One of my favorite philosophers was named at birth “John McTaggart Ellis”, but his great-uncle, also named “John McTaggart”, died and willed his money to young John McTaggart Ellis on the condition that his family assumed the surname “McTaggart.” So he became J. McT. E. McTaggart . He was a logician who was full of contradictions, an athiest, for example, who believed in immortality. And he made an argument for the unreality of time which is both respected and generally ignored by other philosophers. I used to think I understood it, but have come to realize I never did. However Mr. McT. E. McTaggaart also wrote extensively on love, another subject contemporary philosophers ignore. McT has a lot of very good things to say about it and they are easier to understand than the things he says about time. The question that ends the following poem was posed by McTaggart.
Mother and child, George Romney
WE’RE NOT AS SEPARATE AS WE SUPPOSE
Tiny cells that don’t know what they’re doing create my heart and liver, lungs and mind, and we, who also don’t know what we’re doing, create from deeds and dreams and memories a greater person called mankind.
I know no more of how that person thinks than I do of the way my body works. I see though there are links I cannot see connecting you to me and us to them and what was once to what is going to be
We’re not as separate as we suppose. And where’s the line between what’s still possessed and what is lost? Are we to count as lost the love and friendship that we gave and got but have, before we’ve even died, forgot?
Some people encourage us to compete. Competition, they say, is what leads to excellence. Others encourage us not to compete. They say competition leads to worry, fret, and strife—and ultimately to destruction. Both are right—and also wrong. It doesn’t matter what we compete for—money, fame, social position. What matters is who we choose to compete with, because that is the person we will come to resemble. Who are more alike than two boxers?
I try to be just like this guy I like, I dress like him; I drive his kind of car. And when I wish, I wish upon his star.
The more I’m like him, though, the less I like hearing people say we are alike. And so to show them I’m not him,
I pick a fight. I fight a match with him. We match each other blow for blow. He runs! I’ve won! I watch him go
Sometimes though I dream that wasn’t him. I dream that I am who he has become. Okay, what’s left of me? I can’t be sure.
What do I call what I am suffering from? Is there a cure?
Discover as you scan the newspaper the murderer du jour’s name’s the same as yours.
But he’s from Minneapolis so it’s ridiculous to think that there’s a link.
But you keep looking for a trace of some resemblance in the face above your name,
knowing in your heart, that people dance together far apart,
and words and deeds inweave and blend, contend and ramify in ways that go far beyond what we intend or know,
and that in devious and crooked ways you’re linked to the murderer in Minneapolis.
Jonathan Edwards thought a family is “one complex moral person.” and that for some purposes God might regard the whole of humanity as a single person. “And so some particular persons may by their actions injure, not only great part of the world that are contemporary with them, but injure and undo all future generations. So that men that live now on the earth may have an action against those that lived a thousand years ago.”
Scientists reduce our identities to fingerprints, to voiceprints, or to genes. All that misses everything important about us. We aren’t just bundles of verifiable facts. We are stories—and stories vanish in the light of laboratories. Scientists study what we share—the objective truth about us. But only stories—which belong to us as individuals—reveal our unique, contradictory selves. As Lambert Strether says of himself in Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors: “I’m true, but I’m incredible.”
The body you lay down in yesterday is not the one you woke up in today.
And so we must conclude there’s more to you than scientists can certify is true.
Nevertheless, when you reflect, you see that who you are is who you used to be.
I’m not sure any of us know much of anything anymore, but everyone used to know: that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails while girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I don’t disagree with that, but step back a bit and you will see that both boys and girls alike are made of stories. The comedian Fred Allen . . . Remember him? No, of course not, but he wisely observed in his autobiography, All About Me, that “A human being is nothing but a story with a skin around it.”
STORIES AREN’T MADE OF STUFF
I can’t rely on who I was to keep me who I am because who I was is gone, so he can’t be of any use to me.
Nor can I rely on who I am to make me who I’d rather be because there’s no way I can stand beside myself and take myself in hand.
And so my character depends on family, strangers, enemies, and friends. We spin the stories of each other’s lives in ways we only rarely realize,
Of what? Don’t ask. Stories aren’t made of stuff. We’re made of them and they are made of us.