Ishmael: Part Five



"We have the beginning and middle of the story together," Ishmael said when we started the next day. "Man is finally beginning to fulfill his destiny. The conquest of the world is under way. And how does the story end?"

"I guess I should have kept on going yesterday. I've sort of lost the thread."

"Perhaps it would help to listen to the way the second part ends."

"Good idea." I rewound a minute or so of tape and let it play:

"Man was at last free of all those restraints that . . . . The limitations of the hunting-gathering life had kept man in check for three million years. With agriculture, those limitations vanished, and his rise was meteoric. Settlement gave rise to division of labor. Division of labor gave rise to technology. With the rise of technology came trade and commerce. With trade and commerce came mathematics and literacy and science, and all the rest. The whole thing was under way at last, and the rest, as they say, is history."

"Right," I said. "Okay. Man's destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he's done—almost. He hasn't quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing. The problem is that man's conquest of the world has itself devastated the world. And in spite of all the mastery we've attained, we don't have enough mastery to stop devastating the world—or to repair the devastation we've already wrought. We've poured our poisons into the world as though it were a bottomless pit—and we go on pouring our poisons into the world. We've gobbled up irreplaceable resources as though they could never run out—and we go on gobbling them up. It's hard to imagine how the world could survive another century of this abuse, but nobody's really doing anything about it. It's a problem our children will have to solve, or their children.

"Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we're in complete control, everything will be fine. We'll have fusion power. No pollution. We'll turn the rain on and off. We'll grow a bushel of wheat in a square centimeter. We'll turn the oceans into farms. We'll control the weather—no more hurricanes, no more tornadoes, no more droughts, no more untimely frosts. We'll make the clouds release their water over the land instead of dumping it uselessly into the oceans. All the life processes of this planet will be where they belong—where the gods meant them to be—in our hands. And we'll manipulate them the way a programmer manipulates a computer.

"And that's where it stands right now. We have to carry the conquest forward. And carrying it forward is either going to destroy the world or turn it into a paradise—into the paradise it was meant to be under human rule.

"And if we manage to do this—if we finally manage to make ourselves the absolute rulers of the world—then nothing can stop us. Then we move into the Star Trek era. Man moves out into space to conquer and rule the entire universe. And that may be the ultimate destiny of man: to conquer and rule the entire universe. That's how wonderful man is."


To my astonishment, Ishmael picked up a wand from his pile and waved it at me in an enthusiastic gesture of approval. "Once again, that was excellent," he said, neatly biting off its leafy head.

"But you realize, of course, that if you'd been telling this part of the story a hundred years ago—or even fifty years ago—you would have spoken only of the paradise to come. The idea that man's conquest of the world could be anything but beneficial would have been unthinkable to you. Until the last three or four decades, the people of your culture had no doubt that things were just going to go on getting better and better and better forever. There was no conceivable end in sight."

"Yes, that's so."

"There is, however, one element of the story that you've left out, and we need it to complete your culture's explanation of how things came to be this way. "

"What element is that?"

"I think you can figure it out. So far we have this much: The world was made for man to conquer and rule, and under human rule it was meant to become a paradise. This clearly has to be followed by a `but.' It has always been followed by a `but.' This is because the Takers have always perceived that the world was far short of the paradise it was meant to be."

"True. Let me see . . . How's this: The world was made for man to conquer and rule, but his conquest turned out to be more destructive than was anticipated."

"You're not listening. The `but' was part of the story long before your conquest became globally destructive. The `but' was there to explain all the flaws in your paradise—warfare and brutality and poverty and injustice and corruption and tyranny. It's still there today to explain famine and oppression and nuclear proliferation and pollution. It explained World War II, and if it ever has to, it will explain World War III."

I looked at him blankly.

"This is a commonplace. Any third-grader could supply it."

"I'm sure you're right, but I don't see it yet."

"Come, think. What went wrong here? What has always gone wrong here? Under human rule, the world should have become a paradise, but . . ."

"But people screwed it up."

"Of course. And why did they screw it up?"


"Did they screw it up because they didn't want a paradise?"

"No. The way it's seen is . . . they were bound to screw it up. They wanted to turn the world into a paradise, but, being human, they were bound to screw it up."

"But why? Why, being human, were they bound to screw it up?"

"It's because there's something fundamentally wrong with humans. Something that definitely works against paradise. Something that makes people stupid and destructive and greedy and shortsighted."

"Of course. 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."

"That's right."


Having second thoughts, I gave him a long incredulous stare. "Are you suggesting that this explanation is false?"

Ishmael shook his head. "It's pointless to argue with mythology. Once upon a time, the people of your culture believed that man's home was the center of the universe. Man was the reason the universe had been created in the first place, so it made sense that his home should be its capital. The followers of Copernicus didn't argue with this. They didn't point at people and say, `You're wrong.' They pointed at the heavens and said, `Look at what's actually there.' "

"I'm not sure what you're getting at."

"How did the Takers come to the conclusion that there's something fundamentally wrong with humans? What evidence were they looking at?"

"I don't know."

"I think you're being purposely dense. They were looking at the evidence of human history."


"And when did human history begin?"

"Well . . . three million years ago."

Ishmael gave me a disgusted look. "Those three million years were only very recently tacked onto human history, as you very well know. Before that, it was universally assumed that human history began when?"

"Well, just a few thousand years ago."

"Of course. In fact, among the people of your culture, it was assumed that the whole of human history was your history. No one had the slightest suspicion that human life extended beyond your reign."

"That's so."

"So when the people of your culture concluded that there's something fundamentally wrong with humans, what evidence were they looking at?"

"They were looking at the evidence of their own history."

"Exactly. They were looking at a half of one percent of the evidence, taken from a single culture. Not a reasonable sample on which to base such a sweeping conclusion."


"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. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."


"A few days ago," Ishmael said, "I described your explanation of how things came to be this way as a mosaic. What we've looked at so far is only the cartoon of the mosaic—the general outline of the picture. We're not going to fill in the cartoon here. That's something you can easily do for yourself when we're finished."


"However, one major element of the cartoon remains to be sketched in before we go on . . . . One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad in Taker history is simply enormous. I'm sure you're aware of that."


"What makes it so striking is the fact that there is absolutely nothing like this among the Leavers—unless it occurs as a response to some devastating contact with Taker culture, as in the case of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance or John Frumm and the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific. Aside from these, there is no tradition whatever of prophets rising up among the Leavers to straighten out their lives and give them new sets of laws or principles to live by."

"I was sort of vaguely aware of that. I suppose everyone is. I think it's . . . I don't know."

"Go on."

"I think the feeling is, what the hell, who cares about these people? I mean, it's no great surprise that savages have no prophets. God didn't really get interested in mankind until those nice white neolithic farmers came along."

"Yes, that's well perceived. But what I want to look at right now is not the absence of prophets among the Leavers but the enormous influence of prophets among the Takers. Millions have been willing to back their choice of prophet with their very lives. What makes them so important?"

"It's a hell of a good question, but I don't think I know the answer."

"All right, try this. What were the prophets trying to accomplish here? What were they here to do?"

"You said it yourself a minute ago. They were here to straighten us out and tell us how we ought to live."

"Vital information. Worth dying for, evidently."


"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?"

"Ah. Okay, I see what you're getting at. We need prophets to tell us how we ought to live, because otherwise we wouldn't know."

"Of course. Questions about how people ought to live always end up becoming religious questions among the Takers—always end up being arguments among the prophets. For example, when abortion began to be legalized in this country, it was initially treated as a purely civil matter. But when people began to have second thoughts about it, they turned to their prophets, and it soon became a religious squabble, with both sides lining up clergy to back them. In the same way, the question of legalizing drugs like heroin and cocaine is now being debated in primarily practical terms—but if it ever becomes a serious possibility, people of a certain turn of mind will undoubtedly begin combing scriptures to see what their prophets have to say on the subject."

"Yes, that's so. This is such an automatic response that people just take it for granted."

"A minute ago you said, `We need prophets to tell us how we ought to live, because otherwise we wouldn't know.' Why is that? Why wouldn't you know how to live without your prophets?"

"That's a good question. I'd say it's because . . . Look at the case of abortion. We can argue about it for a thousand years, but there's never going to be an argument powerful enough to end the argument, because every argument has a counterargument. So it's impossible to know what we should do. That's why we need the prophet. The prophet knows."

"Yes, I think that's it. But the question remains: Why don't you know?"

"I think the question remains because I can't answer it."

"You know how to split atoms, how to send explorers to the moon, how to splice genes, but you don't know how people ought to live."

"That's right."

"Why is that? What does Mother Culture have to say?"

"Ah," I said, and closed my eyes. And after a minute or two: "Mother Culture says it's possible to have certain knowledge about things like atoms and space travel and genes, but 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."

"I see. And having listened to Mother Culture, what do you say?"

"In this case, I have to say that I agree. Certain knowledge about how people ought to live is just not out there."

"In other words, the best you can do—since there's nothing `out there'—is to consult the insides of your heads. That's what's being done in the debate about legalizing drugs. Each side is preparing a case based on what's reasonable, and whichever way you actually jump you still won't know whether you did the right thing."

"That's absolutely right. It won't be a question of doing what ought to be done, because there's no way of finding that out. It'll just be a question of taking a vote."

"You're quite sure about all this. There's simply no way to obtain any certain knowledge about how people ought to live."

"Absolutely sure."

"How do you come by this assurance?"

"I don't know. Certain knowledge about how to live is . . . unobtainable in any of the ways we derive certain knowledge. As I say, it's just not out there."

"Have any of you ever looked out there?"

I snickered.

"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?' Has anyone ever done that?"

"I doubt it."

"Doesn't that seem strange to you? Considering the fact that this is by far the most important problem mankind has to solve—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."

"We know it's not there."

"In advance of looking, you mean."

"That's right."

"Not a very scientific procedure for such a scientific people."



"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."

"Yes. If people knew how to live, then they'd be able to handle what was wrong with human nature. I mean, knowing how to live would have to include knowing how to live as flawed beings. If it didn't, then it wouldn't be the real McCoy. Do you see what I mean?"

"I think so. In effect, you're saying that if you knew how you ought to live, then the flaw in man could be controlled. If you knew how you ought to live, you wouldn't be forever screwing up the world. 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."

"Yes, there's something to that."


"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."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."

"It's a sorry story you have there, a story of hopelessness and futility, a story in which there is literally nothing to be done. Man is flawed, so he keeps on screwing up what should be paradise, and there's nothing you can do about it. You don't know how to live so as to stop screwing up paradise, and there's nothing you can do about that. So there you are, rushing headlong toward catastrophe, and all you can do is watch it come."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."

"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."

"True. But is there another one?"

"Another what?"

"Another story to be in."

"Yes, there is another story to be in, but the Takers are doing their level best to destroy that along with everything else."


"Have you done much sightseeing in your travels?"

I blinked at him stupidly. "Sightseeing?"

"Have you gone out of your way to have a look at the local sights?"

"I guess so. Sometimes."

"I'm sure you've noticed that only tourists really look at local landmarks. For all practical purposes, these landmarks are invisible to the natives, simply because they're always there in plain sight."

"Yes, that's so."

"This is what we've been doing in our journey so far. We've been wandering around your cultural homeland looking at the landmarks the natives never see. A visitor from another planet would find them remarkable, even extraordinary, but the natives of your culture take them for granted and don't even notice them."

"That's right. You've had to clamp my head between your hands and point it in one direction and say, `Don't you see that?' And I'd say, `See what? There's nothing there to see.' "

"We've spent a lot of today looking at one of your most impressive monuments—an axiom stating that there is no way to obtain any certain knowledge about how people ought to live. Mother Culture offers this for acceptance on its own merits, without proof, since it is inherently unprovable."


"And the conclusion you draw from this axiom is . . . ?"

"Therefore there's no point in looking for such knowledge."

"That's right. According to your maps, the world of thought is coterminous with your culture. It ends at the border of your culture, and if you venture beyond that border, you simply fall off the edge of the world. Do you see what I mean?"

"I think so."

"Tomorrow we'll screw up our courage and cross that border. And as you'll see, we will not fall off the edge of the world. We'll just find ourselves in new territory, in territory never explored by anyone in your culture, because your maps say it isn't there—and indeed can't be there."