Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael is the story of one man’s quest for knowledge and his desire to “save the world”. Answering a simple ad in the paper of a teacher looking for students (p4), the narrator is sent on an incredible philosophical journey. The teacher our narrator expects is not that which he finds, however, as our titular character Ishmael, so aptly named by Walter Sokolow (p18) as he sensed the gorilla’s almost divine presence, is that teacher. This teaching is made possible by Ishmael’s miraculous telepathic way of communication (p21).
Ishmael’s name, originally Goliath due his size and presumed demeanor (p14), I find incredibly fitting as he, like Abraham’s eldest son, appears to be sent from the heavens though in this case to save us from ourselves. I view Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as more along the lines of the Islamic theology’s in that he is more of a prophetic character rather than the Jewish theology’s in which he is generally viewed as wicked though repentant (although it was a Jew who named him so that may make my view invalid). His divine nature and importance are most powerfully demonstrated by a few simple lines on a poster that the narrator finds in a pile upon Ishmael’s death. The question on the opposing side of said poster “WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?” (p263) is entirely reasonable as his teachings throughout the book make that question apparent in our own minds before it is ever even discovered.
Two primary components Ishmael’s lessons involve are the concepts of the “Leavers” and “Takers” (p38). The two terms are used as synonyms for primitive and civilized (p39) groups, respectively, where we, and all developed nations, along with Ishmael’s pupil are the Takers while native types such as hunter-gatherers are Leavers. The Leaver life-style, in summary, is “about letting the rest of the community live” (p250) and is indeed the way we should live if we’re to prevent our destruction. The Leavers do not exempt themselves from the laws of competition while the Takers do. The Takers, in exempting themselves from these laws, exterminate and remove all forms of competition in their way. In a lesson where the narrator role-plays as a Taker trying to convince Ishmael, a Leaver, to live his life-style (p222) he comes upon the conclusion that being human is living on your own terms rather than the gods’ and this is what separates us from the animals (p225). It is Mother Culture who teaches this since the day we’re born (p37), that we should live on our own terms rather than the gods’ and that we know good and evil and evil is living by chance. Thus, Takers are on a quest to find the one right way to do things and hence all our laws and such contrivances come into being. Controlling the world and the universe is the primary goal of the Takers so they no longer have to live in any sort of fear and as such they are a culture of the new whereas the Leavers are a culture of tradition (p205).