Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HMS Victory - Britain's 'Ship of Theseus'

I remember as a youth reading about the legend of Theseus. As a young boy, the future King of Athens volunteered to be one of the seven youths sent as a sacrifice every seven years to King Minos of Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur that lived there in the labyrinth. Theseus hides a sword in his tunic and slays the beast. On the return journey to Athens he forgets to change the black sail of his ship to a white one as agreed with his father to signify his success. His father Aegeus believes his son dead and commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea, giving his name to the Aegean.

According to Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, the ship Theseus used on his return to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for several centuries.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place...

The ship had to be maintained in a seaworthy state, for it annually carried the Athenian envoys to the festival of Apollo at Delos.
As the wood of the ship wore out or rotted and was replaced, it was unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not. Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the Ship of Theseus Paradox.

For Athenians, the preserved ship kept fresh their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure, which none then doubted.

From Wikipedia

Reading about the ship of Theseus brought to mind my trip to England in 2005 and my visit to HMS Victory. The Victory was the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the British Fleet virtually destroyed an equivalent French fleet thus eliminating the threat of invasion of Britain by Napoleon.
My visit to this ship merits a post or ten of itself. Over 6,000 trees went to build it, all by hand. The photo does not do justice to the size of the ship. This was at the time the largest man-made moveable object ever made. Going aboard you feel small, insignificant, humbled. Some of the ropes are so thick you probably couldn’t get your arms around them. The masts are about 4 feet in diameter at deck level. The ship, like the ship of Theseus, has been restored and inevitably some parts have been replaced by ‘new and stronger timber’, mainly on the upper decks. The lower decks are largely original and you can walk the same planks that Nelson and his crew walked 200 years ago.
The Victory is all that remains of the Royal Navy of the Age of Fighting Sail and we would not have even that but for the pleadings of a wife of a First Lord (of the Admiralty) that it should be preserved. (The Admiralty of the period had no sentimental qualms about sending famous ships to the breaker’s yard).

Like the ship of Theseus for the Athenians, Britain’s Victory ‘keeps fresh their understanding’ of Nelson and his navy and what they did at Trafalgar and in other battles in that critical and historic period. Personally, it makes no difference to me that only 30% of the ship is ‘original’. Like the Gold Pavilion, the spirit and intention of the original builders is what survives and that is what we want to see.

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Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond