The Meaning of "My"

One of my summertime reading pleasures has been reading C.S. Lewis‘s?The Screwtape Letters for the first time.? As a new generation of property student begins the school year, I thought it would be useful to pass on this commentary on the most property-laden adjective, the possessive “my.”? In?this excerpt, a devil named Screwtape is continuing to tutor his nephew on how best to steer humans toward “our Father below”:

We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,” the “my” of ownership.

Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by “my Teddy-bear” not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but “the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.” And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say “My God” in a sense not really very different from “My boots”, meaning “The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit-the God I have done a corner in.” And all the time the joke is that the word “Mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say “Mine” of each thing that exists, and especially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong-certainly not to them, whatever happens.

These “finely graded differences” are often lost in legal conceptions of both real and intellectual property.

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  1. Jimmy says:

    Lewis’s philological roots are shown here. Brilliant analysis of the different things we mean by “my”. Part of why he’s so enjoyable to read is that he’s so precise in exactly what he’s saying.

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  2. Justin James says:

    “These “finely graded differences” are often lost in legal conceptions of both real and intellectual property.”

    The lack of these differences is a significant part of what is wrong with our economy and US society as well.

    J.Ja

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  3. James says:

    There’s a similar idea in Larry Niven’s short story Grammar Lesson.

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  4. Don Mankoff says:

    I’m so grateful that you shared this with us. What a fine passage!

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  5. tungbo says:

    The concept “Property” already presuposses all the machinery of possession and enforcement that makes it effective as a way to organize behavior. Stewardship has been on the wane for a long time and the ongoing acquisitive drive is pushing the ever expanding application of ‘intellectual property’ to all manners of ideas. Soon we may have to pay a fee to share a thought on a blog….

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  6. Michael F. Martin says:

    There’s a distinctly Anglo-Saxon ring to this passage. The notion of relationship status as the basis for legal rights and duties — as opposed to contract and property — is a prominent feature of civil law traditions, as evidenced clearly in the Napoleonic code.

    For the record, I’m not saying there’s anything diabolical about civil law traditions! Only that Lewis may have been looking at things through his Anglo-Saxon lens.

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  7. Mantonat says:

    The legal ramifications go way beyond real and intellectual property. For example, consider the phrase “my body, my choice.” If the defense “it’s my body, I can do with it as I please” is actually true, there are many laws other than those that deal with reproductive rights that stand to be altered.

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  8. NZ says:

    I think this has way more to do with God than with “my.”

    I’m more interested in the legitimacy aspect of ownership than the spiritual aspect of it–and I’m not convinced that the latter is even relevant to anything other than religion.

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