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Buying a House: The Ship of Theseus

I just finished redoing the deck.  My dad who is a contractor recently told me that you should be putting 5% of the value of your house into it every year if you don’t want to be losing value.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued by saying, you’re basically rebuilding your house over the time you own it.   I was actually glad to hear the 5% because I had misremembered him saying 10-15% some years ago.  The rebuilding point is something I have been mulling over a bit.  It reminded me of the problem of Theseus’ ship.  In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates explains that he has been waiting in jail for some time to be executed because no executions could occur during a festival.  The current festival celebrated Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which I report on after visiting Knossos last summer, where the fabled labyrinth was said to be.  To celebrate the festival, a ship was sent out to Delos ritualizing a recreation of the trip to Crete.  But over time, the boards had to be replaced, raising the question of whether the ship was still the same ship if none of the original boards remained.  Socrates’ discussion of the festival in a dialogue focused on the question of the immortality of the soul raises the question of what keeps a person the same if all the “boards” that comprise a person change.  (One recent commentator points to the range of ways that the dialogue associates Socrates on the one side and the Athenians on the other with Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, suggesting that the execution of Socrates is the final stage of this re-enactment for the Athenians, where Socrates takes the place of the Minotaur and on the other hand Socrates himself re-enacts the trip by finally dying and escaping the labyrinth of his body).

A model of the labyrinthine structure of Knossos. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, 2015.

A model of the labyrinthine structure of Knossos. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, 2015.

As I have been refinishing the back deck and wondering when the last time it was redone is, I’ve been thinking about this idea of rebuilding the house over time.  If the soul is the source of unity over time, or our name for what gives that unity, then I wonder what the source of that unity is for the house.  But really, I worry as I just finished restaining it, board by board, that some of these boards are going to be replaced soon.  I’m not just going to be doing upkeep, I’m going to have to do some rebuilding before long.

In Aristotle’s Physics, Aristotle explains that form not matter is what makes a thing most what it is.  His opponents on this point argue, no it’s matter, because if you plant a bed, and it could reproduce, you’d get the material, the wood–a tree–and not the bed.  The reason that you get the wood is not because what a thing is is matter most of all, but rather that the part of an artificial thing that has the capacity to grow on its own is the material, the wood, not the bed.  Aristotle’s account of technê (artifice or craft) seems to be that a house can continue to be what it is without the builder continuing to do the work of imposing form, but it turns out that that is not so easy.  The natural part of the house continues to do the things natural things do, more decaying than growing, I’m finding.  And if you stop doing this work, if you stop the work of shaping the house, then it can easily cease to be the house that it was.

The Before Deck

The Before Deck

The Stripped Deck

The Stripped Deck

In our very mobile age, this need to keep working on a house, also makes the current homeowner more dependent on the previous owner than she realized, and responsible to the homeowner to come.  It is very easy for me to see how not taking care of important things could be a problem for an owner ten years down the road because I see how those things could be a problem for me.  The house makes very apparent how I am dependent upon generations of previous owners of this house, how I can contribute to the the flourishing (or not) of future owners.  I’m not sure this is the best way to imagine community over time outside of natural generation, but it’s being felt very immediately these days.



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