Who owns us is what makes us important.

In an advertisement for a humane society in a recent issue of an English magazine there is a photograph of a dog and a cat lying side by side in unaccustomed harmony, the dog showing the whites of his eyes as he glances warily toward his companion, the cat lying serenely at ease, forepaws demurely turned inward. The legend over their heads calls them “A Couple of VIP’s—Very Important Pets.” And the next line declares: “What makes them important is who owns them.”

And thus, with throwaway casualness, a nameless ad-writer has resolved the major problem of contemporary sensibility. I allude, of course, to the question of personal identity and self-worth. Or as a student of mine once quaintly asked me: “How do I find out how I stack up worth-wise?” (He was reading Milton at the time, and was having a hard time understanding how so well-educated a poet could believe in the cosmic significance of the actions of a couple of human beings, a species now known to be an accidental eruption of a hundred or two pounds of warm meat and bones walking about on a negligible planet and bearing a terminal disease called Life.)

As the truism has it, “the problem of the nineteenth century was the death of God; that of the twentieth century is the death of man.” Oddly enough, the inevitability of the second following from the first seems not to have been apparent to those of the nineteenth century who so joyously discovered man’s godhood. Nietzsche’s famous exhortation had a fine ring to it: “Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth.” It was equally heartening to hear the words of George Bernard Shaw ...

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