Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the power which some accumulate under the goading of their will to possess, or may enjoy and admire the skills which others develop at least partly under the same impulses. To own, to have at one's disposal, to exercise power over, are all marks of human effectiveness, just as much as the capacity to jump long distances or to sing resonantly in tune or to make compelling political speeches. All human effectiveness is effectiveness in some real social setting, drawn in part from contingent advantages and reflected back in the grudging or effusive acknowledgment of other human beings. Even possessiveness requires at least an imaginary audience. One might save prudently on a desert island, but one could hardly hoard there. However, while ownership itself can be enviable and in some circumstances even impressive, the mere desire to have seems to many today - just as it did to John Locke - a furtive, even incipiently criminal form of lust.
LRB 18 October 1984 | PDF Download