Ishmael notes that the right whale has a mass of hairlike fibers inside its mouth, for catching very small sea creatures and eating them—its head is rather misshapen and resembles a shoe, as compared to the “chariot-like” appearance of the sperm-whales head. Ishmael muses that, when set side-by-side against the stern of the boat, the sperm whale’s head looks “indifferent to death,” or “Platonian,” and the right whale’s head looks set against the reality of death, one it knows it cannot avoid—like a Greek “Stoic.”
An interesting distinction between two different philosophies. A Platonian, or follower of Plato’s, would believe in a series of perfect “forms,” thus understanding the body to be less important than the soul, which gives the body life. A Stoic, on the other hand, would be an adherent of ancient Stoicism, or the idea that earthly torment is simply a reality, to which one has to submit with patience and an even keel. The men—or at least Ishmael—now attempt to interpret or understand the dead whale heads through the lens of ancient Greek philosophy. It is a sentence that when stated plainly sounds ludicrous, but this again highlights that the whale ultimately is unknowable to all forms of human knowledge brought to bear against it.