The ship that carried that mythical hero to triumph over the minotaur, and to Antiope, took its lumps in the roughening waters of the Aegean Sea. Each time it returned, on the dock the old repairman carried the splintered boards of the wooden hulk and laid them in his shed. After a time, all of the ship's original boards were heaped in the shed, waterlogged, and the ship that ferried Theseus over the sea was made solely of repair parts.
Surely the ship on which Theseus continued to sail was the fabled ship of Theseus. But what if the old repairman at the dock should construct of the old parts kept in the shed the former ship? Which then would be the true ship of Theseus?
The problem is one of identity.
It concerns the relationship between the physical ship and the conceptual. Precisely, the problem is that a thing can retain its conceptual identity without the physical. The ship kept up the appearance of the first, so that even though its parts were new, the ship conceptually was not.
Appearance is not determinative - St. Peter's was St. Peter's from Michelangelo to Bernini - but it raises an interesting question: Are not we humans mere ships, preserving with spare parts the outer hull of our physicality? And is not our identity, whose basis is the physical, purely conceptual?
When you judge another person, the assessment is both physical and not. The look of a person, the tone of one's voice match not the power of the words made of the tones and the look. The words and the sense beyond make in the mind the concept. The concept, its name a sound made from the mouth, takes on properties in the mind apart from the physical sound.
To say a person has a good heart or a good soul is to mean the person is a good concept. The concept finds its base in reality, in the physical. The good heart and the good soul after all, are functions of the physical actions of a person. A person may speak, may carry your sack for you or merely look a certain way, to craft in your mind a good heart or good soul.
The trouble is often what people represent for others is less than true.
People stow from others the things that make them unique, creating for the outer world a straw man or woman with a name, with an identity of its own that becomes a concept, until one person is two concepts - one of the self, and one of the self in the eyes of others.
Your room, for instance, is kept a certain way. It's in case someone sees it, then someone will think you are clean.
And your shirt remains tucked, the collar drawn and your feats worn across your face, or in title. It's all to make in another's mind a good sense of you, a good concept.
But is it you?
Really do you sleep above sheets?
Sling your clothes on the floor?
Do you allow the boxes of half-eaten food to gather on the counter, and for the silt to grow between the tiling above the tub, as long as no one is looking?
Do you go unwashed, or in short, make for others a person not you?
People, when they relate to one another, present by virtue of their physical appearance a concept that is in some respects untrue, so that by others the true person is never perceived. The narrator in a poem by Matthew Arnold calls that part of the person hidden away from others "The Buried Life."
I knew the mass of men conceal'd
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal'd
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick'd in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves - and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
To only the eyes of a lover do we reveal our true selves, when, the narrator writes, "by the tones of a loved voice caress'd -/A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,/And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again."
Most relations with humans, however, do not involve love. With most we wear the king's jewelry, and the king, adorned with a most beautiful set, achieved a heinous deception.
The king was the representative of power. This power was manifested physically in his person by jewels. Jewels connote wealth, a collection of wealth power, and therein a collection of jewels power.
But the power whose base was the physical person of the king, manifested by the jewels worn thereon, was conceptual. For what if the king deceived us, wearing fool's gold, false gems?
Would not he retain the concept of his power?
We wear the king's jewelry, creating for others a concept based on fraud.
The deception is physical, yet by what we make of ourselves physically we make in the minds of others conceptually, so that nothing, as concerns the person, is ever real other than the question of it.
Paul Tharp is a first-year law student.
Reach him with any questions, comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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