The modern West is unique in being grounded not in a specific land or property, but in a theory of property. A couple, actually.
What used to be well-known as the Classical Liberal theory of property—stretching back to Locke and Hobbes—holds that property is the first line of defense of the individual against a potentially hostile world. This world is largely composed of harmful stuff; property is this stuff made useful, by man’s labor and for man’s comfort. Property is the tool by which we free ourselves from the shackles of our cruel stepmother, Nature. That’s what makes it “liberal.”
The second is what I’ll call the expressive theory of property, which finds its roots in Rousseau’s response to Locke and which stretches through the German Idealists up to the Existentialists and post-moderns. According to this theory of property, rather than being mankind’s first line of defense, property is humanity’s characteristic (second only to speech) means of expression. What a human being is in each age and time, city or state, he expresses by his property. By his shoes ye shall know him. Property expresses our values—those especially human creations—to an otherwise uncaring world.
These two theories are clearly at odds. The Expressive sees the Liberal as shallow, timid, inauthentic; nothing but a mindless acquisitor, a wrecker of this planet, who turns Mother Nature into trash. The Liberal sees in the Expressive a poseur—someone who spouts off about “values” but lusts for handbags or sportscars, summer cottages or stereo equipment, all the while developing habits of sloth, gimmickry, superficiality, and groupthink; habits that not only violate the Expressive’s “values” but also undermine the property that he relies on for his comfortable existence. To the Liberal, the Expressive is a parasite. To the Expressive, the Liberal is a polluter.
That said, there are some important areas of agreement between these two positions. They are both “economic” theories, meaning that they both take the solitary individual as the natural unit, not the city or the nation. For both, society is artificial. On the other hand, they both see non-human nature as stuff—whether harmful or beautiful, still stuff: not God’s creation and not Man. Man is apart from nature, radically so, as free (for the Liberal) and as creative (for the Expressive). In either case, Man is alone with himself.
And both theories leave that very “self,” which is the center of the whole edifice, shrouded in darkness. Who is the Liberal? He has no natural ends or purposes, it seems, apart from self-defense. Who is this Expressive? The supposed maker of values, which change with the arbitrary dictates of History.
At the bottom of both theories of property is a mystery—the mysterious you.
These thoughts on property came to me as I recently moved my father to a “continuum of care” community. He is 82 and is beginning to lose his mind. I moved him somewhat against his will, though with the strong support of his wife, my step-mother, and my siblings and step-siblings. I did so in the interest of his safety.
But when it comes to property, though my father’s new home is safer, it’s also smaller than his previous residence. That meant that I could not move his library with him.
My father holds a doctorate in American history. After a brief stint teaching and administering at a small liberal arts college, for nearly 25 years he was the archivist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was in charge of preserving the Commonwealth’s permanent records: the memories that must never be forgotten. It’s an irony he still has mind enough to acknowledge.
My father was not a scholar. I don’t remember him ever poring over a book, taking notes, writing, conversing with other scholars, or simply thinking. But he had a library of several thousand volumes, and each one was dear to him. I can’t imagine how much labor he must have expended packing up, moving, and unpacking such behemoths as the multi-volume Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War; the Records of Selectman from Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and many other towns from the 18th century; New England Families and the Massachusetts Genealogy; the Messages and Papers of the Presidents; and the Dictionary of American Biography. And those are just some of his reference volumes. But he did, for well over half a century, through many moves.
Again, my father did not undertake this labor in order to study these books. When I examined his library, preparatory to bringing in a commercial bookseller to buy it, I found most of it besprinkled with dust and cobwebs, with many books boxed up from his last move, several years before.
Still, I can’t deny that he loved them. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of him rearranging his shelves or thumbing through his favorites. For months before moving to the “continuum of care,” he rejected every suggestion of moving with, “But what about my books?!” No doubt this was a defensive dodge, to avoid having to face reality. But the point is it worked. In the end, I told him that the bookseller I found to buy the library was merely “packing them up” to move them to “storage.” This story placated him. I think that now, thanks to his illness and the move, he’s forgotten about the books in “storage,” and so my lie won’t be detected. But it remains a lie.
So what kind of property is a book? One could argue that my father, who came from a poor, unlettered family, used his books to obtain a profession and a career that won him an income and reputation, that put a roof over our heads and food on our table. But it seems to me a stretch to describe his library as “defensive property.” It cost him a great deal of labor to keep around. It limited his choices.
Maybe his books were expressive property. At one point, he could probably have picked up any one of those volumes and remembered where he was when he bought it, who he was, and how he had changed since. I know that I can do that with many of my books. His library, with its many parts, certainly expressed his different pursuits: Colonial history; Civil War; Massachusetts genealogy; the histories of Hardwick and the Quabbin, where his people had settled; his collection on palmistry and “spiritualism”; early Christianity; the speculations of Ignatius Donnelly and Immanual Velikovsky; the sordid saga of Whitey Bulger; the boxes of automobile manuals from the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
But I think that there’s something more to books—and maybe this holds to a greater or lesser degree with all our possessions—than defense or expression. It’s something I experienced in salvaging from his library ten or so shelves of books that I was able to move with him to his new home. I had to act fast, to grab the books before either the bookseller noticed or my dad did. I did it all in the space of a couple of hours, and hard choices had to be made. Most of his books had to be left behind, as if to be consumed by fire, which some may very well be.
Some books I grabbed because I thought they might remind him of his student days: Toynbee, Bancroft, Schlesinger. Others (such as studies of the General Hooker Monument or the History of Bridgewater) because they were about his origins, or relatives. Still others (such as a collection of Lincoln’s presidential papers or Grant’s Memoirs) because of his fascination with the Civil War. I saved his dissertation too. I assembled his new study and these shelves of books as quickly as possible to ready it for him. When he came in, he became visibly at ease. He thanked me several times for moving his books.
I came to see better in this process that our possessions do not, properly understood, only defend or express some “mysterious you.” They are us—or, at least, they are as much us as our clothes, or bodies, or even the words we choose to write or say. They don’t just reflect our choices; they are our choices. They are where wishes meet reality. My father spends much of his time, I suspect, trying to “recollect” himself; I spent that afternoon trying to re-collect him too, in the form of saving some choice remnants from his library.
Dissolution always wins out in the end. Life strips us of our property, ourselves. Someday my father, and “his” books, will be gone.
But passing-away presupposes coming-to-be, and this is where books hold special power as possessions. Again, they do not merely defend (as if they were all how-to manuals) nor express, like self-help pamphlets. Many books instruct the reader. They shape the self and give it definition. Maybe all possessions do this to some degree, however quietly. Books are vocal about it. They shape and they reinforce: they call in others of their kind. After all, as Socrates complained, they say the same thing over and over, and they do it very well.
For those of us who love books, then, it’s not only that books “are” us; they help make us who we are. They do so by revealing our capabilities and educating us about the potential goods that a human being can enjoy. This is a great power, and so reading is a ticklish, even daring business, best done slowly and in the company of friends, who can watch out for one another’s well-being.
I suspect that this was one of my father’s deficiencies as a reader: he did not collect friends with whom to read. In a sense, a friend is the ultimate possession, who does not just defend or express but who helps (one hopes) to make us better.
Yet, my father did have his books. An unopened book, as Maimonides remarked, is but a brick. But once opened, a book becomes a sort of friend, for it is the work of another human being, the work of a soul, that speaks to you, the reader. A book somehow lives. Maybe every possession, to some degree, has a soul. Not one that we “invest” in it or simply express “through” it; its own soul, reflecting, to be sure, some aspect of its maker’s being, but still its own—a soul that it, the possession, then mingles with that of its possessor. Who then really is owner, and who owned?
I think that this is one of the reasons that Socrates advised, in his most public speech, that each of his countrymen “care for yourself, even before you take care of your own things.” He didn’t mean that you must first renounce all possessions or relations, and concentrate monkishly on bettering your soul, and only at some later date, “TBD,” return to caring about your family, friends, and other possessions. No, I think he meant that in every choice, every action with or toward another person or object, remember your soul, and ask how this person or this thing—for example, this book—will shape who you are, for better or for worse. Certainly no one was more serious about the books he read or the friends with whom he spent time than Socrates. And for my own recognition of something of this seriousness, I owe a debt of gratitude to my father and his library.