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Melville’s Political Thought in Moby-Dick
Herman Melville was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because Rousseau died in 1778, 41 years prior to Melville’s birth, Melville had access to all of Rousseau’s writings. Rousseau’s political philosophy evolved as he grew older and there is evidence of a tension in Moby-Dick between the earlier and the later philosophy. Rousseau’s early work discusses the ideal of the noble savage, which is epitomized by Queequeg. His later works, in particular the Social Contract, espouse the belief that all people must band together for the common good; this idea appears upon the Pequod as crew members must abandon differences such as race in order to ensure their own safety. While Melville is always vacillating between the two dominant theories of Rousseau’s philosophy, in the end, he seems to choose the latter. Queequeg, who epitomizes the ideal of the noble savage, and Ahab, who represents a savage in the state of war, both die. The character that portrays his early philosophy as well as the character that impedes upon his later philosophy are both killed. It is only Ishmael who survives; it is only Ishmael who unfailingly upholds the Rousseauean social contract.
Melville was heavily indebted to arguably the three most influential 17th and 18th century philosophers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While Melville relied mainly on Rousseau, Rousseau was himself very reliant on Hobbes and Locke. In his early philosophy, Rousseau discarded the idea of original sin and believed that all people are born completely pure and free of sin. This was informed by Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa, which is simply a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” Rousseau took this idea to mean that one cannot come into the world with any prejudices or evil tendencies. In Ã?mile, he writes, “Let us lay down as an incontestable maxim that the first movements of nature are always right: there is no original wickedness in the human heart. Not a single vice is to be found there which one cannot say how and where it entered” (Cook 1). Because humans must be inherently good, the corruption that is evident in the world must come from somewhere; Rousseau believed that society, education, and government were all corrupting forces. He explains in Fragments of Freedom that
One of the greatest chimeras of philosophy is having to seek some form of Government in which the citizens can be free and virtuous by the force of the laws alone. It is only in the solitary life that freedom and innocence can be found, and we can be certain that the epoch of the first establishment of societies was that of the birth of crime and slavery. (Rousseau 12)
It should be noted that he believes perfection only to be possible in the “solitary life,” as this will become important in developing his later ideas. Strife and corruption occur when there is an imbalance between desires and the ability to satisfy those desires (Cook 21). Society, government, and education were seen as causing, exaggerating, and exacerbating the imbalances between people’s desires and their ability to satiate their desires by giving them an increase of knowledge without an increase of power.
Rousseau’s later philosophy was influenced by the work of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that people are driven solely by self-interest and selfish pursuits. In his work Leviathan, Hobbes states: “it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.” Unless people give up certain rights to a governmental power, they have the ability to do whatsoever they please without fear of governmental repercussions. However, people become so protective of their rights without regard to the rights of others that every person is at war with everyone else. This is where Rousseau “set out in the Social Contract to reconcile [self] interest with freedom and common good” (McKenzie 209-210). By having people surrender certain rights and freedoms, they can all be better off. People will work to create a better society because it is in their best interest to do so. Also, people will only surrender their rights if there is a guarantee of protection, which usually takes the form of government. It should be remembered that Rousseau never abandons his ideal of the man in the state of nature; he realizes that the ideal can only exist in isolation. Since humans do not, by nature, live in isolation, they must work together, even if it is only for their own protection.
The character that most clearly exemplifies Rousseau’s early philosophy in Moby-Dick is Queequeg. While other characters, such as Daggoo, Tashtego, Pip, and Fleece, also come close to typifying Rousseau ideals, none are as indicative of them as Queequeg. One of the ways in which Melville shows the nobility of the savages is through the juxtaposition of Christian-like and non-Christian characters. The term Christian-like is used because not all of the crew or background characters are necessarily Christian. They do, however, live in a predominantly Christian society and have been influenced by a supposedly Christian morality. While the Pequod has representatives of nations from around the globe, most of the Caucasian characters are from traditionally Christian countries, such as America and Spain. Because of this, they necessarily have been subjected to the morals and mores of their societies. Thus, they can be seen are representatives of Christian morality. The behavior exhibited by each of the groups rarely meets the expectations placed on them. Christianity, although its teachings are very peaceable in theory, is not the most peaceful religion in practice. However, one still expects Christians to act in a manner that is in accordance with their own professed beliefs. On the other hand, idol worshippers, such as Queequeg, are expected to be inherently vicious and carnal people to whom the concepts of compassion and mercy are completely foreign. In the novel, this is in direct opposition to the actions of the characters.
For example, on the ship the Moss, which was taking Quequeeg and Ishmael to Nantucket, a young man was mimicking and making fun of Quequeeg behind his back. The young man “marvelled that two fellow beings should be so companionable; as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro” (Melville 76). Queequeg, realizing this, threw him in the air. He set him right again and did not give him another thought (76). This scene tells a lot about Queequeg and the westerners in this novel, most of whom have a tendency to speak before they think. The young man here is similar in many ways to most of the westerners in the novel. This scene foreshadows a more intense one between Daggoo and the Spanish sailor. He verbally attacks Queequeg unprovoked. Then, when Quequeeg gains the upper hand, he runs away to the captain. There is very little brave or noble about him. When Ishmael explains that the captain thinks that he meant to kill the young man, Queequeg scoffs and says “him bevy small-e fish-e; Queequeg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale” (76-77)! Having said that, not killing the young man shows that Queequeg does not hold a grudge and that he is capable of forgiveness, neither of which can be said about most westerners in the novel. It also introduces a theme that will be present throughout the novel – that is that people are conscious of their own inherent dignity and humanity, and they will respond when that dignity is encroached upon. While this is not necessarily a point taken directly from Rousseau, it derives from his political philosophy in that it speaks of the inherent nobility of the savages.
Immediately following this scene, the main-sail breaks loose and knocks the young man overboard. Queequeg, after securing the main-sail, jumps overboard as well, recklessly ignoring the possible consequences to himself, and proceeds to save the young man. He does not think that he deservs any special merit for the saving of another life – a life that had moments ago insulted his own; all he asks for is some fresh water to clean himself off with. He lived the unspoken philosophy that, “we cannibals must help these Christians” (78). In just a few pages, Melville gives a sketch of Rousseau’s ideal. Queequeg is shown to be self-sacrificing, and he does what is right simply because it is right, as opposed to doing it for material or political gain. He is also ignorant, a positive trait from the point of view of Rousseau’s philosophy. Queequeg has a complete lack of scholastic knowledge; he knows enough to live without possessing unnecessary knowledge that would result in his having desires beyond his means of attainment.
While it is an anthropological error to judge another culture by one’s own standards, this does not mean that it does not occur. On the social microcosm that is the Pequod, the savages are forced to keep company with a fairly homogenous, mostly western society. The westerners, even Ishmael, have a sense of their own superiority when they are exposed to the ignorance of the savages. For example, Queequeg related to Ishmael the story of the first time that he saw a wheelbarrow. Not wanting to appear ignorant, he lifted up the wheelbarrow and carried it. Ishmael responds, “Didn’t the people laugh” (74)? This shows that even Ishmael still retains some prejudices, even if they were unconscious. This example does not redound to any superiority on the part of the Christians. It actually works towards equality. Using another anecdote, Queequeg proves that the Christians would be just as out of place in his kingdom as he is in their realm. It is the story of a sea captain who unwittingly washes his hands in the punch at the wedding of Queequeg’s sister. Ishmael, in Rokovoko, would be no more or less out of place than Queequeg is in Nantucket. One’s being different is not an attribute that can be used as a value judgment. This is forward thinking on the part of Melville. Also, Queequeg is of royal blood. By having the heir apparent and last of a royal bloodline die, Melville could be expressing his preference for governments in which the power is not passed down through bloodlines. If Melville believes that all men are equal partners in the social contract then it would make sense that he would prefer a republic over a monarchy. In an ideal republic, all men have an opportunity, even a duty, to contribute to the well-being of all. In a monarchy, one family, one bloodline, is elevated beyond everyone else. In the ideal, one family or even one person has the burden of maintaining the well-being of an entire people while that very same people is excluded from the political process. Because of the absolute investment of power in a central body, corruption and tyranny can easily develop, while in the republic the power is dispersed among a larger number of people and leaves a smaller chance for oppression.
It is not only the standards of American and Christian society that are placed on the savages, but their morality as well. Queequeg, who is the son of a king, came to Christian lands to learn how to make his people better and happier than they were. Upon arriving, though, he realized that Christians could be “miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens” (72). The only reason that Queequeg does not return to his home is that Christianity has actually degraded him and he does not want to defile the pure throne of thirty pagan kings by having been so long in the company of Christians. As is evident during the scene at the Spouter Inn, Queequeg has been slightly civilized by living so long in the company of westerners. He has become civilized enough to be self-conscious, but still too much of a savage to know what to be self-conscious of. He gets undressed in front of Ishmael, but has to put his boots on under the bed. Society is acting as a corrupting influence on him. While he resists the corruption more than anyone else in the novel, it does not avail him. He dies. His death is equivalent to Melville’s resigning himself to the impossibility of human perfection in its current state. Rousseau necessarily came to the same conclusion since he went on to develop his philosophy further in the Social Contract. Man, because he is a social being by nature, cannot revert back to the solitary state of nature. Because of this, man is inherently incapable of being perfected
After Melville gives up the pursuit of man’s perfection, he subscribes to Rousseau’s later philosophy. This is not, however, immediately apparent at any one point in the text. Melville is struggling with and vacillating between the two ideologies throughout the novel. It is only in the epilogue that it becomes clear that he has chosen the Social Contract over the idea of noble savage. One of the first key scenes in which the ideas of the Social Contract are identifiable is in Chapter LXXII. The belief that all people are dependant on each other is demonstrated in this chapter. It is shown that they are dependent on one another because they have surrendered their natural freedoms for their mutual survival. Queequeg has to descend onto the whale’s back. There is only a small portion of the whale above water, and he must manage to stay balanced on the whale and not fall into the shark-infested water or hit the ship a few feet away. To try and secure Queequeg, a monkey-rope is tied between him and Ishmael. That their fates are joined as one symbolizes how all people are dependent on each other (Grejda 97). Ishmael comes to a similar conclusion when he realizes that his fate is inexorably tied to that of Queequeg. He sees that no matter how careful he may be, a mistake made by Queequeg could result in his death. He follows the logical procession of this line of thought to its inevitable end: everyone is dependent on everyone else even if they are unconscious of that dependence (337). Ishmael is a perfect example of Rousseau’s philosophy. He shows that for the necessities of life, people are completely subject to the actions of others. One person’s mistake often influences more than himself. Also, Ishmael shows that humans can never be perfected. Near the end of his discourse, he seems to state that while a person may escape being influenced by the actions of others, one cannot escape them all. Humans are inherently social, but humanity never has and never can exist in a state where circumstances would allow for its perfectibility.
If Queequeg is the personification of Rousseau’s idea of man in his natural state, then Ahab is the epitome of Thomas Hobbes’s. All of the men of the Pequod have entered into a contract, both literally and figuratively. They have surrendered their natural rights to Ahab, who is the common power that holds them in awe, for their protection. According to this social contract, Ahab has power over them so long as he uses his power for their benefit and protection. In his monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick, Ahab has reverted back to the state of nature. The state of nature in the midst of society creates a state of war. Unbeknownst to the crew, with the exception of Starbuck, there is a state of war between the members of the crew, who are still participating in the social contract, and Ahab, who is not, because Ahab is only concerned with his natural rights to do as he chooses. He breaches the contract because he subjects the crew to his will for his own purposes as opposed to for their benefit.
Starbuck is not the new ideal, but he comes more closely to it than anyone else in the novel. He picked up Ahab’s musket while Ahab was sleeping, decided that it was the best course of action because he would be saving so many lives, then he decided against killing his captain in cold-blood. He subjects his actions to the totalitarian will of Ahab (Melville 527-529). Starbuck would have been the ideal if he had had the power of Ahab. Without power, Starbuck’s righteousness is as useless as Queegqueg’s nobility – neither can prevent his inevitable demise. Also, if Starbuck had possessed the power to begin with, there would not have been the same opportunity for him to show his lack of resolve and ability to protect both himself and his fellow crewmen. As first mate, Starbuck is almost as responsible for the protection of the crew as Ahab. While his failure is not as overt as Ahab’s, it is still a failure. He cannot be the complete ideal because he did not fulfill his part of the social contract.
In the epilogue, it is revealed that Ishmael is the only survivor of the sinking of the Peqoud. There is a twofold reason for Ishmael’s survival. Besides the obvious reason that someone must live for the story to be told, it shows the ultimate triumph of Rousseau’s later philosophy for Melville. Ishmael is the only true portrayal of the idea of the social contract. While it may be true that the savages contributed most to the society of the Pequod, they still represented Rousseau’s early philosophy for Melville. Starbuck came close to being the ideal, but he betrayed that ideal by consciously allowing the crew to perish in Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Ishmael represents the idea of the social contract for several reasons. First, he understands it and is able to explicate it to a degree, as is evident in Chapter LXXII. Second, he does what he can and works for the protection of everyone. He does whatever is commanded of him by the higher power, which is in this case Ahab, often by way of Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. This is a requirement of the social contract. If one’s rights are surrendered to a governmental authority, that authority now has those rights over its citizens and can force them to conform to its will for the protection of the whole. While the tasks that are given to him may seem trivial or menial at times, they are nonetheless tasks that must get done for the ship to operate smoothly and safely. Third, he recognizes, as the book goes on, that all people are equal. In the state of nature, they are inherently equal, as Hobbes says in the opening lines of Leviathan:
Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and m an is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he (Hobbes).
If they are equal in nature, they must still be equal when they enter into a contract together.
Ishmael undoubtedly has flaws – he is not an ideal and does not claim to be. However, he consistently does the best that he is able, is concerned about the welfare of his fellow beings, sees past racial lines, and remains unhypocritical. Ishmael grows and develops more than any other character in the novel, and yet the positive traits above remain with him at the end of the novel. He is still a flawed character, but he has worked through many of his flaws by the conclusion of the novel. No other character possesses all of the positive traits that Ishmael does.
In short, Melville was struggling between two different philosophical ideas espoused by Rousseau at different points in his life. The novel shows a definite tension between the two ideas, both of which find expression at various points during the novel. The end shows that Melville finally chose the later of Rousseau’s ideas, which were developed in the Social Contract. This shows that all of society must live and work together for their own protection from each other. Queequeg’s death proves that Melville has abandoned the early philosophical idea of the noble savage; he has done so because of the nature of humanity, which prevents it from ever reaching that ideal state. Likewise, Ishmael’s survival shows the triumph and ultimate possibility of the social contract. The only reason that the social contract failed is because Ahab, who had the most important role in the contract, violated it. Violation and manipulation of the social contract can have disastrous consequences. Ahab’s breach of the contract is that which directly results in the death of the crew that he was supposed to have been working to protect. This is evidence that Melville realized that the social contract is possible, but it is only possible if all of its member adhere to the standards of that contract.
Cook, Terrence E. “Rousseau: Education and Politics.” Journal
of Politics 37 (1975): 108-129. 17 Oct. 2005.
Grejda, Edward S. The Common Continent of Men. Port
Washington, New York: Kennikat P, 1974.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oregon State University. 1 Nov.
McKenzie, Lionel A. “Rousseau’s Debate with Machiavelli in
the Social Contract.” Journal of the History of Ideas
43 (1982): 209-210. 1 Nov. 2005 <http://links.jst-or.org
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York City: Bantam Books,
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Collected Writings of Rousseau. 1st
ed. Vol. 4. Hanover, NH: University P of New England,
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