The Tin Woodman of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is a classic philosophical thought experiment. L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodman took it some place rather gruesome.

Tin Woodman
University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that has been around for thousands of years. It goes something like this: imagine that the ship sailed by Theseus (the mythical Athenian hero) was preserved in a museum. It’s made of wood, and as the oars and boards and masts that make up the ship decay they are replaced – one by one – with fresh new ones. At some point, every single part of that ship has been replaced at least once. Is it still the same ship?

Like any great thought experiment, it has a twist. Imagine that all of those decayed ship parts are taken away, cleaned up, and reassembled separately into their own ship. Is that the Ship of Theseus?

This very real philosophical question of identity becomes personal when you consider how often the cells in our own bodies are replaced. Are we the same people as we once were?

The Ship of Theseus has an amusing connection to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series: the Tin Woodman. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it is established that the Tin Woodman used to be a real man (later identified as Nick Chopper). He was a rather clumsy woodman and carried a cursed axe. While working, the axe chopped off his limbs one by one. A local tinsmith replaced them with prosthetic attachments, until eventually he was made entirely of tin.

So, is the Tin Woodman the same person as Nick Chopper? One of Baum’s many sequels took the connection to the Ship of Theseus in a rather disturbing direction. In The Tin Woodman of Oz, the Woodman goes in search of his lost love. He meets another person made of tin – Captain Fyter – who was also wooing the same lady, a munchkin named Nimmie Amee. Together they go in search of her. What they find is pretty gruesome. The tinsmith who repaired them had not thrown away their amputated body parts. Instead, he had assembled bits of both men into a flesh-and-blood assistant, Chopfyt.

Is Chopfyt the Tin Woodman? Is he Captain Fyter? Is he both? Well, Nimmie Amee didn’t worry about all that philosophical baggage. She married Chopfyt. The two tin men leave her in peace with her Frankenstein’s-monster husband.

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