Collections > UNC Chapel Hill Undergraduate Honors Theses Collection > 'This Whole Worshipping World': Proto-Secular Humanist Morality in Moby Dick and Pierre

In this essay, I intend to show that secular humanist ideals anchor Melville’s three major novels of the 1850’s—a moral constant amid his metaphysical and theological uncertainty and a worldview with which he engaged continually throughout his oscillation between belief and doubt. I argue that a measured and compromising approach to secular humanism is Melville’s alternative to the maddening search for ‘the absolute’ in nature or in humanity that plagued some of his well-known characters. I begin my pilgrimage with Melville’s quintessential humanist Ishmael in Moby Dick, contrasting Ishmael’s humanism and capacity for compromise with the individualism and absolutism of Ahab. Next, I examine Melville’s challenge to humanist idealism through the downfall of his eponymous protagonist in Pierre and through his disappointment with U.S. society as portrayed in The Confidence-Man. Before examining the rise and fall of secular humanist morality in these works, I begin with a brief overview of the religious landscape in which Melville was writing and then define all crucial terms.