Isn’t “That just isn’t true!“, one of the more common reactions we have towards nearly everything we’re faced with today? If it were just lying liars lying, it wouldn’t be quite so bad, but as terms which were once understood to have unchangeably fixed meanings, such as Freedom of Speech, Racism, Justice, Education, etc., are now being used to convey radically different meanings in what is widely being accepted, tolerated and popularized in society today, we see the ludicrous presented as being scientific, the ugly as being attractive, obscenity as virtue, the despicable as being admirable, and injustice as Justice, so that the sense of “That just isn’t true!” seems to permeate the very air. In other words, our words remain the same in name only – what better timing could there be for ‘The Ship of Theseus‘ paradox to have resurfaced?
The Avengers’ themed TV show ‘WandaVision‘, recently got this 2,500 year old philosophical paradox on the nature of identity & change to begin trending on the web, when the virtual android, Vision, was made to confront a physical copy of himself, and so began asking about the essential nature of what something IS. If you missed the episode, or Philosophy 101, it refers to how for centuries the Athenians had preserved and maintained the ship which the hero Theseus was supposed to have returned to Athens in, after having slain the Minotaur. The paradox points out that as maintaining Theseus’s ship required repairing or replacing its aged and damaged planks, there eventually must have come a point where no original material of the ship which Theseus and his crew had sailed on, remained within the ship that they were so carefully maintaining, and so it asks:
Is ‘The Ship of Theseus‘ still the same ship? If so, how, and if not, at what point of change did it stop being what it originally was?
The ‘common sense’ answer, that Theseus’s ship can’t be the same ship because it’s made of different parts, doesn’t age well, and is particularly troublesome as you realize that your own body is not made of the same cells & minerals as it was some years ago. The Ship of Theseus paradox is troublesome, but it’s also well worth asking because it’s good for us to realize that the ‘common sense’ answers we are often so quick to give, often depend upon the thinnest of surface appearances which are too shallow a means for identifying what that ship, or anything else, is. Working our way through such paradoxes, leads us into a deeper understanding of identity and change, by asking: what do we mean by what something is, and how can we make changes to it and have it remain meaningfully the same?
Getting a better understanding of what we mean, requires going beyond appearances, which is what Aristotle was doing when he identified Four Causes which are essential to what makes something what it is, and in his hierarchical system, matter, the Material Cause, that ‘out of which something is made‘ – is the last and possibly least important of those causes. The Formal Cause, ‘the design and form of what-it-is-to-be‘, precedes that and directs what matter will be used, and how; prior to that and more essential still, is the Efficient Cause, ‘the primary source of the object‘ coming into being, as with the making of the ship by its maker, who creates it from a design which calls for those materials that are to be used in it; and finally there’s the Final Cause, ‘the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done‘, which is the initial source that provides the purpose for what is being made – the reason why it is made, and why it was made as it was. The ship that Theseus and his crew took to sail home in, consisted of more than the surface of its parts – which they may or may not have touched – and when a plank of the ship is replaced, the rest of it’s matter, form, workmanship and purpose, remain. In that sense, if the materials replaced are of the same type, quality and purpose as the Final, Efficient, Formal and Material causes which had brought it into being, then even as that ship undergoes changes, it remains the same ship (not the pieces, but the whole) that Theseus and his crew once sailed on, and which they would likely prove on returning by recognizing it, crewing it, and sailing it back home again – whether or not they’d remember to change and raise the sails… that’s another question altogether (though John Locke’s take adds something to that aspect of the paradox ).
There is of course a potential dark side to the paradox, in that what if the changes made are not made with the same materials, quality, and purpose? What if in practice, the changes are maintaining only the surface appearances of the ship, while beneath that surface its deeper structure is being progressively altered? Then in that case, wouldn’t the apparent maintenance being performed upon the ship that was Theseus’s, be gradually corrupting it into being that which ‘The Ship of Theseus‘ was not? What answer would the captain and crew give to their own paradox, if they returned and could not recognize it, because of the nature of what those changes, had changed Theseus’s ship into?
The troublesomeness of the ‘Ship of Theseus‘ paradox should trouble what we mean by our own Ship of State too, as one by one a Ship of State’s original founders eventually retire and pass on, and as with the planks of wood being replaced in Theseus’s ship, they too are gradually replaced in society by members of the next generation, until eventually the time comes when none of the original founding generation remain. When that time comes, is that Ship of State the same? How do you decide that? And when their children’s children, replace them, what then? The answer is not in the ‘thing’ itself, but in what makes the thing, the thing it is. If those children, and their children, are mindful of their nation’s essential causes – if they retain their nation’s purpose, while understanding and living by its fundamental principles and holding to the same quality of character in the day to day life of that nation, then yes, it is of the same nation, and they are the same people, and they do sail the high seas on the same Ship of State.
And if that’s not the case? America today, is an example of both approaches to change being imposed at the same time upon America, by Americans. Much of the original form and substance of our founding has gradually been replaced, its deeper designs have most certainly been altered, corrupted even, but the more paradoxical question facing us today, is whether or not the changes we’re still calling for are in fact doing more to maintain or corrupt it, and between us – Left, Right & Center – we do not even seem to be able to agree upon how to differentiate between the two. To the question ‘is America, America, in more than name only?‘, I think you’ll find that the answer to that has less to do with America, than with the Americans living within it. Us. Who are you, and why, and how do you know it?
We can begin answering that question by looking at how the changes we’ve undergone began, which just as ‘The Ship of Theseus‘ paradox describes, they began gradually and with the best of intentions through small and seemingly sensible steps, to improve our lives. One of the first and most significant of those changes, came from our changing the purpose of going to school, from ‘get a good education so as to be capable of living a good life in liberty‘, to ‘get a good education for the skills to get a good job!‘ Of course that change was made then, as most parents still make it today, to ensure their child’s economic success. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, that change in goals implicitly conflicts with two of those four most essential causes that America was formed from – with the purpose of education (it’s Final Cause), and the form (Formal Cause) that education was to be given through. Had they, and we, thought beyond the scope of efficiency and material causes & short-term benefits, we might’ve been more mindful of Mark 8:36,
‘What doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’
, for what good does it do Americans, to aim at succeeding in America, while losing what made America, America?
But where we really need to have the troublesomeness of ‘The Ship of Theseus‘ paradox felt today, is less with those changes we can see, than in those intangible matters which easily change over time and produce major changes in everything that we can see and touch, and yet which go unnoticed because the part of them that we can see – the name – remains the same. You’ll see this pretty quickly if you consider what has been meant over time by getting an education, as the popular understanding of that word has been radically changed over a relatively short period of time, and I challenge you to think of some aspect of our lives that is not touched by the education we do, or don’t, receive.
It’s not necessary for our purposes here to go into the details, as a quick glance at its outward appearances makes it clear that something major has been changed within. For instance, a well educated person traditionally has – from the 17th century to the 21st – been thought of as someone who’s gone to college and received a degree, right? Well a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1820, the generation following our founding, was fairly similar to one received in our Founder’s era of the 1700′s, and though notable changes had been made, the Bachelor of Arts and even the new (1860?) Bachelor of Sciences Degrees, were still recognizably *the same* as what would be awarded even as late as 1920. But those degrees resemble the nature of the B.A. & B.S. degrees being given out in 2020, in no more than name only. And so when we say today that education is important, and it is, it’s unlikely that what we mean by that word today, is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said of it that
, so what do we mean by ‘education’, and in what way does getting a college degree indicate that someone is educated today? How sure are you that what you mean by ‘education’, isn’t what Jefferson meant by expecting to be ‘ignorant and free‘? Why? That too is a troublesome question, which for now I’ll leave to you to educate yourself on – I’ll just point out that the paradox is paradoxical in name only, as the original and current meanings bear no resemblance to each other beyond name only.
What’s more important for our purposes here, is to realize that turning away from well founded aims – Final Causes – such as ‘get a good education so as to be capable of living a good life in liberty‘, for more shallow and ill-considered goals such as ‘get a good education for the skills to get a good job!‘, can’t help but make obstacles of those deeper and more worthwhile paths which our new goals turn us away from, especially as today they’ve left us unable to either define ‘education’, or what is ‘good’.
The lack of clarity which accompanies working at such cross-purposes, implicitly weakens those essential causes that make something what it is, especially as they detract from the ‘Final Cause’, which will in turn affect the actions, designs and substance which follows from it. Shallow and ill-considered goals weaken our understanding and create uncertainty in what we should do, which generates a falseness in what we choose to do, and why, which becomes visible in our later attempts to defend our having done it, and in that turbulence truth recedes and power naturally rushes in to fill in the gaps. In the absence of truth, the finest minds behave stupidly, as consciously or not, to accept the lie is to reduce your ability to perceive what is in reality true, and so we act on what isn’t, and consequently in losing contact with reality, our actions become less justifiable, and their results become more chaotic, and in more need of power to sustain them.
As people perceive that growing chaos, it naturally steers them to seek reassurance in greater power, and they will advance themselves over those who don’t, and as that scenario becomes the norm, power, brutality and injustice will reign, while true Justice is rained upon. Not intentionally, but necessarily so, because of the purposes that’ve changed. Corruption is not only wrought by deliberate dishonesty, bribery, or the criminal behavior of those in power – it’s also the process of something being changed from its original purpose, even and especially with the best of intentions, into an opposition to that original purpose; it’s a process of decay and putrefaction, and there should be no mystery why it’s all around us today.
I do think it’s important for us to realize that these changes weren’t only done to us by devious men working behind the curtain – we’ve all participated in at least some aspect of it, right? We’ve all seen, and even reveled in, some aspects of these changes – we saw their effects in our movies and in our television shows, and as they mocked what was good and respectful, we assured ourselves that ‘It’s just a joke‘.
Each of the changes which we’ve allowed over the last century have made some change to the essentials of what being an American was understood to mean, and little by little the small good things which we once routinely performed for each other without much concern for the effort required (such as civility & manners), were replaced with easier means & more usefully satisfying appearances (rudeness & self-serving), and we failed to realize that the lack of knowledge and character being paraded around for our amusement, were less causes for amusement, than the unavoidable effects of making intentional alterations and re-formations of us. We thought we could escape the consequences of indulging in or ignoring the ‘little things‘, but of course we couldn’t, and we haven’t, and we’re living in the consequences of our having given respectful attention to fools & knaves (‘beotch!‘) we thought seemed so ‘cool’.
Ronald Reagan famously said that ‘liberty isn’t passed down through the bloodstream‘, which is true enough, but unfortunately for us, barbarism is! Every generation is a barbarian invasion, and education (not schooling!) is our chief means of repelling them. All that was required for the vaunted quality of American Exceptionalism to fade away, was for us to teach less and less of it to the next generation, each of which would then be less exceptional and more barbaric than the one preceding them, and by the end of the 20th Century enough of that exceptionalism was absent, to excuse our importing the unexceptional materials and designs that’ve long defined and permeated most of the rest of the world. Sure, our maps still label this land as being ‘America’, but if the original captain & crew returned, would they recognize either it or us? Abraham Lincoln once warned that no one else would or could invade America, but if we weren’t careful, we’d do it to ourselves. We may not have sunk ourselves yet, but all of these changes have left America’s Ship of State leaking & adrift in dangerous waters, and it’s not difficult to predict what the future holds for us.
And yet… if you believe that by being ‘realistic’, you can see what will happen next, you are probably the least connected to reality of us all, having forgotten that ‘always shifting the future is‘. And we’ll look at what Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and The Lord of the Rings, can tell us about that, in tomorrow’s post.
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