Our urgent need for heroes of virtue, courage and cunning

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The Starbucks just off Wayland Square in Providence is not only a place where I enjoy a good mug of coffee several times a week, but also an environment that inspires me to write, in longhand, the first drafts of my columns for Jewish Rhode Island. As a matter of fact, every piece that I have written for this paper since the fall of 2008 has begun with me putting a ballpoint pen upon the blue-green lines of a yellow legal pad – an act defining me as a lone Luddite amid a sea of earnest faces glued to their laptops. 

While I have long suspected that the Starbucks in which I drink my coffee, think my thoughts, read and write, is named after a central character in Herman Melville’s 1851 classic novel, “Moby Dick,” I recently confirmed my suspicion with a quick Google search: Starbucks – the “s” was added to create a more euphonious sound – is named after Starbuck, the first mate of the doomed whaler Pequod.  He is a brave but ineffectual antagonist to the ship’s Captain Ahab, a monomaniac who has an obsessive need to track down, capture and slay Moby Dick, a huge white whale that bit off Ahab’s leg the last time the captain ventured forth into the watery wilderness of the seven seas.

Early on, Melville warns us that Starbuck, a proud and sturdy man from the island of Nantucket, though “[u]ncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endowed with a deep natural reverence,” is no match for Ahab. 

The first mate is strong and courageous in his “conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world.” Nevertheless, Starbuck stands helpless in the presence of a tyrannical demagogue like Ahab. Starbuck “cannot withstand those terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.”

No one better fits the definition of “an enraged and mighty man” than Ahab.

Starbuck reveals his moral ineffectiveness in his first confrontation with Ahab, just after the captain of the Pequod has browbeaten and somehow hypnotized his crew into pledging their allegiance to him and his mad, vengeful quest for Moby Dick. In private, Starbuck chides his captain: “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.  How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in the Nantucket market ….

“Vengeance on a dumb brute ... that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”                   

“Talk not of blasphemy, man,” Ahab responds. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

In the face of Ahab’s withering words, Starbuck is reduced to smoldering silence, as Ahab mutters to himself, “Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now .…”

Further on, in the voice of the narrator, Ishmael, Melville notes the tragic implications of Starbuck’s naïve decency by pointing out his “incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right mindedness.”

Today we are witness to a number of Captain Ahabs, demonic beasts who threaten to undermine the very foundations of our world’s democracies.  Intoxicated by what they perceive to be their unlimited power, in their reckless disregard of every moral, social and political norm, they loom lawless in their madness and maddened in their lawlessness.  So many Captain Ahabs – each one of them piloting his own Pequod in a self-absorbed, winner-take-all pursuit of the unconquerable White Whale.

Today’s world is also populated by First Mate Starbucks – decent, well-meaning, hard-working people, even daring in certain ways, yet fatally flawed by that “incompetence of mere unaided virtue.” Our present-day Starbucks are no match for those Captain Ahabs, who, if not stopped, will sail our ships of state into whirlpools of oblivion.

Today we need heroes of a new and different type: men and women who are profoundly virtuous but who are also fully conscious of the potential for evil that lurks in all of us – what the ancient rabbis call the yetzer harah, our all-too-human inclination to do evil. We need a new breed of heroes, people who refuse to be seduced by the siren call of their own perceived virtue. 

We need heroes who possess the courage and, yes, the cunning, to fight the devil that resides in every Ahab – the courage and the cunning to fight these Ahabs and not yield. 

If today’s democracies cannot bring forth such heroes of virtue, courage and cunning, then the Captain Ahabs of our world will wind up dragging us all into the consuming maw of the White Whale.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.