A Cooperative Distinction: Owe versus Own

The British writer on religion,Joseph Pearce, used the period of Lent to write the following observation on life.  His distinction between owe and own is helpful in understanding how cooperative value is distinct from private sector intent. And how easy it is to confuse the words in practice.

The following is from a longer essay on Lear and Shakespeare.

“The paradox at the heart of Lent is that life itself is lent. It is not owned outright by those who possess it. If it were, we would not relinquish it when our life’s sand is sifted softly away.

“Off, off, you lendings!” Such is King Lear’s exclamation as he strips himself naked on the heath, the moment of madness being the moment when he comes to his senses. Lear, powerless in the face of elemental nature and stripped of his political power by unscrupulous treachery, realizes that the very clothes on his back are but lent to him. We can take nothing with us when we shuffle off this mortal coil. We will leave as naked as the day on which we arrived.

“Shakespeare knew this, as the “lendings” scene on the heath shows; but most of his critics seem oblivious of this elemental fact of life. It is, for instance, all too common that Shakespeare’s use of the word “owe” in relation to human life is glossed as “own,” an egregious error that exposes the pride and ignorance of those who consider themselves experts. As Chesterton quipped, it didn’t matter how much he made the point of a story stick out like a spike, the critics would still go and carefully impale themselves on something else.

“As Shakespeare affirms in his multifarious works and manifold ways, we do indeed “owe” our lives. And this stark reality has practical ramifications. It means that life is not simply a gift; or, in any event, it is not simply a free gift. It comes at a price that we are obligated to pay. To put it bluntly, if our lives are lent, we are debtors.”

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