Saturday, April 25, 2020

"What is the Meaning of Life?" is not a philosophical question: a few remarks on Moby-Dick, Chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story"

Highbrow readers will recall my October 19, 2019 post in which I drew a distinction showing that "What is the meaning of life?" is not a philosophical question. Please click HERE to review that discussion.

The question of the meaning of life is explored in Moby-Dick ad infinitum. Melville's continuously-unfolding-conclusion is anti-Platonic, post-Calvinist, and his formulation might be compared to Milton, Judaism and various threads we could associate with Existentialism an
d the Beats. In science, Melville is advancing skeptical-empirical science, which is characteristically rooted in Aquinas's Natural Theology, and which culminates in Bacon and Locke. Politically--and his political philosophy also compares to Locke--his historiography is straight up and down Classic Liberalism.

Along these lines, I should point out the remarkable chapter entitled "The Town-Ho's Story", which advances apophatic theology, treating such questions as "Is the white whale the agent of God? Is Moby Dick actually God himself, righting wrongs in this world and exacting vengeance upon evil men who prey upon the innocent?" Approaching the question apohatically, Melville's answer is "no", and in this answer he advances a rather dire cosmology that compares to Hobbes (who, incidentally, Melville would otherwise reject at a number of levels).

"The Town-Ho's Story" is wonderfully plotted: After enduring endless abuses at the hands of the bullying mate Mr. Radney, a resourceful sailor named Steelkilt gives Radney a broken jaw. After assorted power-plays, Steelkilt plots to murder Radney, but before he can commit the evil deed, Moby Dick appears, gives the ship a bump, and the shock throws Radney into the sea, whereupon Moby Dick takes the mate into his crooked jaws and drags him down to Davey Jones. In the wake of this astonishing (and very likely "fictitious") event, Steelkilt leads a mutiny and takes the ship. At the conclusion of the mutiny story (there is more, of course, as the story is told by Ishmael who places the meaning of the story in an apophatic context), Steelkilt is presiding as the Captain and two or three loyal sailors are put into a whaleboat and pushed off to find their fate out in the middle of the Pacific. In a clearly emblematic phrase replete with philosophical meaning, Steelkilt expresses his contempt for the Captain, who had been consistently indifferent to the suffering of the crew and the abuses of Radney. 

Steelkilt laughs at the Captain as the whaleboat is pushed off: "A pretty scholar! . . . Adios, Senor!"

Moby Dick by Rockwell Kent

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