The selfish members of a selfish society: A look at Transcendentalism and Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick'

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The selfish members of a selfish society: A look at Transcendentalism and Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick'

Jorge Rodriguez

"There is no pure Transcendentalist...we know of none but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay The Transcendentalist (p. 4). Through his many essays and writings, however, he defends this philosophy as an individual's most reliable resource to fulfill his purpose in life. Furthermore, he has been identified as one of the precursors of American Transcendentalism in the nineteenth century and is known for trying to live according to the ideas he promoted. Nevertheless, he recognizes his own failure and that of all his contemporaries who dedicated themselves to Transcendentalism when he emphasizes that "we have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example" (p. 4). Therefore, if not even Emerson could to live up to the standard of what a true Transcendentalist should be, is the 'spiritual life' promoted by this philosophy an attainable goal or is it impossible to become a true Transcendentalist?

In his novel 'Moby-Dick', Herman Melville introduces three characters that possess many of the fundamental characteristics that identify a Transcendentalist, but who fail to become one. Captain Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg do not make a conscious decision to live according to the teachings of this philosophy, but many of their actions and decisions function as manifestations of how a true Transcendentalist would think and behave. Nonetheless, these insights fail to completely enlighten these characters as they are unable to fulfill what they understand to be their purpose in life. According to Emerson's perspective, they are pioneers who prophesize what man should aspire to be, but who are unsuccessful in that same enterprise. The accomplishments and failures of these characters serve as an indication of which ideas from Transcendentalism individuals are likely to embrace and which other ones, by not assimilating them, will defeat their pursuit of a spiritual life. Melville's account of the development and the trajectory followed by Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg is therefore useful when debating if it is possible to become the perfect Transcendentalist that Emerson describes.

Emerson defines Transcendentalism by first establishing that it is not a new philosophy which appears for the first time in New England, but that it is an old idea reviewed and reconsidered from the particular circumstances of the time he lived in: "What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842" (p. 1). He establishes that the main concept of Idealism is the valuing of consciousness over experience: "The idealist has another measure, which is metaphysical, namely, the rank things themselves take in his consciousness; not at all the size or appearance. Mind is the only reality" (p. 2). Since both Idealists and Transcendentalists rely heavily on the power of consciousness, it follows that they will experience the world around them according to how their minds behold it. Instead of perceiving from a materialistic point of view where what matters are the senses and collectable data which can be interpreted in the same fashion by a general populous, these philosophies will deposit their faith in the "depth of thought" (p. 3) and each individual will "behold the processions of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself" (p. 3).

As a result of this confidence in consciousness and the mind, Transcendentalism distinguishes its philosophy by attributing particular attention to intuitions. Emerson explains that "the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendentalism, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke [...] by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired" (p. 5). What Kant labels as 'Transcendental forms' are nothing but the intuitions of the mind. Respect and trust in these intuitions are then the fundamental criteria that define any Transcendentalist, even if there is not a 'pure' one to be found as Emerson insists upon.

Transcendentalism will then affirm that if an individual learns to rely on his intuitions and deposits his faith in them, then he is capable of developing his own set of rules to have command over his life. Therefore, the Transcendentalist "resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own" (p. 3). The leap that Transcendentalists make in their ideology from their belief in intuitions to affirming that every individual should be his own lawmaker is what many of their critics refer to instead as lawlessness: "In action, he easily incurs the charge of antinomianism by his avowal that he, who has the Lawgiver, may with safety not only neglect, but even contravene every written commandment" (p. 4). This charge does hold true as far as it implies that a Transcendentalist will disregard any legal form if he understands that it opposes the rules he has set forth for himself. By acting as a 'lawgiver', however, he is not engaging in an act of anarchism or mindless rebellion against all law, but is instead opting for his own set of laws. Following this line of thought, Emerson concludes in his essay Self-Reliance that "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature" (p. 3).

The final outcome of this process will be self-reliance, as Emerson describes it in that same essay. "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," is the one lesson that Emerson would want us to part with if we do not take anything else away from our study of Transcendentalism (p. 3). If we learn to follow our intuitions and to obey our own laws, we will ultimately trust ourselves and will become completely self-reliant. This may not be enough to award us with the title of 'Transcendentalist', but it moves us away from the crowd mentality produced in society and helps us focus on our consciousness as individuals.
"We must go alone," Emerson writes as he suggests that we should abandon society and seek solitude, as it is a better tool for us to learn to trust ourselves. (p. 12). He makes the accusation that "society never advances" as he implies that it disables individuals in their pursuit of self-reliance (p. 17). He even warns us that "the populace think(s) that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism" (p. 13). Nevertheless, if one truly comprehends what Transcendentalism is trying to achieve, one will also understand that this retreat to solitude is not an ungrounded choice of a hermit lifestyle over community living, but a conscious decision of valuing our true selves over what society may expect of us.

Margaret Fuller elaborates on Emerson's definition of Transcendentalism when she specifies that each person should trust in himself because that same trust cannot be deposited in anybody else: "I must depend on myself as the only constant friend...the position I early was enabled to take, was one of self-reliance" (Fuller, p. 166). She clarifies that self-reliance is not only valuable because the individual learns to develop his own mind and consciousness, but also because it is a vital resource as the individual cannot trust anyone else. The competitive nature of society, as Fuller describes it in her essay The Great Lawsuit, makes it unworthy of our trust: "each wishes to be lord in a little world, to be superior at least over one" (p. 167). Furthermore, this very same statement supports Emerson's invitation to live in solitude as it demonstrates how we often make the mistake and commit the crime of imposing ourselves and our rules on others. If we want to become truly self-reliant, we need to start by respecting the laws that other individuals have set forth for themselves according to their own nature and we can only do so by retreating from society.

Now, with a better understanding of the philosophy's major concepts, we can understand the impulse to affirm that Captain Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg are perfect examples of what a Transcendentalist should be. The fundamental ideas and elements of this ideology that have been discussed so far are clearly present in these three characters from Melville's novel. Although none of them seeks the solitary lifestyle of a hermit, they all alienate themselves from society and the communities to which they belong. They become more self-reliant as a consequence of this estrangement from their neighbors, although this new found autonomy is not what originally motivates them to seek this separation. They all manage to become so self-sufficient that throughout the entire novel they act with complete confidence in their own capabilities and, most importantly, they prove that they respect their intuitions.

Despite their success in assimilating the essential aspects of Transcendentalism into their lives, these characters still fail to integrate the full scope of what this ideology represents. Without even being aware of it, each one applies his own interpretation to this philosophy and they consequently fail to become the men Emerson hopes will be the product of the ideology he developed. Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg then become ideal case studies to examine why man consistently fails to become a pure Transcendentalist and whether there is any hope for anyone to ever assimilate this spiritual life and become more than a harbinger of the same ideas.

Emerson writes: "To be great is to be misunderstood" (p. 6). If this was the only requirement to become a pure Transcendentalist, then Ahab would be the greatest Transcendentalist of them all. In his ambition to kill the White Whale, his crew is convinced that their captain is blinded by hatred and they are unable to understand that his whole strife is not only fueled by a desire for revenge. Ahab, in the true spirit of Idealism, realizes that "the senses are not final, [that] the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell" (The Transcendentalist, p. 1). He applies this concept to his hatred of Moby-Dick and realizes that although his senses merely see a whale, his mind perceives more than that and thus he strikes at the true motivation of his hatred: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event— in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" (Melville, p. 140). Ahab demonstrates how he values his mind's perception of the world around him over the mere experiences he collects through the senses.

Despite this insightful metaphor about pasteboard masks and his obvious confidence in himself with which he chases after Moby-Dick, Ahab's obsession with the whale proves to be the reason why he fails to be a true Transcendentalist. The problem lies in that when Emerson speaks of the greatness of being misunderstood, he is praising the importance of contradiction and condemning the mediocrity of consistency: "The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tracks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency" (Self-Reliance, p. 7). The Pequod's trajectory, however, appears to be following a straight line behind the White Whale as Ahab consistently pursues after it. Emerson denounces such a steady course and unyielding mentality when he famously writes: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines" (p. 6). Ahab, who could have been a great spirit condemns himself to be a 'little mind' when he decides to engage in a constant and repetitive search for the whale which will prove most unrewarding.

Emerson also speaks about how a true Transcendentalist, although he may be a recluse, is not completely insensible to any emotion whatsoever or prone to be depressed: "for these people are not by nature melancholy sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved" (Transcendentalist, p. 6). Ahab's somber demeanor throughout the entire novel does not fit with the description of a blissful Transcendentalist that Emerson offers. His pessimistic outlook on life does not allow him to see the benefits of his alienation from society, but only promotes his animosity against it.

Although Ahab does alienate himself from his crew and the owners of the Pequod, spends long days in solitude before boarding the ship, and retires to his cabin frequently during the course of his voyage, he does not benefit from his solitude as a true Transcendentalist should. Instead of separating himself from the ship's crew to become more self-reliant, he does it in order to exercise his power over them. He then commits the crime that Margaret Fuller identifies in that he imposes his rules as a superior authority over less powerful individuals.

Much like Ahab, Ishmael possesses many of the fundamental qualities that characterize a Transcendentalist, but unlike the ship's captain, he is able to take advantage of his solitude to seek self-reliance and confidence in his individuality. He confesses that "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can" (Melville, p. 18). Although it will be argued that Ishmael seeks the company of the sea and not solitude, he does retreat from civilization into the lonesomeness of the sea in order to make peace with himself. Therefore, although he remains accompanied by the crew and the ocean, Ishmael explores his identity and develops his independence thanks to this separation from society.

Furthermore, in order to alleviate the 'damp, drizzly November' which is affecting him, Ishmael sails on this voyage of self-reflection in hope that he will be enlightened and to "exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate" (Transcendentalist, p. 10). Emerson says that for Transcendentalists "it seems very easy to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves" (Transcendentalist, p. 10). Much like Emerson describes, Ishmael cherishes the times when all his questions have clear answers, but must then suffer the times when he does not have an explanation for the doubts that he raises for himself. If his 'drizzly November' is the result of one of these times of uncertainty, then Ishmael's travel on the sea is not only an attempt to affirm his self-reliance, but also a search for a serene state of mind in which his purpose in life is clearly stated for him. As any Transcendentalist should do, Ishmael strives to cement his faith in this philosophy so his intuitions and autonomy are not jeopardized when doubts and questions arise.

The identity of this narrator, however, remains a mystery throughout the entire novel, starting from its opening line: "Call me Ishmael" (Melville, p. 18). Unwilling to share much information about himself, Ishmael's true personality is shrouded with secrets that make it impossible for anyone to see him for who he really is. Since Emerson teaches to "insist on yourself; never imitate", this is then the mistake that prevents Ishmael from becoming a pure Transcendentalist (Self-Reliance, p. 16). He does not say "I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier", but instead he opts to hide his true identity and no one can therefore learn to love him for who he is (p. 12). Whether he is ashamed of his identity or whether he simply prefers to keep his privacy, his unwillingness to present himself truthfully to others disqualifies him from being a true Transcendentalist. Even though he is trying to get to know himself better, as Emerson invites everyone to do, Ishmael does not follow this idea to the end because he is unable to share himself with other individuals.

It turns out that Queequeg, a savage and a cannibal, is the character that most resembles what a Transcendentalist should be. Just like the others, he successfully becomes self-reliant as he learns to trust his instincts, but unlike the previous two, Queequeg does not fall victim to the same mistakes. He completely abandons his community and savage society not to impose his authority over others, but in order to learn more about the rest of the world and thus develop his own identity. He is not afraid or ashamed of showing who he really is to others as he proudly carries tattoos on his face that serve as a clear testament to his identity. Queequeg is perhaps the most fully enlightened individual in Melville's novel and makes the best use of Emerson's philosophy although, having been raised in a primitive community, he probably never heard of Transcendentalism.

Despite being accused of cannibalism, Queequeg demonstrates that he is more in touch with nature than any of his critics on board of the Pequod. Raised as a savage, he was never spoiled by the so-called progress made by the neighboring civilizations, which guaranteed him a closer relationship with nature as Transcendentalism would require. Referring to Transcendentalists, Emerson writes that "they are lovers of nature also, and find an indemnity in the inviolable order of the world and the violated order and grace of man" (Transcendentalist, p. 11). Queegueg's devotion to nature helps him become what a Transcendentalist should be as he is able to understand the order of the world he lives in and the role of each individual in it. Perhaps, he is gifted with this understanding because he is not affected by the complications of a supposedly civilized society. Despite this, Queequeg shines as a Transcendentalist thanks to his respect for the beauty found in nature.

The only critique of Queequeg's inherent Transcendentalism is due to his devotion to prayer. On one hand, by engaging in prayer, Queequeg seems to be exercising his consciousness and exploring the power of his mind as it helps him meditate and self-reflect. Prayer, however, is a controversial topic in Emerson's ideology: "Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and losses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous" (Self-Reliance, p. 14). Emerson establishes that if the purpose of prayer is to petition for something out of personal interest, then it is selfish and pointless. But if prayer instead praises and expresses its admiration for life and elements which are of a superior order, then it is worthy and justified. Since Queequeg prays in a foreign language which no one can understand, his faith in his little wooden idol raises many questions about the credibility of his Transcendentalism. The difficulty in classifying Queequeg's prayers in one of these two categories makes the debate over his loyalty to Emerson's philosophy all the more difficult to decide. If Queequeg's prayers, however, are mere requests for personal comforts, it is undeniable that he would join Captain Ahab and Ishmael among the forerunners of Transcendentalism who failed to fully commit to the spiritual life.

In his essay The Transcendentalist, Emerson writes about how even an individual who has been enlightened with the ideas of this philosophy, at one point or another in his life will fail to abide by them and once again become "the selfish member of a selfish society" (p. 10). Through the events that he narrates in his novel and the fate that he decides for his characters, Melville seems to agree with Emerson on this. The difference between the two authors is that Emerson insists that an individual regains his selfishness by once again assimilating the group mentality imposed by society. Instead, Melville uses Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg as examples of how self-reliance, if misused or taken advantage of, can lead an individual back to selfishness. A Transcendentalist, Melville argues, takes the risk of being so self-absorbed that he may forget that the ultimate goal of his philosophy is to find his place in the world and among those around him. Even if completely alone and living like a hermit, if a Transcendentalist is only concerned with his own affairs, then he has simply become a solitary selfish individual in an already selfish society. Melville asks then whether this is any different from the communal selfishness which Emerson criticizes.

By identifying this loophole in Emerson's ideology, Melville consequently points out that the task of becoming a pure Transcendentalist is most often an impossible one. But although he provides us with at least three examples of individuals who fail at this same task, Melville does not condemn the ideas that make up this philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Melville's characters embrace the main concepts of Emerson's teachings and even aspire to become true Transcendentalists. By applying their own interpretation to the ideology and acting according to the rules of their own nature, these characters end up exercising their own genius and demonstrating their self-reliance, even while challenging Emerson's ideas. Therefore, Melville suggests that even if it is an impossible task to become a true Transcendentalist, this still should be the ultimate goal of every individual.

The relevance of studying a hundred-and-fifty-year-old philosophy in our modern times becomes clearer when Emerson asks: "Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statue...will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable?" (Transcendentalist, p. 12). If we do not mind Emerson's warning, the importance of consciousness and individual thought will be overtaken by the overbearing expectations demanded from us by a consistently less and less self-reliant society. Were we to take Emerson's and Melville's advice, we would renew our hope that, even if we never meet any pure Transcendentalists, one day man will rediscover the integrity he owes to his own mind and not to the mob mentality of our society.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance." 1841; rpt. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Transcendentalist." 1849; rpt. Nature; Addresses and Lectures.

Margaret Fuller, "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women." 1843; rpt. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. Ed. Alice Rossi. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. 158-182.

Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. 1851; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Hershel Parker, Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

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