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The Book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn

Ishmael, a book written by an American publisher and author Daniel Quinn, can be viewed as a prominent example of a philosophical novel. Book’s setting includes a fantasy element in the shape of a highly intelligent gorilla with telepathic powers; however main points of writing are focused on the current state of humanity. Thus, Quinn attempted to convey his views on human civilization and the course of its development to the public. In that attempt, he reached somewhat controversial results: while Quinn’s conclusions are quite relevant in the modern timeline, the arguments behind them appear to be questionable.

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The narrative is presumably set at the beginning of the 1990s. The nameless narrator grew up through the 60s and 70s and believed that young and energetic people would improve the world. He was trying to find a mentor, a person, who would teach him how to make the world a better place. However, the narrator could not find that teacher despite all the years of hard searches. In the end, he became quite jaded and skeptical; however, he still managed to preserve some hope.

One day, the narrator opened the newspaper and found a peculiar advertisement. Someone was looking for a person with “an earnest desire to save the world” (Quinn, 2017, p. 1). Driven both by skepticism and curiosity, the narrator went to the address from the advertisement and found Ishmael — the second major character of the novel. Ishmael, a gorilla with telepathic abilities, managed to establish telepathic communication with the narrator and started sharing his wisdom with his new pupil.

It is quite apparent that Ishmael’s character serves as a channel for Daniel Quinn’s philosophical paradigm. In that regard, Ishmael routinely utilizes a rather patronizing tone, while the narrator often seems completely clueless. Most of the novel is composed in the shape of “lessons” — the dialogues in which Ishmael states points, while the narrator desperately tries to make sense out of them or simply agrees. For instance, when Ishmael claimed that “man’s appearance caused no more stir than the appearance of jellyfish”, the narrator only replied with “very true” (Quinn, 2017, p. 59). On this occasion, he could have easily engaged Ishmael in a discussion. Moreover, the narrator could have also questioned other Ishmael’s ideas, such as the Taker-Leaver dichotomy or his view on the correlation between food production and overpopulation. However, for some reason, the narrator either mindlessly agrees with everything Ishmael says or makes weak attempts to express doubts only to agree with Ishmael afterward.

Ishmael’s and, essentially, Quinn’s philosophy contains several cornerstones that define humanity’s current state. Most importantly, modern human civilization is governed by the Takers, or civilized human populations (Quinn, 2017). Approximately ten thousand years ago, the Takers overpowered the Leavers who lived in harmony with nature by inventing agriculture (Quinn, 2017). Since then, the Takers have treated Earth like a life-support system for human civilization, constantly expanding, producing a surplus of food, and extracting resources from the planet.

Consequently, humans are perceived as a pinnacle of evolution; therefore, from the Takers’ perspective, humanity has a right to use Earth as it sees fit. This paradigm is further reinforced by the Mother Culture, which teaches humans that “this is as it should be (Quinn, 2017, p. 36). According to Ishmael’s teachings, Mother Culture must be “finished off” in order to ensure the survival of humanity as a species (Quinn, 2017, p. 142). Since humans are not more significant than any other species in the universe, they cannot be exempt from the universal law, even though Mother Culture tells the Takers otherwise. As such, humanity must follow the universal law and incorporate itself into a diverse environment rather than wage a suicidal war against it.

In the end, Ishmael died of pneumonia before the narrator managed to rescue him from the traveling carnival. Quinn did not provide a clear answer about the further narrator’s actions. However, it is implied that the narrator took Ishmaels’ teachings close to his heart. A poster from Ishmael’s den had a message on the backside: “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?” (Quinn, 2017, p. 265). Therefore, Quinn also implied that Ishmael’s teachings must not be abandoned if humanity wants to survive.

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Themes of ecology, social responsibility, and sustainability have become increasingly popular in the last few years. One might argue that this change proves the philosophical value of Quinn’s Ishmael. However, the relevance of the agenda does not make Quinn’s argumentation more compelling. For instance, any efforts to apply Leavers’ responsible approach to life are still anthropocentric since they are implemented by humans and, mostly, with human wellbeing in mind. Consequently, current human supremacy on Earth remains evident since no other species but humanity can take action to save our planet.

Furthermore, our ancestors ascended to the position of power in fierce competition with other animals of their time. As such, even the Leavers hardly were “peaceful hunter-gatherers” who lived in harmony with the natural environment. On the contrary, they had to fight in order to survive, which is a common situation in wild nature. One can easily go ahead and contest other dubious claims made by Ishmael, such as food surplus in Nebraska suddenly causing over-population in other parts of the world. Overall, Ishmael is a thought-provoking reading on highly relevant themes of sustainability and responsibility, which sadly suffers from questionable argumentation and the self-righteousness of the author’s voice.


Quinn, D. (2017). Ishmael: A novel. Bantam Books.

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