In looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water

From Ch 7 (The Chapel) of Moby Dick, the chapter’s concluding reflection. Obvious Cartesian influence aside, Melville here seems to combine ideas from two passages of Plato given below. He may also be indirectly recalling (or expecting the reader to recall) the famous 1 Corinthians (13:12) ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.’

It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems—aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

From Plato’s Phaedo (starting 109b), a sort of early version of the allegory of the cave – only grounded purely in the physical.

The earth itself is pure and lies in the pure heaven in which there are the stars. Indeed, the majority of those who are accustomed to talk about these things call it the ether. It’s of this that these elements (the water, mist and air) are the sediment and they continually flow together into the hollows of the earth. Now we who live in its hollows have failed to observe this and think we live above on the earth, as if someone living in the middle of the depths of the ocean were to think he was dwelling on the surface of the sea and, seeing the sun and the rest of the stars through the water, he were to think the sea was the heaven; but, on account of his slowness and weakness, he had never yet got to the surface of the sea, or had even seen, on emerging and lifting his head out of the sea and looking up at our world here, how much purer and more beautiful it actually is than his own environment, nor had heard from anyone else who had seen it. So this then is exactly what we too have experienced, because, living in some hollow in the earth, we think we’re on the surface of it, and we call the air heaven as though this were the heaven through which the stars pass. But it’s the same thing; as a result of our weakness and slowness we’re unable to get out to the farthest reaches of the air. Since if someone were to get to the surface, or grew wings and flew up, he’d lift up his head and see, just as fish here look up out of the sea and see what’s here, so someone would see what’s up there, and if he were naturally capable of holding out and viewing the sight, he’d realize that is truly heaven and the true light and the real earth.


εἶναι γὰρ πανταχῇ περὶ τὴν γῆν πολλὰ κοῖλα καὶ παντοδαπὰ καὶ τὰς ἰδέας καὶ τὰ μεγέθη, εἰς ἃ συνερρυηκέναι τό τε ὕδωρ καὶ τὴν ὁμίχλην καὶ τὸν ἀέρα· αὐτὴν δὲ τὴν γῆν καθαρὰν ἐν καθαρῷ κεῖσθαι τῷ οὐρανῷ ἐν ᾧπέρ ἐστι τὰ ἄστρα, ὃν δὴ αἰθέρα ὀνομάζειν τοὺς πολλοὺς τῶν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα εἰωθότων λέγειν· οὗ δὴ ὑποστάθμην ταῦτα εἶναι καὶ συρρεῖν ἀεὶ εἰς τὰ κοῖλα τῆς γῆς. ἡμᾶς οὖν οἰκοῦντας ἐν τοῖς κοίλοις αὐτῆς λεληθέναι καὶ οἴεσθαι ἄνω ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οἰκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἂν εἴ τις ἐν μέσῳ τῷ πυθμένι τοῦ πελάγους οἰκῶν οἴοιτό τε ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάττης οἰκεῖν καὶ διὰ τοῦ ὕδατος ὁρῶν τὸν ἥλιον καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἄστρα τὴν θάλατταν ἡγοῖτο οὐρανὸν εἶναι, διὰ δὲ βραδυτῆτά τε καὶ ἀσθένειαν μηδεπώποτε ἐπὶ τὰ ἄκρα τῆς θαλάττης ἀφιγμένος μηδὲ ἑωρακὼς εἴη, ἐκδὺς καὶ ἀνακύψας ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης εἰς τὸν ἐνθάδε τόπον, ὅσῳ καθαρώτερος καὶ καλλίων τυγχάνει ὢν τοῦ παρὰ σφίσι, μηδὲ ἄλλου ἀκηκοὼς εἴη τοῦ ἑωρακότος. ταὐτὸν δὴ τοῦτο καὶ ἡμᾶς πεπονθέναι· οἰκοῦντας γὰρ ἔν τινι κοίλῳ τῆς γῆς οἴεσθαι ἐπάνω αὐτῆς οἰκεῖν, καὶ τὸν ἀέρα οὐρανὸν καλεῖν, ὡς διὰ τούτου οὐρανοῦ ὄντος τὰ ἄστρα χωροῦντα· τὸ δὲ εἶναι ταὐτόν, ὑπ’ ἀσθενείας καὶ βραδυτῆτος οὐχ οἵους τε εἶναι ἡμᾶς διεξελθεῖν ἐπ’ ἔσχατον τὸν ἀέρα· ἐπεί, εἴ τις αὐτοῦ ἐπ’ ἄκρα ἔλθοι ἢ πτηνὸς γενόμενος ἀνάπτοιτο, κατιδεῖν <ἂν> ἀνακύψαντα, ὥσπερ ἐνθάδε οἱ ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης ἰχθύες ἀνακύπτοντες ὁρῶσι τὰ ἐνθάδε, | οὕτως ἄν τινα καὶ τὰ ἐκεῖ κατιδεῖν, καὶ εἰ ἡ φύσις ἱκανὴ εἴη ἀνασχέσθαι θεωροῦσα, γνῶναι ἂν ὅτι ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθῶς οὐρανὸς καὶ τὸ ἀληθινὸν φῶς καὶ ἡ ὡς ἀληθῶς γῆ.

And from Phaedrus (250 E):

For, as has been said, every soul of man has by the law of nature beheld the realities, otherwise it would not have entered into a human being, but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw. Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive. Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.


καθάπερ γὰρ εἴρηται, πᾶσα μὲν ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴ φύσει τεθέαται τὰ ὄντα, ἢ οὐκ ἂν ἦλθεν εἰς τόδε τὸ ζῷον,· ἀναμιμνῄσκεσθαι δ᾿ ἐκ τῶνδε ἐκεῖνα οὐ ῥᾴδιον ἁπάσῃ, οὔτε ὅσαι βραχέως εἶδον τότε τἀκεῖ, οὔτε αἳ δεῦρο πεσοῦσαι ἐδυστύχησαν, ὥστε ὑπό τινων ὁμιλιῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ἄδικον τραπόμεναι λήθην ὧν τότε εἶδον ἱερῶν ἔχειν. ὀλίγαι δὴ λείπονται, αἷς τὸ τῆς μνήμης ἱκανῶς πάρεστιν· αὗται δέ, ὅταν τι τῶν ἐκεῖ ὁμοίωμα ἴδωσιν, ἐκπλήττονται καὶ οὐκέθ᾿ αὑτῶν γίγνονται, ὃ δ᾿ ἔστι τὸ πάθος ἀγνοοῦσιν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἱκανῶς διαισθάνεσθαι. δικαιοσύνης μὲν οὖν καὶ σωφροσύνης, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τίμια ψυχαῖς, οὐκ ἔνεστι φέγγος οὐδὲν ἐν τοῖς τῇδε ὁμοιώμασιν, ἀλλὰ δι᾿ ἀμυδρῶν ὀργάνων μόγις αὐτῶν καὶ ὀλίγοι ἐπὶ τὰς εἰκόνας ἰόντες θεῶνται τὸ τοῦ εἰκασθέντος γένος· κάλλος δὲ τότ᾿ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαμπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίμονι χορῷ μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν, ἑπόμενοι μετὰ μὲν Διὸς ἡμεῖς, ἄλλοι δὲ μετ᾿ ἄλλου θεῶν, εἶδόν τε καὶ ἐτελοῦντο τῶν τελετῶν ἣν θέμις λέγειν μακαριωτάτην, ἣν ὠργιάζομεν ὁλόκληροι μὲν αὐτοὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀπαθεῖς κακῶν, ὅσα ἡμᾶς ἐν ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ ὑπέμεν, ὁλόκληρα δὲ καὶ ἁπλᾶ καὶ ἀτρεμῆ καὶ εὐδαίμονα φάσματα μυούμενοί τε καὶ ἐποπτεύοντες ἐν αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ, καθαροὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀσήμαντοι τούτου, ὃ νῦν σῶμα περιφέροντες ὀνομάζομεν, ὀστρέου τρόπον δεδεσμευμένοι.

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