PARABLE – The Ship Of Theseus

ART and ORGANISM

 

PARABLE OF THESEUS’ SHIP

Maria Popova on her wonderful blog “Brain Pickings,” characterized Kepler’s life as “a testament to how science does for reality what Plutarch’s thought experiment known as “the Ship of Theseus” does for the self. In the ancient Greek allegory, Theseus — the founder-king of Athens — sailed triumphantly back to the great city after slaying the mythic Minotaur on Crete. For a thousand years, his ship was maintained in the harbor of Athens as a living trophy and was sailed to Crete annually to reenact the victorious voyage. As time began to corrode the vessel, its components were replaced one by one — new planks, new oars, new sails — until no original part remained. Was it then, Plutarch asks, the same ship? There is no static, solid self. Throughout life, our habits, beliefs, and ideas evolve beyond recognition. Our physical and social environments change. Almost all of our cells are replaced. Yet we remain, to ourselves, “who” “we” “are.”” [read on-line]

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Long ago, the Athenian king’s son, Theseus, sailed to the island of Crete. He hoped to end Crete’s cruel demand that Athens send seven sons and seven daughters there as a sacrificial feast for the half-bull, half-human monster, Minotaur.

Theseus, with help of Ariadne, the daughter of the King of Crete, succeeded, and returned to Athens.[i]  Theseus became King and his ship was used to make the annual trip to Apollo’s sacred sanctuary on the island of Delos where the Athenians would reaffirm their devotion to the god.

For centuries, the Athenians cared for the ship, a tangible reminder of their beloved Theseus.  Whenever a plank on the ship showed signs of decay, it was replaced with a fresh new one.[ii]  The old boards were lovingly stored in a shed nearby.

When a scholar visited Athens and asked to see the legendary ship, he was taken to the harbor where the ship was resplendent in its place of honor.  He was very impressed and made a complementary comment to an old man standing nearby.  The old man said, “but that is not the ship of Theseus.”  His ship is in that shed, in many pieces.  And thus was born the paradox of change.

Like the ship, our worn out parts are, cell by cell, replaced. Are we who we once were?

And so …

Now the years are rolling by me
The are rocking easily
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No, it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same

–Paul Simon (1968) “The Boxer”

 

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Blog Entry of 15 September 2019

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