Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mutex in the City of Polite Police

The Mutex in the City of Polite Police

Last week we concluded with the question, "Loyalty to Whom?" (We are, if you happen to have just joined us, in the middle of a slovenly study of GKC's Orthodoxy.) GKC had put us between the optimist and the pessimist, in argument over how we are to consider the place where we live and work. As I mentioned last time, this chapter argues about politics, as the previous chapter argued about science - that is, GKC is still talking about the strange and marvellous place called the universe, but now focussing on how we deal with each other, rather than how we happen to deal with the place itself... though of course these things are intertwined.

I used the word "politics" here. Please abandon, at least for the time while you read this, any concept which ties that word to other words like "voting" or "Demican" or "Republocrat" or "Tory" or "Whig" or whatever. Instead, get out your Greek lexicon - oh, no Greek lexicon? Too bad! (grunt, groan) Here's mine, the famous Liddell and Scott, which is always near the computer - along with the Lewis and Short Latin lexicon, a dictionary, the CRC handbook of Chemistry and Physics, and other important reference works. (ahem!) Politics comes from the Greek word polis which means "city". That word also gives us the word "police" - and though the word "polite" comes from a different root (the Latin participle meaning "polished"), even in Latin the two words come very close to each other, and GKC wrote, as a lengthy aside, a very important paragraph which is appended as a PS to this post. The point in bringing up word origins, as always in studying GKC, is that we need to grasp the far larger view that he has, and this is just one way of getting to that vantage point. The only concern that even GKC expresses is that we do not go far enough. We tend to exclude things from fitting together because we cannot make them fit into our scheme - all too often "pre-judged" to produce a certain conclusion. GKC works very hard to avoid that - so much so that his readers call it "verbal fireworks" when they do not see the grander connection he is portraying. Yes, we'll have some today.

Just as "Elfland" is a token for the magic of this Real World, the "Flag" is a token for the membership - I cannot use the word citizen just now, you'll see why soon - the membership we each have in the "club" of the universe. Remember that there is a trio of terms here - world, universe, cosmos - which are all interchangeable; though we often think of the "world" as our little globe, the idea of "world" includes the moon and the Andromeda Galaxy and lots of other things too. Speaking of references, I have a wonderful set of maps called The Nearby Galaxies Catalog which I use when I am trying to decide on where to go for vacations... ahem.

But for today we are considering things a little closer to home, and a bit more personal. Some people love to read science fiction, or see shows and movies about aliens and other planets - and this is all very nice, and quite traditional. The Greeks did this sort of thing: the whole Odyssey is a ten year mission to see all kinds of strange beings but get home eventually... And GKC links these ideas with our own work of today:
Every great literature has always been allegorical - allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle.
[GKC "A Defence of Nonsense" in The Defendant]
In the last chapter, GKC used "Elfland" and the idiom of fairy-tale to provide an allegory - a teaching analogy, or parallel - of the universe. In this chapter, he uses the idea of politics, of government - but in its primary, and most ancient form, enshrined in the mystic word "CITY" (polis in Greek, urbs in Latin).

((click here to read more))

And "City" comes from the Latin civis which means "citizen"... it comes from a root meaning "to summon" (a topic I must defer for today!) A citizen of the universe, then, can only be possible if we think of the universe as being organized - as a city is organized. What can that mean? Let us see.

When we talk about the deepest sense of city life - that is of politics - we are talking about how a man is to live with his fellow man. The ancients knew that even when one has one's own farm, and is more or less independent, living off the land, there were certain rules and certain disciplines which had to be enacted. I have no time to explore this in detail; another book, or perhaps a blogg might deal with it - but the one thing that jumps out of the memories of my reading was the strange mystic character the Romans assigned to a crossroads - typically, where three or four paths joined at the boundaries of farms. There were rituals and other actions which were performed there, and they became endowed with both a reverence and a certain kind of rustic fear. (Rustic is from Latin rus the country, which also gives us "rural".)

But, things change when one does not have many acres of fields, and one's house is next to another's. Additional laws and rules must be arranged. Indeed, as GKC points out, even that attitude about the cross-roads has not been lost in our modern technical age, where streets cross even in heavy urban downtowns like London:
The word "signal-box" is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance, light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death.
[GKC Heretics CW1:55]
Nor is it something simply pagan: no, it has all the drama of the Gospel, and all the shock of every crisis in literature:
The sight of the cross-roads is in a true sense the sign of the cross. For it is the sign of a truly Christian thing; that sharp combination of liberty and limitation which we call choice.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:195]
But the cross-roads - or perhaps I ought use the term "street intersection" - does not feel rural. No, it feels urban. It is a trademark of the City. You may not know that term "signal box" though you have seen them. I will explain what these "coloured fires" are doing - it is quite high-tech, though you may not know it.

Where I used to work there was a time when I had to regulate the use of a single computer between two divisions of the department who made the schedules for the playing of certain TV commercials. I had to arrange something external to the computer which would keep these two divisions from trying to proceed into certain actions, both at the same time. When we do this in programming, we use a system device called a MUTEX - from the term "MUTual EXclusion" - but I was busy on another project and could not add a mutex to the programs at that time. So I took a scrap of paper and wrote "MUTEX" on it, and fastened it to the little stuffed "Abominable Snow Monster" doll that they kept in the department office, and told them: "If you want to use the computer, you must have take the MUTEX with you while you are using it. You cannot use the computer unless you are holding the MUTEX." Since only one person could hold our stuffed mutex at a time, only one person could use that computer.... and behold: the system worked, and they had some good laughs about it. (Eventually the program was revised to use the software kind of mutex, but the Abominable still kept its new name tag!)

Now, in the world you know, assuming you drive a car, there are also MUTEXes around - but they are Chesterton's "signal boxes" - which we call "traffic lights": the fires of green and red which keep other men from death, for only one may use a traffic intersection at a time!

This is what we mean by politics, not the parties. It is the system of rules we have made to organize our life with each other. But you came to hear GKC, not me, so please proceed:
The eighteenth-century theories of the social contract have been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; in so far as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government an idea of content and co-operation, they were demonstrably right. But they really were wrong in so far as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, "I will not hit you if you do not hit me"; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, "We must not hit each other in the holy place." They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean. The history of the Jews is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it endangered the sanctity. And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made a holiday for men.
Wow, talk about binding diverse ideas together! Suddenly the great Ten Commandments are turned into something as bland as a traffic light? No - this is not a weakening of our view of the Decalogue, but a strengthening of our understanding of both the Ten and traffic lights. GKC now proceeds to link this sense of reverence for "the place where you live" back to his starting point of the odd couple of optimist and pessimist (see last week for more) and extends this into human relations:
If it be granted that this primary devotion to a place or thing is a source of creative energy, we can pass on to a very peculiar fact. Let us reiterate for an instant that the only right optimism is a sort of universal patriotism. What is the matter with the pessimist? I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot. And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike the rock of real life and immutable human nature.

I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back - his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. This is certainly, I think, what makes a certain sort of anti-patriot irritating to healthy citizens. I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses; that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it. But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, "I am sorry to say we are ruined," and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant. Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men.
The word "mother" seems to creep in unexpectedly here. You may recall that GKC dedicated this book Orthodoxy to his mother. But there is an important echo of another essay here, and one which may surprise anyone who has had to struggle with that odd little four-letter word "love":
On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word 'love' means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word 'love' is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.
["A Defence of Patriotism" in The Defendant]
And surely this term "love" was in GKC's thought as he goes on:
The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises - he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, "My cosmos, right or wrong." He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world. All this (which is true of a type of optimist) leads us to the one really interesting point of psychology, which could not be explained without it.
Remember we saw previously that "jingo" means "one who favours or supports a bellicose policy in foreign affairs" or "blustering patriot"... but also remember that I quoted Fr. Jaki's great title for GKC, "Champion of the Universe". Clearly there must be (as the scholastics would say) some distinction to be made. We must know how to deal with this apparent conflict. And GKC proceeds to examine that question:
We say there must be a primal loyalty to life: the only question is, shall it be a natural or a supernatural loyalty? If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything) comes in ith the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason - because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.
There are a few things to define here - Hindoo (now spelled "Hindu") indicates India, which was then part of the British Empire - but the rest (e.g. of 1870, or the Norman vs. Saxon Conquest) I must defer. The idea comes across, even without a precise understanding of these historical events.... because he is getting to the mystery of love, and how it plays its role in the human system, our "life in the City"...

Here is another line for your notebooks, and a saying to be blazoned in your City Hall and e-mailed to those in government! Read it again, and think about it: "The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics." Bear in mind, too, our past discussion of the Theta and Pi of Boethius, and how true Philosophy binds the higher (theoretical) with the lower (practical).

Maybe more politicians ought to study the theory of the mutex...

--Dr. Thursday

PS GKC has a great discussion of "polite" and "police" - here it is:
A certain magistrate told somebody whom he was examining in court that he or she "should always be polite to the police." I do not know whether the magistrate noticed the circumstance, but the word "polite" and the word "police" have the same origin and meaning. Politeness means the atmosphere and ritual of the city, the symbol of human civilisation. The policeman means the representative and guardian of the city, the symbol of human civilisation. Yet it may be doubted whether the two ideas are commonly connected in the mind. It is probable that we often hear of politeness without thinking of a policeman; it's even possible that our eyes often alight upon a policeman without our thoughts instantly flying to the subject of politeness. Yet the idea of the sacred city is not only the link of them both, it is the only serious justification and the only serious corrective of them both. If politeness means too often a mere frippery, it is because it has not enough to do with serious patriotism and public dignity; if policemen are coarse or casual, it is because they are not sufficiently convinced that they are the servants of the beautiful city and the agents of sweetness and light. Politeness is not really a frippery. Politeness is not really even a thing merely suave and deprecating. Politeness is an armed guard, stern and splendid and vigilant, watching over all the ways of men; in other words, politeness is a policeman. A policeman is not merely a heavy man with a truncheon: a policeman is a machine for the smoothing and sweetening of the accidents of everyday existence. In other words, a policeman is politeness: a veiled image of politeness - sometimes impenetrably veiled. But my point is here that by losing the original idea of the city, which is the force and youth of both the words, both the things actually degenerate. Our politeness loses all manliness because we forget that politeness is only the Greek for patriotism. Our policemen lose all delicacy because we forget that a policeman is only the Greek for something civilised. A policeman should often have the functions of a knight-errant. A policeman should always have the elegance of a knight-errant.
[GKC ILN Sept 29 1906 CW27:292-3]


  1. Wonderful post, Dr. Thursday, thank you.

    Quite interesting, and giving me much food for thought.

    I wonder how these words can be used to show how the USA could be reformed by those who love her?

    And somehow, when I got to the end, I felt inspired to write a poem about policemen. At that moment, they seemed quite poetical to me. ;-)

  2. I especially liked the line that the policeman is a machine for smoothing and sweetening of the accidents of everyday existence.

    Having recently having two "accidents of everyday existence" and having coincidentally the same officer to handle both problems (perhaps this is because I live in a small town) I fully felt he was the bridge between an awful event, and the beginnings of managing to fix the problem.

    Thanks again, great post.


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