Ishmael (novel)

1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn

This page includes quotations from the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.


Ishmael: You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.

Ishmael: A few years ago you must have been a child at the time, so you may not remember it many young people of this country had the same impression. They made an ingenuous and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage.

Ishmael: If you alone found out what the lie was, then you're probably right it would make no great difference. But if you all found out what the lie was, it might conceivably make a very great difference indeed.


Ishmael: It was not only the Jews who were captives under Hitler. The entire German nation was a captive, including his enthusiastic supporters.

Ishmael: Even if you weren't personally captivated by the story, you were a captive all the same, because the people around you made you a captive. You were like an animal being swept along in the middle of a stampede.

Ishmael: The people of your culture are in much the same situation. Like the people of Nazi Germany, they are the captives of a story.


Ishmael: Henceforth I'm going to call the people of your culture Takers and the people of all other cultures Leavers.

Ishmael: A story is a scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods.

Ishmael: To enact a story is to live so as to make the story a reality. In other words, to enact a story is to strive to make it come true.

Ishmael: A culture is a people enacting a story.

Two storiesEdit

Ishmael: Two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of man. One began to be enacted here some two or three million years ago by the people we've agreed to call Leavers and is still being enacted by them today, as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we've agreed to call Takers, and is apparently about to end in catastrophe.

Ishmael: The Leavers and the Takers are enacting two separate stories, based on entirely different and contradictory premises.

Taker mythologyEdit

The premiseEdit

Ishmael: Everyone in your culture knows this. The pinnacle was reached in man. Man is the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation.

Ishmael: Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn't created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man.

Ishmael: The Takers regard the world as a sort of human life support system, as a machine designed to produce and sustain human life.

Ishmael: That's the premise of your story: The world was made for man.

Narrator: If the world was made for us, then it belongs to us and we can do what we damn well please with it.

Narrator: I mean, you hear this fifty times a day. People talk about our environment, our seas, our solar system. I've even heard people talk about our wildlife.

The storyEdit

Narrator: Without man, the world was not finished, it was just nature, red in tooth and claw. It was in chaos, in a state of primeval anarchy.

Narrator: The world needed someone to come in and . . . straighten it out. Someone to put it in order. The world needed a ruler. It needed man.

Ishmael: So now we have a clearer idea what this story is all about: The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it.

Ishmael: But the world didn't meekly submit to human rule, did it?

Ishmael: In order to make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it.

Narrator: You hear this fifty times a day. You can turn on the radio or the television and hear it every hour. Man is conquering the deserts, man is conquering the oceans, man is conquering the atom, man is conquering the elements, man is conquering outer space.

Ishmael: Now the first two parts of the story have come together: The world was made for man, and man was made to conquer and rule it.

Ishmael: Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed. And so his paradise has always been spoiled by stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness.

The prophets and the flaw in manEdit

Ishmael: There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.

Ishmael: One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets.

Ishmael: What makes it so striking is the fact that there is absolutely nothing like this among the Leavers.

Ishmael: What were the prophets trying to accomplish here? What were they here to do?

Narrator: They were here to straighten us out and tell us how we ought to live.

Ishmael: But why? Why do you need prophets to tell you how you ought to live? Why do you need anyone to tell you how you ought to live?

Narrator: We need prophets to tell us how we ought to live, because otherwise we wouldn't know.

Ishmael: Why is that? What does Mother Culture have to say?

Narrator: There's no such thing as certain knowledge about how people should live. It's just not available, and that's why we don't have it.

Ishmael: Has anyone ever said, "Well, we have certain knowledge about all these other things, why don't we see if any such knowledge can be found about how to live?"

Ishmael: Considering the fact that this is by far the most important problem mankind has ever had to solve you'd think there would be a whole branch of science devoted to it. Instead, we find that not a single one of you has ever wondered whether any such knowledge is even out there to be obtained.

Ishmael: Not a very scientific procedure for such a scientific people.

Narrator: We now know two highly important things about people, Ishmael said, at least according to Taker mythology. One, there's something fundamentally wrong with them, and, two, they have no certain knowledge about how they ought to live and never will have any. It seems as though there should be a connection between these two things.

Ishmael: Perhaps in fact the two things are actually one thing. Perhaps the flaw in man is exactly this: that he doesn't know how he ought to live.

Ishmael: We now have in place all the major elements of your culture's explanation of how things came to be this way. The world was given to man to turn into a paradise, but he's always screwed it up, because he's fundamentally flawed. He might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn't and he never will, because no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he's probably just going to go on screwing it up.

Ishmael: With nothing but this wretched story to enact, it's no wonder so many of you spend your lives stoned on drugs or booze or television. It's no wonder so many of you go mad or become suicidal.

The Law of LifeEdit

Finding out how to liveEdit

Ishmael: We don't need prophets to tell us how to live; we can find out for ourselves by consulting what's actually there.

Ishmael: What's the law of gravity?

Narrator: the law of gravity is . . . every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle, and this attraction varies with the distance between them.

Ishmael: And that expression of the law was read where? It was derived by looking at what?

Narrator: Well . . . at matter, I suppose. The behavior of matter.

Ishmael: And if you had the strange notion that there might be a set of laws about how to live, where would you look for it?

Narrator: I suppose in human behavior.

Ishmael: I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely.

Ishmael: Does it seem at all plausible to you that the law we're looking for could be written in this community?

Narrator: Mother Culture says that if there were such a law it wouldn't apply to us.

Ishmael: And can you think of any other laws from which you are exempt because you're humans?

The lawEdit

Ishmael: the law we're looking for is the law that keeps the living community together. It organizes things on the biological level just the way the law of gravity organizes things on the macroscopic level.

Ishmael: The law we're looking for here is much like that with respect to civilizations. It's not about civilizations, but it applies to civilizations in the same way that it applies to flocks of birds and herds of deer. It makes no distinction between human civilizations and beehives. It applies to all species without distinction. This is one reason why the law has remained undiscovered in your culture. According to Taker mythology, man is by definition a biological exception.

Ishmael: Those species that do not live in compliance with the law become extinct. In the scale of biological time, they become extinct very rapidly.

Ishmael: The laws of aerodynamics don't provide us with a way of defying the law of gravity. I'm sure you understand that. They simply provide us with a way of using the air as a support. A man sitting in an airplane is subject to the law of gravity in exactly the way we're subject to it sitting here. Nevertheless, the man sitting in the plane obviously enjoys a freedom we lack: the freedom of the air.

Ishmael: The law we're looking for is like the law of gravity: There is no escaping it, but there is a way of achieving the equivalent of flight, the equivalent of freedom of the air. In other words, it is possible to build a civilization that flies.

Ishmael: The law you're looking for has been obeyed invariably in the living community for three billion years. He nodded to the world outside. And this is how things came to be this way. If this law had not been obeyed from the beginning and in each generation thereafter, the seas would be lifeless deserts and the land would still be dust blowing in the wind. All the countless forms of life that you see here came into being following this law, and following this law, man too came into being. 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 Takers. 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. Every single thing that is prohibited under the law they incorporated into their civilization as a fundamental policy. And now, after five hundred generations, they are about to pay the penalty that any other species would pay for living contrary to this law.

Spelling out the lawEdit

Effects of the lawEdit

Ishmael: What would have happened if this law had been repealed ten million years ago? What would the community be like?

Narrator: I'd have to say there would only be one form of life at each level of competition. If all the competitors for the grasses had been waging war on each other for ten million years, I'd have to think an overall winner would have emerged by now.

Ishmael: So the law promotes what?

Narrator: Diversity.

Ishmael: Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of total global catastrophe. But a community of a hundred species or a thousand species has almost no survival value at all.

Ishmael: one species exempting itself from this law has the same ultimate effect as all species exempting themselves. You end up with a community in which diversity is progressively destroyed in order to support the expansion of a single species.

An army of occupationEdit

Ishmael: in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.

Kinds of knowledgeEdit

Ishmael: You see now that the Takers and the Leavers accumulate two entirely different kinds of knowledge.

Narrator: Yes. The Takers accumulate knowledge about what works well for things. The Leavers accumulate knowledge about what works well for people.

The Leaver storyEdit

Ishmael: Then tell me why it isn't just a waste of time for you to learn a story that is now all but extinguished.

Narrator: People can't just give up a story. That's what the kids tried to do in the sixties and seventies. They tried to stop living like Takers, but there was no other way for them to live. They failed because you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in.

Narrator: The premise of the Taker story is the world belongs to man. The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world.

Narrator: Divine intentions . . . It would seem . . . There is a sort of tendency in evolution, wouldn't you say? If you start with those ultra simple critters in the ancient seas and move up step by step to everything we see here now and beyond then you have to observe a tendency toward . . . complexity. And toward self awareness and intelligence.

Narrator: That is, all sorts of creatures on this planet appear to be on the verge of attaining that self awareness and intelligence. So it's definitely not just humans that the gods are after. We were never meant to be the only players on this stage. Apparently the gods intend this planet to be a garden filled with creatures that are self aware and intelligent.

Narrator: Man's destiny is to be the first to learn that creatures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and perish in the attempt or they can stand aside and make some room for all the rest. But it's more than that. His destiny is to be the father of them all I don't mean by direct descent. By giving all the rest their chance the whales and the dolphins and the chimps and the raccoons he becomes in some sense their progenitor.

Narrator: In a billion years, whatever is around then, whoever is around then, says, "Man? Oh yes, man! What a wonderful creature he was! It was within his grasp to destroy the entire world and to trample all our futures into the dust but he saw the light before it was too late and pulled back. He pulled back and gave the rest of us our chance. He showed us all how it had to be done if the world was to go on being a garden forever. Man was the role model for us all!"

Narrator: In other words, the world doesn't need to belong to man but it does need man to belong to it.

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