My Ishmael Essay

Unlike "Leaver" societies, which sustained themselves and the natural world for thousands of years, our "Taker" society will run out of things to kill and will die. Quinn likens the agricultural revolution to humans' first attempts at flight. Those attempts failed because we tried to mimic a bird. Only when we discovered the law of aerodynamics did we learn to fly.

Through "Ishmael," Quinn argues that no law or theory underpins "Taker" culture — and that's why it has been in free fall since its adoption.

Quinn emphasizes that the natural world, which includes "Leaver" cultures, sustains itself through what he calls the law of limited competition. Under this peace-keeping law, he says, you may not hunt down competitors or deny them food or access to it. You also may not commit genocide against your competition.

"And only once in all the history of this planet has any species tried to live in defiance of this law — and it wasn't an entire species, it was only one people, those I've named the Takers," Ishmael tells the narrator. "Ten thousand years ago, this one people said, 'No more. Man was not meant to be bound by this law,' and they began to live in a way that flouts the law at every point."

People have asked me why I don't just become a hunter-gatherer. I have no interest in becoming a hunter-gatherer — and I know my wife, who focuses on the good in our society, wouldn't, either. I wouldn't know what to do and especially where to go. My problem is less with civilization than the aggressiveness and mindlessness of this one. As Quinn points out in "Ishmael," civilization isn't against the law of limited competition; it's subject to the law of limited competition.

While writing this essay, I took a break to go with my wife and son to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform at the Morton Arboretum. As I listened, I thought about all the beauty this culture has produced.

Yet I yearn to live in a civilization that blends less madness with its music. I yearn to live in a civilization that redefines not only wealth but profit. A new shopping center and fast-food restaurant turns up trees by the roots but lifts no spirit. A lawn built on chemical products kills the dandelion but misses the miracle. A daytime flight over Chicago anticipates the skyline but ignores the slaughter. I yearn to live in a civilization that aviates consciously.

I know of like minds who found inspiration in "Ishmael."

"When I was a legal advocate for chemical victims, I was already well aware of the distorted values at work in our culture," Earon Davis, a former Chicago resident who recently moved to Bloomington, Ind., wrote in an email. "'Ishmael' helped me to see that our entire society's sustainability and adaptability were being jeopardized by corrupted group-think in our mainstream culture."

Davis said he tried to establish a Chicago-based discussion group related to "Ishmael" but got limited participation. He continues to lead a Web-based discussion group, which sees little activity.

"I can see how most people who are initially drawn to 'Ishmael' need to back away from the message of Quinn in order to focus on earning a living, raising a family, and living a 'normal' life," he wrote.

Barbara Ridd said she incorporates "Ishmael" into the curriculum of a course called Ecology of Personal Life at DePaul University's School for New Learning. She said the book offends some students who feel it questions the Bible.

"I think that closes those people off to the greater message, that we have to take stock of ourselves," she said. "I think that sometimes, when given such a blunt look at our existence as mankind, people don't like that as well."

Laura M. Hartman, assistant professor of religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, said she read "Ishmael" for two courses as an undergraduate at Indiana University. "The general concept of 'Takers' and 'Leavers' still resonates with me," she said. Yet she sees a weakness in the book: Instead of providing instructions on how to change the world, Quinn appeals for changed minds.

  • 1

    Why is it significant that Ishmael is a gorilla?

    Though the lessons Ishmael teaches are undoubtedly the novel's most important aspect, several of those lessons are reinforced by the fact that Ishmael is a gorilla. First, he has a unique perspective on captivity because he is an outcast to human society. Because of this perspective, he is best able to realize the mentality and nature of captivity. This is important since his lessons revolve around the belief that Taker society is being held captive by the story Mother Culture tells. Secondly, the fact that a wild animal is teaching us about our own captivity reminds us that the proper way to live is through a harmony with nature. Everything in life has something to teach to everything else - together, all life teaches the natural laws that ensure harmony. Finally, as a gorilla that was brought into civilization (by Walter Sokolow), he has the opportunity to understand both Taker and Leaver lifestyles. Thus, he is able to both criticize the Taker lifestyle, and offer a viable alternative.

  • 2

    What is the crux of Quinn’s argument in Ishmael?

    Quinn’s ideas are complex, but Ishmael insists early on that understanding the entire thought process is less important than grasping the ultimate goal. Thus, it is useful to articulate the argument simply. Quinn's ideas center on the development of civilization and totalitarian agriculture. What makes humans (Takers) so destructive is their insistence on forcing the agricultural way of life on everyone else. This way of life presumes that humans are both apart from and against nature, and that humans should manipulate nature for the sake of food production. As a result, humans are slowly destroying the world.

  • 3

    Argue the merits of Quinn's perspective on the Genesis origin stories.

    Arguably one of the most interesting sections of the novel is Quinn's perspective on the stories of Adam and Cain and Abel. His basic approach is that these stories were told by Semites, who were herders, to explain the aggressiveness of the agricultural Taker civilization that developed in the Fertile Crescent. Quinn’s theory makes sense for a few reasons. First, the Hebrew word for “Adam” means man, and “Eve” means life. This language explains the story in a useful way - 'man' has been tempted to perpetuate the growth of 'life' through agriculture, and hence has traded the harmony of a pastoral garden for a difficult life of toil to that end. More importantly, Taker culture has never been able to understand the meaning of these stories. Had they written the stories, knowledge of good and evil would never have been penalized; it would have been considered man's birthright. Finally, the fact that agriculture is considered a curse suggests that the Takers would never have written this story.

  • 4

    Why are most cultural movements bound to fail, in Quinn’s opinion?

    Most cultural movements, like the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, are bound to fail because they operate within the thought prison of Taker culture, rather than seeking to dismantle the prison altogether. Most protesters glimpse a problem, but never identify exactly what they are rebelling against. Specifically, what protests would have to work against is the assumptions that man is the apex of evolution, and that the agricultural way of life is necessarily superior. In a sense, this is the main point of Ishmael - we must first have awareness of what is happening if we are to enact useful change. And in this case, this requires relinquishing most of what we take for granted, rather than trying to change the system while under the sway of certain pernicious assumptions.

  • 5

    What is the significance of the story that the narrator wrote in college, about Nazi Germany?

    In writing the story, the narrator was articulating his feeling that something was wrong with the planet. However, he also had to admit that he was unable to articulate the nature of that problem. Overall, the narrator's story serves as a metaphor for the problems that arise when no one knows exactly what is wrong. Like Ishmael indicates, this uncertainty is one of the most problematic aspects of Taker civilization, since it leads to problems like crime, greed, and insanity. Much as German society might have been improved if its citizens were aware of what was happening under Hitler, our issues could be addressed if we become aware of the pernicious story being told by Mother Culture.

  • 6

    When Ishmael is so named, he says he was “made whole as a person—not again but for the very first time.” Explain the significance of this sentiment.

    Once Ishmael was re-named, his holistic self-view began his journey towards knowledge. By recognizing the importance of identity, he was beginning to understand the nature of mankind's captivity. Overall, the lesson is that individuals must realize that they can break the conformity engendered by Mother Culture's story. They can be "made whole" so long as they can break free of the thought prison, but that first requires an individual commitment towards knowledge and truth. When Ishmael learned he was not a nameless gorilla but rather an individual with particular capabilities, he began to work towards helping society in his own way.

  • 7

    Why is it important that Ishmael says that he was “incapable of even that most primitive of fallacies: post hoc, ergo propter hoc?”

    This Latin phrase translates to "after this, therefore because of this," and is a logical fallacy. It states that a second event must have caused a first event simply because it came after it. By establishing the ability to grasp a fallacy as a "primitive" human quality, Ishmael suggests that falling prey to a fallacy is an important part of being human. We are all inclined towards contradictions, and must recognize this weakness if we are transcend it. Humans are able to justify pernicious and harmful activity, which explains how Mother Culture has led us to hurt ourselves and our Earth. The implication is that we must recognizing this failing so that we can craft a better alternative and save the planet.

  • 8

    Why, in Quinn’s opinion, has evolution stalled or stopped completely?

    Much of Quinn's ultimate argument revolves around the importance of evolution. Because evolution allows a diversity of species so that some of them can survive any climactic shift, it is extremely important for the perpetuation of life. However, most humans - the Takers - have removed themselves from the laws that govern life, assuming they are superior to nature, the apex of evolution. Because man has taken control of food production and waged war on other species, man has stopped evolving. Not only is this dangerous for the planet, but it is harmful to man since it makes us less likely to survive any impending climactic shifts.

  • 9

    Explain the significance of Ishmael's poster.

    In his office, Ishmael has a poster reading "WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?” The narrator correctly identifies this as a koan, meaning that it could be read two ways. It could mean that gorilla will have a lesser chance of survival if man dies; it could also mean that gorilla could stand a greater chance of survival if man dies. At novel's end, however, the narrator discovers that the back of the poster reads "WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BY HOPE FOR MAN?" The overall point is that both interpretations are true - all of life is dependent on the rest of life. Because of this co-dependence, man's destructive ways are particularly frightening not just for man, but for all of life.

  • 10

    Why is it important that Ishmael grew up in captivity, but still remembers what it was like to eat in the wild?

    While Ishmael's theories touch on many different aspects of life - politics, religion, money - the most important element is food production. Because Ishmael remembers a life in which food grew abundantly, and could be taken when an individual wanted it, life was both easy and stress-free. This stands in stark contrast to Takers, who are able to stock-pile food, but who live lives of anxiety from fear of being caught without it. Ishmael's many theories - about population control, the means of production, etc. - are all informed by his ability to contrast the Taker perspective on food with the Leaver one.

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