🏆 I provide private lessons on Emacs, Linux, and Life in general: https://protesilaos.com/coach/. Lessons continue throughout the year.

Why it is not yours

On ownership, entelechy, role, and selfhood

A.: Have you been here before?

B.: No, this is my first time. How about you? You seem to know your way around this place.

A.: Last year I payed a visit to a friend of mine and we took the opportunity to explore the area. I remember all the main points of interest. It is not a big city, anyway.

B.: I presume you took lots of pictures. I do like the architecture. Every street has its own character. You can tell that the neighbourhoods grew organically instead of being the product of a concerted effort at mass urbanisation.

A.: I expected you to notice as much. There is a rich history here: a culture spanning centuries. You’re gonna love it!

B.: Good! Let’s keep going. What is our next destination?

A.: We are now walking towards the gardens of the main palace. There are multiple chateaus, mansions, old manors, and estates in the wider region. This one is the closest to the city centre.

B.: Do the gardens have trees, ponds, and such? While I do enjoy exploring the local culture, I also want to have a sense of something that is a bit closer to the natural state of things.

A.: Yes, they do. There’s plenty of green all around. We’ll tour the park and then move to the palace. Its architecture is magnificent while it houses a museum with lots of exhibits pertaining to the history of this country. What do you think?

B.: Well, I have been accompanying you all this time and am happy to keep doing so. Though you already know my political views regarding aristocrats and their holdings. A museum of this sort does not capture the history of the country, but the history of this country’s overlords.

A.: Not that radical democratic argumentation again! I have to be honest: I don’t understand how someone as smart as you is in favour of the many being involved in deciding matters of grave importance. Don’t you understand that the average opinion represents an average level of intelligence; intelligence well below yours? Why would you have idiots decide on your behalf?

B.: Your problem is that you think of people as a random assortment of individuals. Whereas I see communities predicated on cooperation and a propensity to show solidarity with those in need. When people work together, which is to say when the self-proclaimed aristocrats do not impose methods of “divide and conquer”, they can reach great heights in terms of cultural achievement. At any rate, why should we have artistoi, those who purportedly are the best in class, decide on behalf of everybody else? Who is the objective judge to determine the aristos among us? Expertise does not provide insight into the particularities of each case, to the kind of local knowledge that is crucial in interpersonal affairs. Were the aristoi in every hitherto aristocratic regime selected on the basis of their ability alone? Was every noble a true genius? Was even the average noble a genius? Of course not! Instead, their status as aristoi is grounded in legal-institutional arrangements that ultimately favour them. There are hereditary rights to power, transferable wealth from one generation to the next, titles and offices that bestow authority on a person or small group thereof to exert control over the so-called “masses”… How does a noble, say the heir apparent prince, prove to be an aristos when his ascension to the throne is nothing but his birthright?

A.: Their upbringing instils a sense of duty in their mind and teaches them to uphold the values of their country. Whereas common folk spend their days with trivial issues.

B.: You make it seem as if the comforts nobles take for granted teach them more about life than the average folk’s hardships. Think of all those incredibly dull rituals that emphasise conformance with the letter of the law rather than its substance. Those are humans who are kept in conditions of extreme domestication. They have become automata in the service of vanity and meaningless etiquette. How can a person rule over people whose struggles they do not understand? I have met many bureaucrats and people we would consider part of the establishment’s apparatus. I could tell that they live in their own impervious bubble; a capsule from within which it is virtually impossible to fathom how quotidian life beyond those boundaries unfolds.

A.: Well, at least you have met such people and do not romanticise the poor fellow.

B.: I need not idealise my condition. Let this commoner be proof that ability or fitness for purpose is not contingent on some title. They talk with me because they think I am one of them. They assume that I need to be smug and to show off everything I can for people to pay attention and to respect me. One of them was triggered to learn that I am a philosopher and promptly bragged how they speak in seven different tongues. It was an irrelevant remark which only showed how resources can be wasted when you still have nothing of import to say. At any rate, they grant me an audience on the presumption that I am their likeness, that I have the temerity and arrogance to consider myself worthier than others. They recognise their mistake soon thereafter. Whereas I know that my smartness, my talents, inclinations, and abilities, do not make me special, because they are not mine: I had no say in the matter. The difference between me and them is that I understand the impermanence of our presence: the lack of true ownership.

A.: Let’s sit here by the pond. You like this sort of setting and I am curious to hear you out before we venture any further. What do you mean by “ownership”? Is this like property rights?

B.: Property rights are an extension of an innate feeling of association. It is not just humans that have it. Why do you think a dog marks its territory? To inform other predators that “this area and all its resources are mine” even though such is nothing but a claim on ownership as the area remains alienable, i.e. it can belong to another claimant. Same principle for our kind. This gadget “belongs to me”, we say, yet there is nothing in its nature which makes such a relationship necessary. To enforce ownership we need a complex network of conventional arrangements. Hence the talk about rights and the concomitant mechanisms that are necessary to render them actual and to continuously enforce them.

A.: You are saying that a feudal lord who owns an entire mountain does not have an inalienable relationship with their property?

B.: Indeed. The mountain belongs to no one. The feudal lord’s claims have effect only insofar as the relevant institutions are in force. There is this notion of “Natural Law” which, strictly speaking, is a contradiction in terms: either it is natural, in which case it is not instituted as such, or it is a law, in which case it is the product of convention.

[ Read: Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) ]

A.: Can you please elaborate on this distinction?

B.: An ancient philosopher called Protagoras (did his friends also call him “Prot”?) said that “human is the measure of all things”. This is a mistranslation that does not communicate the subtlety of the sage’s proposition. What he really said is this:

πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν

of all chremata human is the measure, of those that are in that they are, of those that are not in that they are not

Protagoras was speaking about chrēmata (simplified as “chremata”), not pragmata, and was saying that human is their measure both in terms of their being and, by extension, their modal features: both that they are and how they are. As you may know, chremata is a word we find in modern Greek as well. It means “money”, which is the perfect example to help us understand this phrase. As we know from economics, value is extrinsic: there is nothing in the nature of the item that performs the roles of money which grants it significance qua money, except for the fact that humans intersubjectively assign meaning to it through their actions and transactions. This is true for money as such, regardless of whether it is based on precious metals or is the outcome of state fiat (e.g. gold does not have a context-independent value). In other words, chremata are items with a use-value or else a conventional character. Convention is predicated on [collective] human agency, hence its measure is human. By contradistinction, human is not the measure of pragmata, such as the Sun rising from the East, the eyes being used to capture light and the liver to filter substances in the body. Even if all humans were to agree, by promulgating the relevant legislation, that the Sun must no longer rise from the East or that bodily organs should thenceforth perform other arbitrary functions, such a convention would not affect the pragmata because their being and modality is not contingent on human: human is not the measure of pragmata. At best, human is the measure of the mental representation of pragmata, which is a different matter altogether.

[ Read: On role and actuality (2021-04-15) ]

A.: Then works such as Natural Law are chremata and the same for property rights, social status, everything a palace symbolises, and so on. I now see why you hold those political views: they are a continuation of your metaphysics and epistemology. I think the concept of pragmata is clear. Basically everything that is independent of our mind. How about the mental representation of them? What can be said about it?

B.: Aristotle applied the term entelexeia (entelechy) which is a compound of en (in, inside), telos (end, objective), exei (to have, having). Things have a built-in end, such as the seed which becomes a tree where the eventuality of the tree is in the seed’s entelechy. This line of thinking is helpful, though I think it cannot stand on its own. It has to be complemented by a metaphysics and epistemology of what I call “the mode of application”, or else the recognition that the subject of inquiry is the product of analytics, of mentally discerning and isolating patterns from the totality of all there is, in order to study them as if they had a standalone presence. Everything we ever conceive of is the product of a case that we have constituted. A case is a set of factors in their interplay. So the constitution of the case encompasses both the underlying factors and the emergent qualities of their joint presence. Simply put, we see what we want or what our inquiry renders possible. Think of it like casting a light in a dark room: we only understand whatever the light reveals. A reconstitution of the case, such as by means of introspection in the reliability or specifics of the method and its subsequent recalibration, could reveal an altogether different facet of what we consider as reality.

A.: You mean that the telos is not always clear?

B.: I am saying that the telos is not necessarily built-in. We may well have ektelexeia in micro terms or else an extrinsic telos; one that is dependent on the context or what I have been describing as the constitution of the case. This stems from the world-view that nothing has a standalone presence, which implies that all forms of being are a function of the sub- and super- systems affecting them. The seed has the tree as its end only in light of the prevailing conditions which render such potentiality relevant. Think, however, of a more relatable scenario which will help flesh out my notion of the role of a given construct under the scope of contextuality. Imagine a sword. Its entelechy is that of a weapon. We can specify it further, such as a blade with a cutting edge, but the trivialities do not change the point and so the philosopher has no time for pedantry. The sword has the built-in end of being an implement of war. Yet this telos is not really intrinsic, for only the context can inform, influence, or otherwise determine the object’s potentiality. There is no decontextualised presence and hence no case-independent potentiality. The same sword can be enshrined in stone upon which it becomes a symbol of authority. It assumes another role. Its potential as such a symbol is not a function of its cutting edge or overall effectiveness as a weapon, but only of the relations pertinent to its effective role, such as the narrative surrounding it. That same sword in the stone can turn into a historical artefact, an exhibit at some museum, where its telos is to show what effectively is a snapshot of a civilisation from yester times. Still, that cultural artefact can be conceived as a store of value as it could be traded on the market. You get the idea. One could argue that the sword retains its original telos, though that would only be pertinent if the conditions which are conducive to it are also in effect, otherwise it is impossible for it to retain the set of factors in their given interplay which are external to it. In other words, entelechy is misleading if applied on its own. Entelechy is a relationship, an emergent quality, and thus not germane to a standalone presence.

A.: This has helped clarify what you meant by the mental representation of pragmata. So how do we call those?

B.: We call them chremata. The thoughts we have about pragmata are of our own making. As such, a pragma is the kind of absolute we can only conceive of in negative terms as that which is not a chrema. We have no means of understanding something without a mental representation of it, hence we think of pragmata indirectly through their transposition in our conscience as chremata. Thus I return to my remark on the mode of application: this is a mode of scepticism, where “scepticism” describes a fully fledged thinking process, not mere dubitativeness as the term falsely implies (scepsis or skepsis means thought and to be a sceptic is to be contemplative). The mode of application is the recognition and subsequent disposition that the thought of the thing is not the thing as such.

A.: You have covered a lot of ground in what feels like only a few words. How does all this relate to ownership?

B.: I said earlier that the difference between me and others who think highly of themselves is that I do not believe I own anything. I am not special.

A.: Yes, I remember. What does that really mean? That the context determines your specifics?

B.: More or less. Think about what we typically take as our own. This pair of eyes is mine. Those limbs. The hair. Yet them too are alienable. I will continue to be a philosopher without the beard. I will still be who I am without eyes or hands and legs. And we can continue with this reductive process. Which raises the question of who am I? Is there an irriducible self, a true “me”, that exists independent of the senses? Will I be a philosopher after I sustain some brain injury that permanentantly disables some cerebral functions? Then that too is alienable. I know how I look because I have associated those pictorial features with an appearance, so I can recognise myself in the mirror on in a photo with other people. Would I have a notion of how I look if I had no sight and no other means of conceiving of my appearance? I would not. The representation of my appearance would be meaningless. By the same token, would I think of myself as a philosopher if I had no means of thinking through those concepts and if I had no mental reference of what non-philosophers are? You can tell how this goes. The sense of self is itself the product of the case’s constitution. It is a deep seated illusion of permanence in a world of impermance.

A.: But what about the soul? Is that not truly yours or the true version of yourself?

B.: How can it be? How can any magnitude be a true version of selfhood when selfhood is an extension of the corporeal presence? There is no incorporeal human. How can the soul retain its telos independent of its role, and how can that ever be rendered possible without the appropriate interplay of factors. I think the belief in the soul, the idea that the body is the soul’s prison, that the soul will continue to live as a true version of self only to be taken to some other domain or to be reincarnated, is but a figment of our yearning for permanence. If there is a soul, it too is contingent on the particularities, it too is subject to change, it too is contextualised. There is no true selfhood, as there is no decontextualised presence.

A.: So when you die you just disappear?

B.: Again, remember the mode of application. There is no life and death independent of the constitution of the case. The cosmos is defined by everlasting transfiguration, forms undergoing incessant change. There is no beginning or end, just a constant present.

[ Read: Why you should not worry (2021-12-23) ]

A.: Do you believe in some afterlife?

B.: What I want to know is what is non-life. We can understand that concept in negative terms, but we cannot describe that which is nonexistent as the very description would be assigning attributes to it. I hold that life is all there is. There is no afterlife because there is no end to life. There is transfiguration. So if one cycle seems to end, and if we understand that as “this life here on Earth”, another will begin. There is no point in worrying about it because it too will be a constant present.

A.: Do you think our deeds carry over to other lives?

B.: No, because such a ledger in the heavens, so to speak, presupposes that there exists a constant “you” that has ownership over those deeds in the sense that they can be attributed or traced back to it. If we do not accept the notion of a permanent self, then we cannot provide assent to derivative thoughts. Besides, the whole theory of afterlife puts us in a transactional mindset where we must perform good deeds for their future returns in what effectively is an investment. Couched in those terms, what we believe to be the divine has the rather mundane task of being an accountant and banker of sorts who must keep track of all the minutia in the life of each human on this planet. The only reasonable view for performing good deeds is for their present utility in how they may enhance or otherwise enrich or enable the present condition.

A.: I see. Tell me more about ownership. You said before that you had no say in the matter. What exactly did you have in mind?

B.: I was referring to the fact that I had no choice at any stage in anything that ever contributed to my sense of self. I did not choose my parents, the place I was born in and where I was raised. The exact time I was there. The people I met and the prevailing conditions at each stage in my life. I did not select my talents, just as I did not decide on any aspect of my appearance. I did not make it so that my body would draw enjoyment from sport or that my mind would be attracted to philosophy to the extent that it does and for as long as it does. I did not pick à la carte the personality of an introverted recluse, nor did I opt to have no interest in sociability for its own sake. What little room is left for our volition is itself underpinned by built-in propensities and inclinations. We think we have unfettered will to determine every facet of our life, to draw on an empty canvas as it were, yet the canvas’ properties, the palette we may use, our ability to admix pigments and draw forms is not of our doing. We deal with superficialities, wrapped up in a rationalisation—a misleading sense of certitude—of free will. As such, I find accolades superfluous. When you say things like “someone as smart as you” I cannot take it personally because this description does not apply to an irreducible self but to yet another pattern in the cosmos. The palace, the symbol which started this conversation, is the pinnacle of delusion, for it encapsulates the view that one owns oneself and can own everything else. The self-professed aristoi are fools of the highest order because they yearn for recognition, for titles, and chremata of all sorts. Whereas someone like me is but a stray dog who marks some territory with the understanding that it always remains alienable.

A.: So your political views are to be understood as what exactly?

B.: Politics are matters of practice, of what is expedient. My views are a compromise between the recognition of impermanence and the delusion of permanence. A society cannot be fashioned in the image of a philosopher because not everyone is a philosopher and no philosophy is the finished article. The organisation of society can only ever be a work-in-progress. As for the aforementioned compromise: let everyone live comfortably by distributing resources equitably. Nothing is truly ours and no chremata can genuinely elevate our existence. Who am I, after all? A function of the case’s constitution. It is why I find the idea of muses so intriguing. Homer was appealing to the muses, the goddesses of the arts, to tell him what to write. While this may be an artistic device on the face of it, it does include a more profound insight: Homer’s works were not Homer’s, illustrated by the fact that we have them today without their author. What the person is can then be poetically described as a medium through which some pattern in the cosmos is made manifest: a decoder that transmits to us in clear terms a message that would otherwise not be comprehensible. This is also why I cannot put my work behind a paywall: it is not mine and if there is some purpose in my life it is to express the words that “the muse” whispers to me. Again, I have no choice in the matter.

A.: Aren’t you afraid that this sort of language will make you sound insane?

B.: What naive rationalists fail to appreciate is that myths are metaphors: an oral tradition and form of verbal technology that is used to compress and to store complex meanings in a simplified representation with a high mnemonic value. Make no mistake: there is no lady in the heavens actually talking to me. The modern human has a misplaced sense of worthiness which effectively translates as the belief that all genius is the product of modernity, while ancient folks were superstitious ignoramuses who worshipped ghosts. Oh look! I alluded to a goddess. Therefore, the vulgar empiricist will surmise, I lack the requisite rigour to differentiate fiction from reality. Let us not rely on such crude generalisations. It simply is easier to instruct people by imprinting an image in their conscience. Everyone can remember the insight that not even someone of Homer’s sophistication can own those epics. What we do then through this type of education is initiate students in a tradition that is not egoist and by extension anthropocentric. Those who can fully unpack the meanings of myths no longer need indirect references. The abstract thinker does not require examples or metaphors. Yet wisdom consists in understanding the midpoint in the case’s constitution, which here means to identity the needs of the audience and communicate the message accordingly. The muse expects you to disseminate her words in a manner that is effective. Do not fail in that task by employing needless jargon and by focusing on inconsequential technicalities whose context-specific function is, whether you intend it or not, to impress your peers. Maybe fools will care about how smart and erudite you appear to be. Those are the kind of sycophants that congregate those chateaus while boasting about their résumé. Yet the goddess knows the truth of your impermanence, of your non-ownership, and only wants you to be effective as her messenger. Raw data and/or implementation details have their purpose, though they lack strong mnemonic features, especially among the uninitiated, and so they cannot be our focus or primary medium of communication when what we want is to outline the bigger picture.

A.: You do not own your work. How does that make you feel about it?

B.: Aloof. I do it because I like it or, rather, because my very being is designed in such a way where I have no choice in the matter but to get a positive feedback from this particular loop. I am aloof because I know my work is not mine—despite the language I must necessarily use—so if I ever stop having an interest in it or if conditions are such where pursuit of the endeavour is impossible, I will remain calm as I will continue to be in a state of not owning anything. We suffer when we think we own our self and everything predicated on it. We claim to own our youth and so we are shocked when our hair turns grey and we start having wrinkles. We believe we own our physical prowess and so we get depressed when we can no longer perform at an elite level. We entertain delusions that our loved ones will be there forever and cannot withstand the pain of their inevitable loss. We aspire to always be who we are only to experience a crisis that springs from the friction between our baseless faith in permanence and the reality of impermanence. To remain aloof is to heed the voice of the goddess and to accept your role as a medium, as a conductor of sorts. You own nothing. Make the mistake of becoming invested in your self and of being identified with your interests only to be crushed by falsehoods, misplaced ambitions, and wrong expectations.

A.: I can imagine this extends to human relations?

B.: Of course! It also applies literally, such as me not holding any money. All this was an elaborate ploy to tell you that you are about to foot the bill. Haha! Anyhow, I think we have talked enough. Better get up and continue with our tourism.

A.: Are you coming to the museum after all?

B.: I never said I wouldn’t. I was simply searching for a pretext to share some thoughts. Off we go then.

A.: Hey, you can’t just blithely say that and expect to get away with it!