In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab persuaded the crew of the ship to join him in the “quenchless feud” seeking revenge against the whale. The whale was “a Sperm whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity” according to Ahab, though there is absolutely no reason to believe that. All the whale had done was to try to defend himself from attack by Ahab and his crew and in the process chewed off one of Ahab’s legs. Yet Ahab convinced the men that there was “great ferocity, cunning, and malice in the monster attacked.”He persuaded them that the whale was “so incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst for human blood.” Ahab believed the whale had “intelligent malignity” which he showed over and over again in his assaults. And remember the whale is god! What kind of a god is that?
The narrator, Ishmael described the white whale this way:
“…such seemed the White Whale’s infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent.
Judge then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on as if at a birth or a bridal.”
Ahab was consumed by a mad desire for revenge. As Ishmael described it Ahab was taken over by a unholy hatred:
“…ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness, he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;–Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
No wonder Ishmael called Ahab’s condition “monomania.” That is precisely what it was. And that made the quest monomaniacal too. After that initial encounter with Moby Dick that left Ahab with an ivory leg, sailing for home with “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so infusing, made him mad.” That is where the thirst for vengeance leads—to madness. And this a major theme of the book. Ahab “was intent on an audacious, unmitigable, and supernatural revenge.” As Ishmael described Ahab,
“Gnawed within and scorched without, with the fixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea; such an one, could be found, would seem the very man to dart his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of brutes.”
What he sought was “monomaniac revenge.” The whale was in his eyes “the gliding great demon of the seas of life.” What turned a religious quest into a religious evil quest was Ahab’s monomania. By ignoring everything else the quest became evil. And that is true of all quests. If they are pursued with monomaniacal passion, the quest becomes evil, whether it is a pursuit of money, love, prestige, golf, causes such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, a life without taxes, or, even, God. Any quest can become evil. Such causes can drag the innocent and the guilty to their doom.
If a person refuses to believe a cop no matter how credible his claims that he is innocent, or if a person follows his leader to Capitol Hill to rampage Congress to protest a claim that an election has been stolen no matter how much evidence to the contrary, the beliefs have gone beyond all reason and are maniacal.
The mania makes it evil. When the quest goes beyond all reason it has turned to evil. That is what we learn from Moby Dick and why it is still relevant 150 years after it was written. We learn from Moby Dick that one can lose one’s soul by pursuing God.
That was what Ahab’s religious quest was all about: it was “monomaniac,” and that made it evil.