Proudhon, Beauty and Lego

When I first read in a Soviet history book of Prou­dhon’s famous dictum that property is theft, I thought there had been a mistake in the typesetting.  Obviously, the author had meant to say that property was not theft, but the proofreader goofed, making an interesting and valid observation into a gross and vulgar absurdity.  With the passing of years, however, I realized that there had been no mistake, and that the gross and vulgar absurdity may well have been the first in a series of utterances that heralded the advent of the 20th century and typified its thinking.

Property may be theft, but it is less theft than a great many other things—clouds, birdsong, or a woman’s beauty, to say nothing of taxation without representation, armed robbery, or extortion with menaces.  Among the salient characteristics of 20th-century thinking were the rationalization of paradox and the domestication of metaphor, with the final result that, where previously the Sabines had been kidnapped or raped by bearded Romans, now women were being kidnapped or raped by aliens from outer space, the war in Vietnam, the military-industrial complex, and by all the other lemurs that an imagination enfeebled by television was capable of engendering.  Housewifely fantasy outstripped ancient myth, and was neither conscious nor ashamed of such intellectual deportment.

“Evidence is whatever convinces,” said Cicero.  Fair...

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