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Of Herman Melville: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief”

Podcast Episode:

The renowned American novelist Herman Melville is best known for literary classics like Moby Dick. Yet throughout his life, Melville privately wrestled with profound questions of faith, belief and doubt.

As his friend and contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, Melville relentlessly grappled with matters of “Providence and futurity” that extend beyond human understanding. Melville doubted divine providence, frankly acknowledging to Hawthorne that he “had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’” upon death.

Yet Melville found little comfort in this bleak prospect. As Hawthorne noted, Melville “does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief.” Melville was too philosophically honest and courageous to simply accept agnosticism. His inquisitive mind could not stop searching for definitive answers, however elusive.

This struggle between belief and doubt, faith and reason, became a running theme in Melville’s writing. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab wrestles with forces larger than himself, raging against the limitations of human knowledge and perception. Like his creator, Ahab is unable to find peace in resigned agnosticism.

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