I read Antoine de Saint Exupery's "The Little Prince" today, a wonderful, short fable which held some very potent messages for kids and adults alike (i.e. I recommend it). One passage stuck out to me, though.
Pardon the long quote. The scene is the Little Prince finds a Businessman counting the stars and claiming he owns them. It all leads to the point, but I highlighted the real focus of my post.
“How is it possible for one to own the stars?”
“To whom do they belong?” the businessman retorted, peevishly.
“I don’t know. To nobody.”
“Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.”
“Is that all that is necessary?”
“Certainly. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours.
When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get
an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”
“Yes, that is true,” said the little prince. “And what do you do with them?”
“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount
them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of
The little prince was still not satisfied.
“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take
it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away
with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven. . . ”
“No. But I can put them in the bank.”
“Whatever does that mean?”
“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And
then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”
“And that is all?”
“That is enough,” said the businessman.
“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince. “It is rather poetic. But it is
of no great consequence.”
On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups.
“I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman,
“which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars. . . ”
The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer.
And the little prince went away.
“The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary,” he said simply, talking
to himself as he continued on his journey.
So then, what does it mean to "own" something as humans? I own shoes, a computer, foodstuff, sheets, rights to water and power, dozens of accounts online, and on and on. But, what's the point of me owning them? Traditionally, we say we own things so we can make use of them. How we make use of them varies--a hammer is more practically used than a neglected library card--but because we can justifiably say "I have more right to utilize this than others," we claim it belongs to us.
Antoine comes at it from the other side. If we own something, we are obliged to manage its care and somehow be of consequence to that thing. Simply claiming you own something but not contributing to it (e.g. holding a plot of land but letting it go wild as nature wills) negates any reason behind your claim. I find this an amazingly true insight. If I don't use or care for my shoes, they sit silent in the closet as if they don't exist. My food will spoil, water go to another mouth, car age and deteriorate, and my phone will slowly drain its battery until it is a fragile brick. In order to lay claim to anything, we must spend some of our lives contributing to the purpose, existence, and function of said thing.
I guess the mantra "don't let your things own you" applies here, but, in a way, I now suspect it is impossible to own things without them somewhat controlling you.
Any thoughts from ye men?
Interesting that the Australian Aboriginal concept of ownership in the context of Native Title and Sovereignty is more like, "the land owns us, and we have a responsibility to care for it."
Disclaimer: I am from Australia and know some Aboriginal Australians. From that context I know just a very little about their culture but don't claim any expertise at all.
It's an interesting thought, but I don't think there's any sort of obligation towards the non-living. Certainly not a moral one, but also that one's ownership shouldn't be revoked if they aren't "caring" for the object. I own several medals I earned in grade-school sports events. They sit in a box in my basement. On a rare occasion they remind me of what a boy once accomplished. This is of no great consequence, but they are still mine, and it would be silly for them to be anyone else's.
To answer one of your questions (What is the point of me owning them?), that's entirely up to you to decide, and that's how property works.
I agree there's no moral obligation to things. It would be ridiculous to feel like you owed it to your dresser to put clothes in it.
On your metals: It would be silly for someone to lay claim to them, since you clearly earned them as a boy. Now you say they sit in your basement to only rarely be seen and valued. Let me run my mind from a child's perspective (as Exupery does in his book).
A child came across the metals and decided they were perfect for banging together and making noise. You find him and say to stop because they are yours. The boy asks what you do with them, and you say they are mementos from long ago. To him, though, it seems a waste for two perfectly good noise makers to sit idle in a box. He could then think the unused metals should be used as he wants to, and only direct action by you to protect the medals can enforce your ownership, because you otherwise are not apparently using the medals.
Another example: I collected Lego Star Wars ships as a child. I would build them, then put them on a display case and enjoy the accomplishment of having them built. In late high school, my younger cousin (I think he was in elementary then) began coming over from time to time, and wanted to play with my Legos, since he sees them as toys to be played with. I told him I didn't want them messed with, but he couldn't see how I enjoyed them without using them. In the end, I donated my collection to him, since I realized I was getting no use of them, while he would have plenty of fun breaking and making his own creations.
Now, granted in both cases the child is detached from the emotions associated with our respective accomplishments. But, there will come a day when possessions must go on to someone else (death, donation, etc.) They may be valued by your descendants, reused by another person, recycled and made into something else, or whatever their new owner deems useful/possible. Though they may technically be yours, at some point your claim to ownership faults because they are of no use to you, and you are of no consequence to them.
Hmm...not sure if actually presented a new point or just ran my mind there.
Not sure, either. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though something isn't used to it's full potential, doesn't mean you should lose ownership of it. Otherwise we'd have every object go to the highest bidder, and utility would be the currency.
If I had a modest vacation house that I went to for two months out of the year, I wouldn't feel obliged to give it up to a homeless man, right? I bought the house for the specific purpose of using it just two months out of the year. Same goes for all my investments and rainy day funds.
None of this is to say that nothing can be learned from what you've brought up. Maybe the next time we go to spend a bit of coin on a luxury, we'll take the time to think about how much it'll mean to us, and if the money was better put to other use.