The same ship

Reading this piece about the difference in approach to the originality of artworks between Eastern and Western societies I was reminded of the paradox of The Ship of Theseus.

Legend has it that the ship which carried Theseus back to Athens from Crete was preserved and as old planks rotted they were replaced until, eventually the entire ship was constructed of replaced materials.

Is it really the same ship?

In a similar vein we have the more irreverent scene from the sitcom "Only Fools and Horses" when the character "Trigger" has used the same broom for 20 years but it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

Is it really the same broom?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that something can change but retain its identity when he said that we can never step in the same river twice. Geographically it is the same river, it flows from the same spring to the same sea but it is constantly renewed, fresh water flows through meaning it is never exactly the same.

How is that different to the ship or the broom?

The piece linked above discusses the Ise Grand Shrine located on Japan's Honshu island. The shrine has been at this site for 1300 years but is completely rebuilt every 20 years leading to arguments over its "antiquity." According to Japanese culture it is still the same temple.

This is a common practice in Eastern cultures where the distinction between a copy and the original differs from what is understood in the West. I recommend reading the article to get the full explanation. It's fascinating!

In the West we are obsessed with age, with history and perpetuity. We normally seek to preserve by putting a rope around something and saying "do not touch" rather than rebuilding and replacing. It's as though the notion of age requires a degree of dilapidation.

I can see both sides.

On the one hand, being able to look at something that has existed for hundreds, thousands of years is staggering, simply awe inspiring. And to think that such things could be lost is a travesty.

But I also appreciate how the identity of something can be separate from its physical form and composition, instead being linked more closely to its location and purpose.

How we respond is dependent on our historic and ongoing actions. I wish Eastern practices were more widespread in this regard.

What if Stonehenge had been tended and repaired over the millennia, its stones realigned when they fell or replaced when they cracked? Would we still be amazed, treat it with the same reverence? Or would its apparent "newness" detract from our respect for both it and its creators?

Would it be the same ship?

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