Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Perhaps your first thought, as was mine, is: “How can Astronomy be an ‘art?'” Furthermore, how can Astronomy be called a ‘liberal’ art? From a very interesting (and worth exploring) website called “Arts of Liberty,” we have a snippet for explanation:

“To call astronomy an ‘art’ can come as a shock to a modern reader… Perhaps without thinking much about it, we think of “science” as being a genuine and exact knowledge, whereas ‘art’ is more expressive, or touchy-feely.  But, that is not quite adequate, since medicine is also an ‘art,’ and it is anything but touchy-feely… And while ‘science’ and ‘art’ do not appear to be synonyms, it could very well be that the same discipline can be called both a ‘science’ and an ‘art,’ although for different reasons.

To understand this properly requires us to consider a sense of the word ‘science’ not in common use today.  The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia, which meant a very exact knowledge, a rigorous and sure knowledge of things deduced from self-evident truths.  The ancient Greeks would have called such knowledge epistémé...  

In the vocabulary of the ancients, an ‘art,’ like a science, meant a carefully reasoned-out knowledge, but more than that, it meant a knowledge of how to produce something.  Where there is no ‘product,’ there is no ‘art.’  So it is possible for a form of knowledge to be a ‘science’ but not an ‘art.’  For example, Aristotle considered the study of god to be a ‘science,’ a body of knowledge rigorously reasoned out from self-evident principles, but not an ‘art,’ because it did not teach us how to make gods, or how to do anything about god.”

Ptolemaicsystem-smallClaudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE) was a Greek mathematician living in Alexandria. His work The Amalgest was one of the most influential astronomical works until Galileo’s discoveries in the 17th C. The Amalgest documents many mathematical and astronomical treatises, including works by other mathematicians – works thought to be lost. The most significant piece of this Amalgest (total of 13 books), is the documentation of the geocentric model of the universe. Ptolemy’s work became the accepted theory of the structure of the planets and stars, with the Earth central to all.

This influenced not only astronomy and mathematics but also theology, philosophy, and fine art. Three centuries after it was written, Hypatia and her father Theon, genius mathematicians, added to the work with their own commentary, throwing in their thoughts of elliptical orbits, the procession of the equinoxes, revising Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, and introducing the sexigesimal calculation systems. It’s believed that this rendering of the Amalgest, with the Hypatia/Theon commentary, is the one that was used for the majority of the Middle Ages although no direct reference to Theon survives and Hypatia is mentioned only in a passing 10th C. reference.


And thus, the Quadrivium ends. I hope you’ve enjoyed my answer to the Bro.’s challenge of finding a significant event, work, or person who influenced each specific liberal art. The question was posed, should Freemason’s really learn the liberal arts? The answer, to me, should be obvious. Not only should we learn the liberal arts individually, but understand their context in the whole of being educated about the natural world. Human beings can be taught easily to survive; we cannot just “pick up” how to thrive, generate ideas, and create a better world.

An example of this “Freemasonic mindset” is James Madison, even though he was not a Freemason. In his early twenties, when the United States was in its infancy, he gave up much of his career and life to studying the histories and government of world cultures. He was relentless in his pursuit of the histories and knowledge of government administration, what worked, what didn’t; he studied philosophy, history, theology, art, classical literature, geography – the liberal arts and more. By the time he finished, and began his work in the new nation’s government, he was arguably the single biggest influencer in shaping the United States Constitution and the framework of our Democracy. By learning the past deeply, he was able to innovate and create a new world. To me, that is a main goal of the Service of Freemasons.

Mathematics and the Quadrivium

Mathematics and the Quadrivium

Personally, I struggled with Math in school. Faced with a math test, any math test, I froze, cried, banged my head against the desk, and ultimately gave up. I saw mathematics as an isolated “thing” to be conquered. You were either good at math, or you were not.

How little I knew, and how little I was taught, about true mathematics. More than numbers, factorials, and fractions, Mathematics is about relationships – of numbers: how they work with each other, work for us, against us, and can talk about any situation. There are mathematics of money, elections, government, science, music, agriculture, capitalism, socialism, any -ism. Math is language and structure: it is a bridge between all aspects of liberal art. Which leads us to the Bridges of Koenigsberg.

bridgesLeonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician of the 18th Century solved, sort of, the problem of the Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg (Russia, at the time). Koenigsberg had two islands connected by seven bridges. The problem is to decide whether it is possible to follow a path that crosses each bridge exactly once and returns to the starting point (touching every edge only once). Euler proved that a necessary condition for the existence of Eulerian circuits is that all vertices in the graph have an even degree, and stated without proof that connected graphs with all vertices of even degree have an Eulerian circuit. The bridges did not meet this condition and therefore, no solution could be found to the problem.

Yet, what this Eulerian circuit eventually did provide is the basis for modern topology , which has expanded into areas of quantum physics, cosmology, biology, computer eulernetworking, and computer programming. For example, the Eulerian cycle or path is used in CMOS circuit design to find an optimal logic gate layouts. For anyone wanting to read the paper outlining these paths in the original Latin, it can be found here.  English translations do exist. A good page on the history of topology is here.

Leonhard Euler was a fascinating individual in that he saw mathematics as something that infused all of life. Though his writings, he made applied mathematics accessible to the layman and his scholastic peers alike. An excellent and thorough biography, written by Walter Gautschi, can be downloaded in PDF form here. With a varied interest in all aspects of mathematics  (arithmetic, geometry, algebra, physics), music, anatomy, physiology, and astronomy, he truly was a man of the “Enlightenment.”  While he was not a Freemason from what I can tell, he seemed to hold much regard for the idea of true science, and creating a better world for his fellow man: a Freemason’s true ideals, to be sure.