What makes you YOU?
The Paradox of Theseus’ Ship
What makes you YOU?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
It’s one of the oldest concepts in Western Philosophy. Heraclitus wrote about it. So did Plato...
But perhaps the most eloquent explanation of this timeless thought experiment was accomplished by the historian, biographer and essayist, Plutarch.
He did so with the help of the Greek hero Theseus and his famous ship.
The concept goes like this:
After a famous battle, the legendary Theseus has his ship moored in a harbor as a museum piece. Over the years parts of the ships, such as the wooden planks, begin to rot and need to be replaced. The question then is if all the parts of the ship are restored, at what point is the ship no longer that of Theseus... but instead becomes a new ship?
Likewise, if all the original materials are preserved and one day used to build a boat, is that then the true ship of Theseus?
To quote Plutarch directly:
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
— Plutarch, Theseus
The implications of this paradox are many and it can be seen in the fields of philosophy, law, and even engineering.
But for our intents and purposes, I’d like to stick with the philosophy of the mind and how we determine who we are...
After all, we inhabit many versions of ourselves, constantly changing, evolving, progressing. Our mindset and ideas develop over time, but even on a microscopic level we have to ask who are we - really? After all, at one point every single one of our cells has been replaced.
So considering this ever constant state of change - and the fact that we are all works in progress rather than complete and static persons - I’ll present this week’s question:
Who are you? What makes you YOU?
Moreover, which you is ‘who’? The person you are today? Ten years ago? Or in the future?
And which aspect of you is ‘I’? Are you your thoughts and feelings? Your physical body? Or the culmination of your actions?
As always, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this email.
Now, on to today’s mailbag, which is a bit eclectic...we have a bit of Glory, some Seneca and a hilarious Latin Mistranslation.
Founder and Director
P.S. Classical Wisdom Society Members: I’m happy to announce that we will be starting our first Members Roundtable Discussion, taking place November 10th at 5pm EST.
Joining us to help guide the conversation will be Benjamin B. Olshin, former Professor of Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
We’ll be discussing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Check your inboxes shortly for more details!
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Glory is mostly what we decide it is. Maybe the ancients considered dying in battle glorious... maybe nowadays finishing that looong TV series is. Glory is an achievement of something. Passing my exams is glorious, for me at least. Maybe for someone else, just finishing those exams without a great grade is glorious, because it's what they wanted.
Those of us who do not need to achieve glory for public recognition, it is a very personal matter. One can feel the attainment of glory through meditation, prayer, experiencing a stunning beautiful event, achieving a very tough deadline. It can be an “aha” moment. I wonder what the ancients called it and was a personal sense of “ glory” greater than a public exhibition? Gaining death on the battlefield may be heroic to some, but “Glory”?
Hello Anya. Glory involves not only outstanding deeds but the popular elevation of the doors of deeds. I think the environment we live in now is a little repelled by glory, where we think very individually and economically. We may fear that elevating others will be at the expense of our own reputation. Also, it is harder to achieve glory in work environments where you are so detached from the fruit of your labors. Some occupations like surgeons, and as you rightly mentioned first responders and soldiers, will quite possibly feel glorious in their deeds and be uplifted as such. However most of us don’t work directly in the service of a visible end, we are some cog in a very large wheel that weaves through supply chains, nations, and over the internet to a consumer or patient who we will never encounter. The best we can do is feel at peace that what we are doing is in eventual service of the good.
As functionalist as ever, Nick.
Glory is interred with the bones of the dead as they die. Glory is also remembered only by the victors and never includes the vanquished, except when the vanquish are destroyed by the victors. Glory requires triumph. No glory in losing ever. Just ask the Army of Northern Virginia.
Glory almost always requires war and death. What the Thai did in the cave was not glory. It was heroism. There is a distinction and difference between the two. The reason it is not glorious is because his name is long forgotten.
To achieve glory, be visible and be on the winning side. Add to this a dash of guilt to the ones providing it and you have the perfect recipe.
Nobody remembers number two. To have glory, you must either win or remember the other that you defeated so as to increase the importance of your victory. Also used to cover your own sins. Glory is a powerful aphrodisiac.
What can be more glorious than dying for your country? No glory in making the other die for his, is there?
On quoting Seneca:
How are you and hope life is treating you well. I have been thoroughly enjoying my association with Classical Wisdom and feeding my knowledge of the time immemorial.
Today, here in the United Kingdom, we witnessed the change of leadership and it was baffling and annoying when our outgoing Prime Minister had to quote Seneca but got her words muddled up. “Speaking outside No.10 before meeting King Charles to resign, Truss quoted Roman philosopher Seneca.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that they are difficult,” she said.”
As we are aware most political speeches are written by third parties, but her lack of command of the great philosopher was obvious to us keen students of the classical age.
It would be nice if our so-called leaders are students of classics and history as they try to drive the chariot of civilization.
Sorry to disturb you but it is my habit of reading your blogs and ideas that makes such mistakes obvious.
And on a Latin mistranslation:
In the article on notorious women, Faustina the Younger is referred to as "Mater Castorum". The title should read "Castrorum" - Mother of the Camp. The erroneous version would make her "Mother of the Beavers"!. Although, when it came to sexual favours from Faustina, maybe the soldiers in the camp were "eager beavers"! Faustina is presented as a very "campy" empress!
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This reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wildred Owen. The bill of goods that glory is, and what is actually the cost.
Indeed I am not the young man I was 30 or 60 years ago. Neither physically nor mentally. Yet I am still a contributing member of society, both healthy and wiser. I may lose my health and mind. Become a burden on society and still be. Perhaps we are simply a consciousness that occupies physical space for a brief time or travelers on a journey back to where we came from. In either case, I can only hope I leave the world a little better than I found it. Why else are we here?