on his ontology (what he believes). In an American age so filled with oppression and religious arrogance Melville presents Ishmael, the ideal seeker, as an example of how his readership can balance their already developed truth-seeking ambition with open-minded

Ishmael: Ideal Observer

The fact that Ishmael and Ahab are on the same ship and end up chasing the same White Whale, yet finish the journey at vastly different levels of sanity demands the reader’s attention. It is as if Melville is saying that how one goes about pursuing something is more important than what exactly they are pursuing. Both Ishmael and Ahab are pursuing the same thing, the White Whale, yet do it very differently, specifically in the area of balancing ambition with humility.Ahab’s lack of balance leads him to the monomaniacal pursuit of the whale that drives him completely insane. On the other hand, Ishmael is less aggressive and able to psychologically survive the whole ordeal. Ishmael’s method preserves his sanity while Ahab is plunged into the depths of delusion. In the same way that Ahab’s unbalance is a destructive force, Melville believes the same lack of balance is at work in America’s religious. In fact, much scholarship has mentioned the ways in which Melville criticizes the dogmatic aspects of the church. For example, Yothers writes that Moby Dick “is often in antagonistic relationship with the more rigid varieties of Christian orthodoxy”(185). It is important to note Melville’s criticism of the “more rigid” forms of Christianity. Furthermore, Melville has a history of critiquing the church as Coleman points out that even in Melville’s first novel Typee he “offended readers in Britain, where the book was first published, by blasting Christian missionaries in the South Seas as selfish hypocrites bringing ruin to an innocent people”(133). He often wrote with the intent to criticize the religiously arrogant of his day. Much scholarship has focused on problems Melville has with the church’s beliefs, but not enough has been paid to Melville’s critique of the church’s epistemology. In other words, Melville has just as much a gripe with how the church goes about their religious journey as the journey itself. Rather than focusing on the ways Melville thinks the American church can correct the target of their religious journey, this paper will focus on the epistemological improvement Melville believes they can make to refine the way they go about their journey. Through Ishmael’s epistemology, Melville argues the ideal pursuer of knowledge in life will go about the journey balancing truth-seeking ambition with open-minded humility.

Critical to an accurate understanding of this paper are the definitions of Epistemology and Ontology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Epistemology as “the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?”. In other words, Epistemology has to do with how we know what we know and thus our confidence in what we know. On the other hand, Ontology is defined as “the study of what there is…Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god”. Put differently, Ontology refers to what we know. As they relate to the novel, Ontology is the journey they are on. If the Pequod’s journey were compared to a religious quest, Ishmael and Ahab have the same Ontological perspective. They both believe in the existence of the White Whale and want to pin it down (although Ishmael’s desire is delayed because he only finds out about the whale after boarding the ship). Epistemology in the novel is the manner in which the journey is undertaken. Ishmael as ideal observer is epistemologically humble, lacking thecertainty of catching the whale that Ahab has in his epistemological arrogance. Or, as Yu puts it “Ahab pursues while Ishmael quests; one is obsessed while the other is fascinated: pursuit and quest, obsession and fascination -they make the difference”(118).

Important to note is that Ishmael’s epistemological humility should not be equated with a post-modern perspective: a perspective that believes there is no ultimate knowledge and although appearing open-minded and humble is paradoxically as certain as Ahab. Ishmael’s humility lacks absolute commitment to either end of the doubt-certainty spectrum. Cosgrove writes “Ishmael’s reading is that of the sceptic, almost… that of the postmodernist, who cannot expect to arrive at any sense of a definitive meaning or any grasp of some…grand recit” (71). Cosgrove notably uses “almost” to make sure the reader does not equate Ishmael with a post-modernist. The post-modern reading would be absolutely certain there is no whale to catch and thus, just as unbalanced as Ahab’s since it could lead to equally catastrophic results. In other words, Ishmael could hold the exact opposite beliefs of Ahab yet be just as destructive if the way in which he went about believing did not change. The problem is therefore not what is believed, but rather how one goes about believing. A superior epistemology is one that leads to a peaceful journey no matter what is believed, namely Ishmael’s. He is situated ideally in a balance of ambition and uncertainty.

The remainder of the essay will focus specifically on Ishmael’s balance, but before proceeding it is paramount to showcase Ahab’s imbalance. Late in the novel, Ahab has a revealing conversation with Starbuck about the chase of the White Whale and Ahab’s complete unwillingness to abandon it after Starbuck pleads with him is indicative of his epistemological pride. He reflects on his life at sea and laments “the desolation of solitude it has been…oh, weariness! Heaviness!… for fourty years I have fed upon dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul”(405). Ahab’s statements carry a twinge of regret. It is almost as if there may be a break in his monomania. He further cries out “Why strife for the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?”(406). In these lines Ahab is grappling with whether or not his 40 years at sea have been worth it. Uncharacteristic of the monomaniac, Starbuck realizes this rare reflective mood and makes an attempt to convince Ahab to relent by pleading “noble soul! Grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish!… let us home! Wife and child too, are Starbuck’s… even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of the loving, longing, paternal old age”(406). Starbuck not only plays on Ahab’s pride by calling him a “noble soul” but also appeals to his emotions in reminding him of family back home. If there were even a hint of mercy or reason within Ahab, this would be his chance to demonstrate it. A cargo full of blubber, a mind full of regrets, and a ship full of men who want to see their families are not enough to dissuade Ahab from the fruitless chase. Although there appears to be a glimmer of hope that Ahab will relent and return home safely, these hopes are quickly dashed when Moby Dick is spotted that evening and Ahab fanatically cries “There she blows! There she blows! -there she blows! There again! -there again!” (408). Despite Starbuck’s most impassioned pleas and Ahab’s own regrets, he remains obsessed with the chase and is unwilling to relent, revealing an unbalanced epistemological arrogance impervious to persuasion.

In the balance of restraint and ambition Ishmael leans more on the side of restraint. However, one occasion in which Ishmael is seen departing from his usual calm and rational restraint is when he is approached by the prophet Elijah. Preparing to board the Pequod for the whaling journey, Ishmael and Queequeg are approached by Elijah who referring to the whaling contract Ishmael and Queequeg signed asked “anything down there about your souls?” (87). By asking about their souls Elijah is implying that there is something mysterious about the journey they are about to undertake. Next, he warns them of captain Ahab. Instead of giving his attention to the prophet predicting his death, Ishmael immediately says to Queequeg “let’s go; this fellow has broken loose from somewhere”(87). Ishmael’s reactionary response deems the prophet’s advice unreasonable, possibly revealing Ishmael’s desire to go whaling even in the face of reasons not to. Despite saying he was going to leave, Ishmael stays to hear more of what the prophet has to say. Elijah then tells of Ahab’s lost leg to which Ishmael ignorantly replies “what all this gibberish of yours is about, I don’t know, and I don’t much care for it seems to me that you must be a little damaged in the head. But if you are speaking of captain Ahab, of that ship there, the Pequod, then let me tell you, that I know all about the loss of his leg” (88). This response is not only unreasonably passionate but not based in truth. Elijah is warning Ishmael of the journey he is about to take because the captain is mad but Ishmael completely rejects the advice and calls the prophet “damaged in the head”. Furthermore, at this point in the novel Ishmael did not know “all about” Ahab’s lost leg. Ishmael’s replies are representative of a reaction rather than a response and reveal that he is more interested in going on the journey than listening to a reasonable warning. He has made up his mind and will not be stopped. This situation is one of the only moments in which Ishmael compromises his humble open-mindedness in favor of ambition. By not hearing out a possibly reasonable warning about the journey and instead plunging headlong on what is now foreshadowed to be a dangerous quest Ishmael succumbs to the call of ultimate understanding and compromises his epistemological

On the opposite end of the ambition-humility spectrum, while describing the mist that comes from the spout of the whale, Melville gives us a central insight into Ishmael’s epistemological humility. As seen in the previous paragraph, Ishmael has a driving desire for the call of the unknown evidenced by his refusal of Elijah’s warning. However, here we are privy to one of Ishmael’s fundamental epistemological beliefs. Referring to the whale spout he says “in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all”(292). Here, Ishmael is not saying that things cannot be understood but he is rather saying that things are often much more difficult to understand then they appear. He does not take any meanings for granted, and deeply understands his own shortcomings in being able to comprehend the world, hence his further comment that “you might as well stand in [the whale spout], and yet be undecided as to what it precisely is”(292). Here, is a key example of his willingness to admit the incompetence of human intellect when it comes to grasping and understanding not just the great mysteries of life, but also the “plain things”. When it came to Elijah, Ishmael leaned too far on the side of ambition by disregarding the prophecy, but in this scene, we see Ishmael lean heavily toward humility since he believes that not much in the world can be understood easily. What makes Ishmael the ideal seeker is this very combination of beliefs. He is able to navigate the complex world in a balanced manner that frees him up from being tied to one end of the ambition-humility spectrum.

The two ends of the spectrum come together and can be seen in “The Whiteness of the Whale”. Ishmael’s attempt to describe the Whiteness of the Whale is the perfect example of his epistemological balance. Here, Melville puts on full display Ishmael’s ambition and humility when it comes to the greatest mysteries of life. Describing his approach, Ishmael says “how can I hope to explain myself here”(159). The Whiteness he has seen is so bewildering that it confounds human language and communication, casting doubt on whether or not he will be able to comprehend it. He does not start with an attitude of complete certainty but is rather chastened in his confidence that he will be able to communicate what he sees in the Whiteness. This statement represents the epistemological humility that Ishmael exhibits throughout the novel. Ishmael then finishes his sentence saying “and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught”(159). What he is saying here is that he feels some sort of obligation to understand the Whiteness. In a situation where understanding seems to be a hopeless endeavor Ishmael reveals himself to be a true seeker and nevertheless attempts to describe what he sees. This half of the sentence reveals Ishmael’s epistemological ambition. Attempting to defy the odds, he proceeds to do his best to understand what he sees even though there is doubt he will be able to do so. Without his epistemological ambition he would not venture to accomplish so daunting a task and without his epistemological humility he may too eagerly attempt to describe the Whiteness. It is this epistemological balance of humility and ambition that makes Ishmael the exemplary seeker of the novel.

What ultimately sets Ishmael apart as the ideal seeker is his meta-humility seen in the “Epilogue”. It is not just his chastened ambition, but also how he feels about such an epistemological viewpoint. Such an open-minded man as Ishmael may ironically find pride in his great capacity for humility. Yet, while recounting his final run-in with the White Whale he begins the retelling with the words “It so chanced” and goes on to say “I was he whom the Fates ordained”(427). He recognizes it is not his superiority that keeps him alive, but rather mere happenstance, an exemplary admission of personal limitation. In the same way that Ishmael points to fate and not personal superiority for his salvation, Melville suggests to his readers a new way to go about living out their own salvation. If Melville only wanted the religious of his day to be more open-minded, they may succeed at it and thus become arrogant because they succeeded at being more open-minded. So, in Ishmael’s last words Melville institutes a sort of safeguard against such arrogance with Ishmael’s meta-humility.

It is one thing to be humble about your understanding of the world, but entirely another to humbly respect the religious view of others. If Ishmael’s balance bears no relation to how he treats those different than him, he is neither the ideal seeker nor is he an exemplary character to model oneself after. However, Ishmael’s epistemological humility is beautifully displayed in his friendship with Queequeg. Ishmael comes face to face with his religious practices in “The Ramadan”. How he handles this situation serves as a good basis for examining how exactly Ishmael’s balance works itself out in interpersonal relationships. Ishmael says “I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical”(79). If the sentence had ended at “obligations”, it may appear that Ishmael is perfect in his respect of all religions, but “how comical” is actually a testament to Ishmael’s religious tolerance. Instead of viewing all religions equally, he holds the view that some are more comical than others and despite some being more comical he still chooses to respect them. It appears Ishmael is contradicting himself, but with “how comical”, the statement moves from being relativistic to tolerant. If Ishmael saw every single religion as true there would be no need for him to tolerate them because he would necessarily agree with them. However, Ishmael must tolerate other religions because he does not view them as equal. Ishmael is not only able to retain his own religious convictions, but also retain his belief in the truth of them which is exactly what Melville’s proposition of epistemological renewal can provide. A renewed respect for all other religions would allow the American church to still believe they are right and pursue God, but it does call for a humility and tolerance of other’s practices, no matter how different. Ishmael unashamedly thinks his religious views are right, but that does not necessarily mean that he does not respect Queequeg’s. Furthermore, in an act of tender affection Ishmael “took [his] bearskin jacket and threw it over [Queequeg], as it promised to be a very cold night; and he had nothing but his ordinary round jacket”(82). Here, Ishmael is seen not only paying lip service to his tolerance of Queequeg’s difference of religion, he is also kindly supporting it. Ishmael’s epistemological balance thus not only relates to interpreting the world, but has major implications for interpersonal relationships and being able to respect all views, even if they are seen as “comical”.

Ishmael is the ideal seeker because he stands head and shoulders above the other characters in his desire to ambitiously seek out truth, balance this pursuit with humility, and respect those who differ from him. At a point in history where the Ahab-like assurance of the church had led to much suffering, Melville presents the epistemology of Ishmael which serves as a perfect example to challenge the religiously arrogant. What sets Ishmael apart is not what he believes, because he believes much of what the church believed at the time, but rather how humble he was about his beliefs. An American Christian at the time need not disavow their faith in God in order to be more like Ishmael. Precisely is his power as ideal seeker to the religious audience. He allows the church to retain their beliefs while changing how they go about them in order to produce a country of harmony in which every man is free to believe what they choose. Therefore, Ishmael offers a model for not only the religiously arrogant of the time, but one for all time, one that furiously pursues truth, humbly acknowledges one’s own limits, and recognizes the inherent dignity of those who disagree.

Works Cited

Coleman, Dawn. Preaching and the Rise of the American Novel. Ohio State UP, 2013.

Cosgrove, Brian. “Reading the Signs in Moby Dick: Ahab’s Perverse Religious Quest.” Literature and the Supernatural: Essays for the Maynooth Bicentenary. Edited by Brian Cosgrove. Columba, 1995.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, Yothers, Brian. “Ishmael’s Doubts and Intuitions: Religion in Moby-Dick.” Moby-Dick. Edited by Robert C. Evans. Salem, 2014.

Yu, Beongcheon. “Ishmael’s Equal Eye: The Source of Balance in Moby-Dick.” Elh, vol. 32, no. 1, 1965, pp. 110-125.