In one episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Trigger is boasting about having received an award from the local council for having used the same broom for twenty years – and he then reveals that in that twenty years the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. Is it the same broom?
This is actually a new form of an ancient philosophical argument, first written down by Plutarch in the first century, where he discusses ‘The Ship of Theseus’ – a ship where all the different planks and masts and so on have been replaced over time, so that not one original piece of timber has remained. Is it still the same ship?
This is one of those questions that occupies philosophers for a very great deal of time, and I don’t plan to get very technical in this column (I have been known to learn a lesson. On rare occasions). The reason why I mention it is because it cuts right to the heart of the various changes that are going on in and around Mersea at the moment. Is it still the same Island?
My view is that Trigger’s Broom, and Theseus’ Ship, are the same, despite the changes. That is because there has been a continuity of use over time. Trigger has been using a broom to do his work in a consistent fashion for over twenty years, and each day he has taken the broom from the same place, and at the end of the day he has put it back in that place. The fact that on several occasions parts of the broom have changed has not affected the identity of the Broom – at any one point, people could have pointed to the one object and truthfully said ‘That is Trigger’s Broom’. In a similar fashion, there was a sailing vessel crewed by a community of sailors that achieved certain travels under the command of Theseus – and at any point people could have pointed to that vessel and truthfully said ‘that is Theseus’ Ship’. In other words, the identity of the object (the broom or the ship) rested as much in the continuous use by the community as in the continuity of any particular physical element.
This is a debate that often comes up when considering churches. The parish church here in West Mersea has seen vast changes in its history. The origins of the Christian community there are likely from the early seventh century, and the importance of that community (as what was then called a Minster church) was such that the King of Essex, Saint Sebbi, built the Strood in order to gain regular access to it. Almost nothing physical from that time now remains (there is one very small Anglo-Saxon carving in the church and that’s it) but I would argue that the church now is the same as the church then, simply because there has been a continuity of use on the site ever since. Similarly, the various physical changes to the church – building the tower using old Roman Tiles, the expansion of the different aisles, the massive re-ordering through the Reformation period, and more recently the installation of memorial pews and so on – all these things are simply like replacing the decking on Theseus’ ship. For some 1400 years the ‘sailors’ in the church have continued to share bread and wine while telling the story of Jesus. It is that which gives identity to the church, rather than any one particular configuration of the church fabric.
In the same way, when we are considering the various things about Mersea which may or may not be changing in the future, we need to remember that what gives Mersea its identity is not any one particular physical feature so much as the nature of the community that lives here – and that too has seen many great changes over time. The issue is perhaps not so much ‘we need to preserve that particular set of decking’ as ‘will this help us to keep sailing’? So in the context of Mersea, the questions are – what will best enable the population to flourish fully? That includes the environmental and historical questions; it also includes questions of employment and local amenities. Judging the balance between these elements is a complex task and I don’t envy those who have the responsibility for making the final decisions. I do however believe that decisions are best made at the level closest to those affected – which means, for many issues, that decisions need to be made by the Mersea community and not in Colchester.
What I am trying to describe here is the reality of a living tradition. When a tradition and a culture is alive then it is open to ongoing evolution and development in response to different circumstances – in other words the ship is kept seaworthy. It is when a tradition has begun to die that different elements from that tradition get broken off and held up as totems, the ship is only good for salvage value. At that point there is no longer a living tradition, there is a museum full of relics – and museums are wonderful and important places, they can tell us the story of where we come from and therefore help us to know where we are – but I wouldn’t want to live in one, or on one.