Ishmael Study Guide

Ishmael Study Guide

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Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is a science fiction story that raises lots of philosophical questions. What can be considered an intelligent being? Is humanity something that exists exclusively for humans? What can uncontrolled technical progress lead to?

When the world discovered Koko the Gorilla, a gorilla able to communicate with people and express her emotions, feelings and even attitude to the wildlife protection, the image of humanity was severely shaken. But what could happen if the other sapient species lived with us on the same planet?

The novel tells us the story of the nameless protagonist, who becomes a pupil of the mysterious philosopher and spiritual teacher trying to save the world. To his shock this teacher is a sentient gorilla, able to communicate with him with the help of telepathy. This gorilla named Ishmael tells him the philosophy of Givers and Takers - the people who create something that restores nature and the zealots of technical progress who can only take the resources, not providing anything in return. Ishmael asks paradoxical questions, referring to the world mythology and holy texts, such as Old Testament, he claims modern beliefs to be the mythology of the new age, the age of pragmatic Takers, therefore, as any mythology it can reflect reality only metaphorically, or be an outright wishful thinking.

Despite lots of philosophical meditations on ecology and mythology, this book isn’t just the story of Ishmael’s lessons. He isn’t deus ex machina: the biography of this unusual gorilla is also gradually revealed throughout the story, showing Ishmael’s coming to understanding people so deeply and creating his own philosophical theory. His past was full of discrimination and humiliation, he was considered just an animal - and, as we can see in the end, the humanity is still not ready for his teaching. We can only hope that the nameless narrator remembers his lessons well enough to try once more when people will be more willing to accept this knowledge.

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