The next day, Ishmael begins the lesson with a summary of the narrator’s progress so far: he’s identified the beginning and the middle of the story. It’s time to discuss the end.
As with a Zen koan, it’s important that the narrator keep repeating himself—every time he does so, he looks at his thoughts with clearer eyes, unaltered by the influence of Taker culture.
The narrator uses the tape recorder to record his idea of the end of the story of culture. After conquering and world through agriculture and civilization, man is confronted with a problem: the Earth is a finite thing. Thus, mankind can’t keep consuming the world’s resources unapologetically: sooner or later, water and food will run out. The solution to this problem, the narrator concludes, is to keep conquering: thus, mankind will continue researching science, thereby finding ways to curb pollution and increase food productivity. Similarly, he will continue exploring the universe, searching for new worlds to conquer, and new resources to consume.
Quinn is writing Ishmael at the end of the Cold War—a time when much of the world was united in optimism for the future. To name only one example, the distinguished political philosopher Francis Fukayama opined that the entire world was moving toward the “End of History”—a period in which there would be peace, democracy, and continuous progress. Quinn is highly skeptical of this new optimism, however. He thinks of it as a smokescreen for the fundamental contradiction in Taker culture.
Ishmael is pleased with the narrator’s work: the narrator, he says, has identified the “end” of the story of culture. However, he points out, this end would have been inconceivable only half a century ago. Previously, humans had believed that there was no end to their domination of the Earth, and no limit on the world’s resources.
Ishmael (and Quinn) acknowledges that Taker culture has experienced a monumental change in the last half a century. Issues of environmentalism and pollution have come into the public sphere very quickly, thanks largely to the work of radicals in the 60s and 70s.
Ishmael asks the narrator to identify the reason that mankind’s conquest of the Earth never results in utopia. This reason has been common knowledge for thousands of years, long before humans were aware of the concepts of pollution and finite resources. After some thought, the narrator proposes that humans’ conquest never results in happiness because humans themselves are deeply flawed: they’re greedy, destructive, etc. Ishmael nods that he’s correct: right or wrong, this is part of the story of culture.
Almost all of Taker culture—literature, art, etc.—suggests that mankind is inherently flawed. One can look to the doctrine of Original Sin—a cornerstone of Christian thinking, and thus of Western culture—for a good example of this principle. Christianity maintains that man is born in a state of sin, which he can never entirely escape. This idea echoes through Western society to this day.
Ishmael clarifies his point—there is nothing fundamentally good or evil about human beings. Humans have long believed that their species is flawed and evil, but this is only because they’re looking at a small “sample size.” Human history stretches back three million years, but until recently, humans thought their history began only a few thousand years ago. Thus, they based their assessments of “humanity” on the behavior of one destructive, greedy civilization. Humanity itself is not evil—rather, the story of the Takers is a story of destruction and conquering.
To conclude that humans are evil is to ignore the vast majority of human history—a period during which humans did nothing evil, or had no conception of evil whatsoever. While Taker society may be flawed, the Takers certainly have no monopoly on humanity—they represent nothing more than a small, albeit influential, strain of the species. Ishmael’s project is to illustrate how arbitrary and contradictory Taker culture is, pushing the narrator away from its dogmas.
Ishmael points out a peculiar quality of the Takers: their dependence on prophets. All Taker culture subscribes to a prophet figure, like Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed. Leavers, on the other hand, don’t worship prophets to remotely the same extent. Ishmael wants to discuss the importance of prophets in Taker culture.
This passage raises an interesting point—if prophets are fixtures of Taker society, then what is Ishmael? Why isn’t he just another prophet, telling the narrator what to do and how to think? One potential answer to this question is that Ishmael wants the narrator to keep an open mind—to discover the truth for himself, through questioning and self-interrogation. In many ways, then, he’s the opposite of a prophet.
Ishmael suggests that the prominence of prophets in Taker culture points to an acknowledgment that the Takers aren’t capable of answering certain question for themselves. They’re capable of great scientific and technological achievements, but the price they pay for this knowledge is ignorance of “how to live”—how to be happy, how to be peaceful, etc. For this reason, Takers turn to other people—prophets—for answers to these questions. In sum, Ishmael points out, Takers believe that human beings are fundamentally flawed, and that they’ll never know how to live correctly. The narrator points out that these two points are one and the same. The fundamental flaw with humans, according to Taker culture, is that they don’t know what will make them happy.
This chapter may seem repetitive to readers—at least four times, Ishmael and the narrator reiterate the theory that Takers are wrong to view humanity as fundamentally flawed. But this is part of Ishmael’s strategy. Simply stating this idea once wouldn’t accomplish anything. Like a Zen koan, it’s necessary for the narrator to repeat the truth, each time seeing it in a slightly different light. Only through this process of repetition and analysis can the narrator truly abandon the influence of Taker culture.
Ishmael reviews what he and the narrator have discussed. Takers have created a depressing mythology for themselves: mankind is flawed, and there is no way to fight these flaws. As a result, people turn to crime, drugs, and many other things to fight their depression about this mythology. Ishmael suggests that there is another story to be told, however, one, which paints a different picture of mankind.
One implication of Ishmael’s observations about Taker culture is that there’s an irreconcilable contradiction at its center: Takers are supposed to be optimistic about their conquests, and yet they’re hopelessly pessimistic about the virtues of the human species. Because there is no rational way to resolve this contradiction, Takers turn to self-destructive distractions.
Ishmael tells the narrator that tomorrow they’ll investigate if there are other models of how to live, besides the one put forward by the Takers. He assures the narrator that there are, indeed, other ways to live, ones that exist outside the scope of the narrator’s culture.
Ishmael keeps alluding to an alternate story of history: the story of the Leavers. Before he can tell the narrator about this story, however, he and the narrator must grasp what, fundamentally, is wrong with the Taker story.