Ishmael

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Ishmael Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator arrives at Ishmael’s building the next day. Ishmael seems amused with the narrator, who is feeling nervous about venturing outside culture to look for answers.
At times, Ishmael uses humor and mockery to distance the narrator from his own fears and anxieties. The narrator is going through a complete and potentially painful shift of worldview, so it’s important that he keep a sense of levity as well.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Ishmael begins by proposing that humans don’t need prophets to live, contrary to the beliefs of the Takers. He compares the dilemma of the Leaver to that of the pilot, 100 years ago. Before the Wright Brothers, there was no certain information about how to fly: many scientists had theories about how human beings could be able to fly, but nothing was certain. The only way to discover human flight was to proceed by trial and error. In much the same way, the only way to discover “how to live” is to proceed by trial and error, trying things in one’s own life and seeing if they work. Ishmael suggests that what humans needed, in the case of human flight and in the case of how to live, is a law—that is, a piece of information about how things always are, not merely how they are in one particular situation. Ishmael promises to give the narrator some universal, unbreakable laws about how to live.
Ishmael depends upon analogies to clarify his point. Here, he makes an important analogy about the laws of the universe. The advantage of laws, Ishmael argues, is that they’re always true—they’re universal. Thus, if one knows the laws of life, one can use them to build a better life for oneself, regardless of one’s culture, where one lives, or what one does.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Ishmael suggests that humans must look for the laws of how to live by studying life itself. The narrator interprets this to mean that humans should study only human life—an interpretation that Ishmael sarcastically shoots down, much to the narrator’s annoyance. Ishmael stresses that humans should study the behavior of all living things, not only human beings, even if Mother Culture says that humans have nothing to learn from animals.
Even after the narrator recognizes how foolish human beings are to think of themselves as the “center” of the universe, he continues to reflexively think of humanity in exactly these terms. This shows how influential Taker dogma has been—the narrator has to break himself of his bad habits, and this will take some time.
Themes
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael makes an analogy between the laws of gravity and the laws of how to live. Newton’s great achievement, he argues, wasn’t to identify that gravity existed—it was to show that gravity always worked in the same way, and that these rules held everywhere in the universe. Similarly, nothing Ishmael says will be surprising to the narrator—the value of the lesson will be in illustrating that there are laws of how to live that never change. The laws of how to live can be applied both to civilization and to “the wild”—they are truly universal.
This section clarifies an important difference between Ishmael and the prophets he’s discussed in earlier chapters. Where the prophets of Taker culture think that they’re imparting impressive “new” information, Ishmael is much more modest in his aims—he’s going to go over some basic truths. To make an analogy: he’s not going to reinvent the wheel—he’s going to “remind” the narrator how the wheel works.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
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Ishmael details three “humiliations” that mankind has endured. The first humiliation was the discovery that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe. The second humiliation was the discovery that humans are descended from the same ancestors as other animals. The third humiliation, which the Takers haven’t discovered yet, is that humans aren’t exempt from the laws of life, just as they’re not exempt from the laws of gravity. Ishmael will go on to explain what these laws are, analogizing them to the laws of gravity or thermodynamics in the process.
Ishmael’s theory alludes to a famous essay by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, in which he discussed the “three humiliations” of modern mankind: the Copernican revolution (the earth isn’t the center of the universe), the Darwinian revolution (that man is another animal, subject to the laws of evolution), and the Freudian revolution (that man has a subconscious). Ishmael’s three humiliations are slightly different, but they amount to the same point: in the grand scheme of things, man simply isn’t that special or important.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael makes another analogy between Takers and pilots of the past. If a pilot were to build a flying machine that didn’t work, he might test it by jumping out of a building. When he jumped, he wouldn’t immediately realize that his machine was failing—the feeling of free fall would resemble flight to the point where he might think his machine was a total success. Nevertheless, this pilot would eventually hit the ground and die. This is the position of the Takers: they think that they’ve defied the laws of gravity with agriculture and civilization, when in fact, they’ve only delayed the natural laws of life. Except for a few realists like Thomas Malthus, Takers are blissfully unaware that their civilizations are ultimately going to go extinct. On this note, the chapter ends.
One of the most important challenges to Taker culture is that there hasn’t been any evidence that it’s failing—because Takers have only been dominant for a few thousand years, they believe that their model of world domination is working perfectly. But this is only because they don’t have much evidence to work with. In the grand scheme of things, Ishmael maintains, their scheme is failing abysmally. The goal, then, is to change the Takers’ minds about conquest before it becomes too late and most of the life on the Earth goes extinct.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon