How Captain Ahab Sunk His Ship

The novelist Herman Melville attended my congregation in New York during the time he wrote his novel Moby Dick. Given the novel's universal acclaim, I believe myself to be on firm bipartisan ground when I make the following recommendation to Senator Ted Cruz: read Moby Dick. Set against the backdrop of Cruz's role as ringleader of the defunding standoff, Melville's tale of Ahab's obsession with conquering the great whale named Moby Dick earns yet again its status as a great American novel. It's a cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming obsessed.

In case your freshman literature class is too far in the distant past, here's the story in brief. A great whale dubbed Moby Dick by a whaling captain named Ahab had, during a previous voyage, destroyed Ahab's ship and bitten off his leg. Ahab vowed revenge. As the story of Ahab's vendetta voyage unfolds, he comes to view Moby Dick not only as the perpetrator of an evil act, but as the sum and substance of all evil absolutely. During the closing chase near the end of the story, Ahab hurls his last harpoon at Moby Dick, along with a final invective: "... to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." As his final filibuster ends, Ahab is dragged into the depths of the sea.

The point of the novel is that Ahab allowed his obsession to consume him. He forgot that he was captain of a whaling ship. He forgot that he was a leader of men and responsible for their well-being. He forgot that he was supposed to be whaling. In the end, Ahab wasn't taken down by the great whale itself, but by his obsession with the great whale.

Seventy-five years ago this month, the American mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell published an essay in The Atlantic titled "The Taming of Power," reprinted last week in The Atlantic Weekly. Russell observes that "the merits of democracy are negative: it does not ensure good government, but it prevents certain evils," such as the evil of a small group of individuals achieving a secure monopoly on political power. The chief peril for the politician, Russell insists, is love of power. And politicians can easily yield to the love of power on the pretense that they are pursuing some absolute good.

Anytime someone takes a relative good and makes it into an absolute good, bad things inevitably happen -- whether one is whaling or legislating. I'm giving Senator Cruz the benefit of the doubt here, assuming that his actions are motivated by misguided good intentions rather than the opposite. In either case, it's the overwhelming consensus of almost everyone else, both Republicans and Democrats, both in Washington and around the country, that Senator Cruz has long since missed the forest for the trees. In fact, he appears to be staring at a single leaf.

To be fair, all of us make this mistake from time to time. We get gripped by something, or entranced by something, or enraged by something, and everything else falls away. Sometimes, the ability to focus on a single priority or passion is a good thing. It's the reason successful people turn out to be successful.

But it's vitally important to focus on the right things. One consequence of a singular focus can be peripheral blindness, which becomes dangerous if the focus turns obsessive. When we start ignoring evidence that our singular focus has turned destructive, we're in trouble. As Ahab eventually discovered, an obsession can take you down.

Especially for sailing captains and senators, the ongoing challenge is to assess the clamoring of the few in light of the aspirations of the many. Sometimes the many are wrong, of course, in which case strong leaders must resist the tide, as Lincoln did with slavery. But Cruz is no Lincoln, nor is the requirement to be insured the moral equivalent of being enslaved.

At our best, we as human beings celebrate the common aspirations that unite us, rather than allowing our partisan perspectives and occasional obsessions to divide us. It's a big world out there, full of people who are trying their best to make their way. Whatever we're doing, we need to be making the world better not just for us, but for everyone else as well.

In the end, we're all in this together, or we're doomed, as Melville put it in Moby Dick: doomed to descend those endless stairs to the bottom of the sea.