Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Principles of Invariance, or Striking a Blow for Perfection

Huh? The "Principles of Invariance"? This of course is what Einstein's work ought to be called - if not "the Theory of Absoluteness" - since he specified that there was at least one thing that never changed. Yes, indeed; he would have been the first to laugh at someone saying "everything is relative" - he knew better. Unlike the liberal arts world which touts "relativity" even while expecting their paychecks to arrive on time and in the unbounced form, their stationery to be stationary, and their lamps and their cars and their word-processors and e-mail and web-sites to remain functional, physicists know that Einstein's work brought about the revelation of a TRUE invariant or absolute in nature: the speed of light, which does not change regardless of one's frame of reference. Yes, the speed of light is not relative. I recall the famous road sign one still sees scattered here and there around the galaxies:
299,790,000 meters per second.
It's not just a "good idea" -
it's the LAW.
Einstein thought it was a good idea, and so he worked very hard, as you must know, in order to safeguard the validity of the four great Maxwell equations which describe the electromagnetic force. But, as much fun as it may be, we are not going to talk about Einstein's work today - or Maxwell's. (Though there are definite connections to be explored - someday. If you can't wait, check out S. L. Jaki's The Absolute Beneath the Relative, and his Chesterton a Seer of Science.)

We are presently not far past the start of the chapter called "The Eternal Revolution" in GKC's Orthodoxy. Chesterton is exploring the usual question: "what do we mean by making things better?" In order to avoid the futile endless cycles of "turtles all the way down", or the gargoyle of evolution, we need to have some clue as to what changes. Which means, simultaneously, we need to have an even better clue as to what does not change. And Chesterton, as a true scientist (a lover of knowledge as well as of nature) and philosopher (a lover of wisdom) gives us the great precept which Buridan and Oresme and Jordanus and Galileo and Newton - and yes, Einstein too - all subscribed to: the precept that we might call GKC's "Second Principle of Invariance":
There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:116-7]
We heard an earlier form of this last week, and we need to consider it again as we take up the thread of argument: it is GKC's "First Principle of Invariance":
Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.
[GKC Heretics CW1:117]
If you are wondering why that bit about measuring with a reed sounds familiar, it's because that is one of the tools the angel uses on Ezechiel's engineering assignment. (see Ez 40:3 et seq.) For engineering, even more than for science, an unchanging measure is necessary, or nothing will get done. This is why GKC can argue so powerfully for the soundness of Scholastic Philosophy, which the only working philosophy. Of nearly all other philosophies it is strictly true that their followers work in spite of them, or do not work at all. No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective.
[St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:542-3]
Yes, the only working philosophy. That is, Scholasticism is the only one which has results - it is efficient since efficiency merely means "getting things done". All others which even appear to have results are getting them to the degree that they cheat against their principles and act scholastic - even if quite furtively. Therefore, no philosopher, no politician can truly be for "change" in the abstract, or he immediately is revealed as speaking nonsense, he will be utterly fruitless and barren; he will get nothing done...

"But Doctor," (you tug on my sleeve) "haven't we heard this before?"

Sure we have! Very good. You have been paying attention!

It is true that a man (a silly man) might make change itself his object or ideal. But as an ideal, change itself becomes unchangeable. If the change-worshipper wishes to estimate his own progress, he must be sternly loyal to the ideal of change; he must not begin to flirt gaily with the ideal of monotony. Progress itself cannot progress.
Yes, we read about it here, way back in "The Suicide of Thought" - and now we shall see what GKC discovered. You are going to be amazed at the result.

((click here to proceed))

So we know that we need something unchanging if we want to begin to talk about change, or improvement, or progress. Time for an example:
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make many rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times, and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait. So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless. The question therefore becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working? How can we make sure that the portrait painter will throw the portrait out of window instead of taking the natural and more human course of throwing the sitter out of window?
James Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist who worked in Paris and London, one of his most well-known works is the portrait of his mother. It is grand to hear this question, and it is important, not simply for artists, but (taken in a general sense) for us: "How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art?" Yes, GKC gives the more general re-phrase with "work" substituted, but somehow the specific gives something which the general loses - perhaps because of the adjective "vitally". Art, you know, is often seen to be a form of rebellion, whether it be painting or music or theater. But here too Invariance is needed:
A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling; it is also necessary for rebelling. This fixed and familiar ideal is necessary to any sort of revolution. Man will sometimes act slowly upon new ideas; but he will only act swiftly upon old ideas. If I am merely to float or fade or evolve, it may be towards something anarchic; but if I am to riot, it must be for something respectable. This is the whole weakness of certain schools of progress and moral evolution. They suggest that there has been a slow movement towards morality, with an imperceptible ethical change in every year or at every instant. There is only one great disadvantage in this theory. It talks of a slow movement towards justice; but it does not permit a swift movement. A man is not allowed to leap up and declare a certain state of things to be intrinsically intolerable. To make the matter clear, it is better to take a specific example. Certain of the idealistic vegetarians, such as Mr. Salt, say that the time has now come for eating no meat; by implication they assume that at one time it was right to eat meat, and they suggest (in words that could be quoted) that some day it may be wrong to eat milk and eggs. I do not discuss here the question of what is justice to animals. I only say that whatever is justice ought, under given conditions, to be prompt justice. If an animal is wronged, we ought to be able to rush to his rescue. But how can we rush if we are, perhaps, in advance of our time? How can we rush to catch a train which may not arrive for a few centuries? How can I denounce a man for skinning cats, if he is only now what I may possibly become in drinking a glass of milk? A splendid and insane Russian sect ran about taking all the cattle out of all the carts. How can I pluck up courage to take the horse out of my hansom-cab, when I do not know whether my evolutionary watch is only a little fast or the cabman's a little slow? Suppose I say to a sweater, "Slavery suited one stage of evolution." And suppose he answers, "And sweating suits this stage of evolution." How can I answer if there is no eternal test? If sweaters can be behind the current morality, why should not philanthropists be in front of it? What on earth is the current morality, except in its literal sense - the morality that is always running away?
Now, we have a very interesting word here, which means something different in GKC's context: the word "sweater" - which you ought to see as hyphenated: "sweat-er" - one who sweats. But read on. This "one who sweats" means a person who manages or employs workers at starvation wages for long hours (as in a sweatshop). Oddly enough, it refers to the guy in charge, not the guy doing the work - so a "sweater" therefore is "a sweating employer". (I am getting this from The Concise Oxford Dictionary; it does take a bit of careful reading to keep this sense clear. Try replacing "sweater" with "sweat-shop-owner/manager" if you are still confused.) Next, who is "Mr. Salt"? He a member of the Fabian Society (an English form of communism, founded by Shaw and Wells and others); he was a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist. Mr. Salt, hmm... I don't think GKC intended a pun on his name, but you may laugh anyway at this, which paints the fictional parallel to GKC's argument:
There was Mr. Edward Carpenter, who thought we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do. And Edward Carpenter was followed by James Pickie, D.D. (of Pocahontas College), who said that men were immensely improved by grazing, or taking their food slowly and continuously, after the manner of cows. And he said that he had, with the most encouraging results, turned city men out on all fours in a field covered with veal cutlets. Then Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ('shedding', as he called it finely, 'the green blood of the silent animals'), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called Why should Salt Suffer? and there was more trouble.
[GKC, The Napoleon of Notting Hill CW6:221-2]
It is of course true that there are only three things which we can ingest at all which are not taken from living things: water, salt, and baking soda. But man cannot live by salt alone - what if it loses its flavour? Oh, well. Why should salt suffer? Hee hee. The moderns are wrong: all food is death, and hence a sacrifice. Ahem; I was thinking about my next book. But let us proceed.
Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king's orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed. The guillotine has many sins, but to do it justice there is nothing evolutionary about it. The favourite evolutionary argument finds its best answer in the axe. The Evolutionist says, "Where do you draw the line?" the Revolutionist answers, "I draw it here: exactly between your head and body." There must at any given moment be an abstract right and wrong if any blow is to be struck; there must be something eternal if there is to be anything sudden. Therefore for all intelligible human purposes, for altering things or for keeping things as they are, for founding a system for ever, as in China, or for altering it every month as in the early French Revolution, it is equally necessary that the vision should be a fixed vision. This is our first requirement.
It would be fun to explore the allusion to China with its thousands of ancient glyphs, or to the French Revolution, which diddled the names of months and weekdays... but not today. And please do not confuse GKC's argument with some sort of personal preference, as some have done. He is not arguing for the guillotine, but for the Principle of Invariance, which cuts far sharper. And now that we know this, and have heard it drummed into us for two weeks (if not longer) watch what happens. This is the amazing part, so pay attention:
When I had written this down, I felt once again the presence of something else in the discussion: as a man hears a church bell above the sound of the street. Something seemed to be saying, "My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered; for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come. To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good any thing but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may have been under oppression ever since fish were under water; still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not, if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all your history. Your vision is not merely a fixture: it is a fact." I paused to note the new coincidence of Christianity: but I passed on.
Wow! Heaven rebelling against hell? You think this is wonderful? You shall see signs more wonderful than that as we go on - you shall see God as a rebel. But GKC seems to be quoting someone - who is speaking? Remember the "caryatides stepping into their places" [CW1:283] which we discussed a few weeks back? They are the women who hold up the house. Here is one of them, and she speaks - yes, she speaks as Mary does in GKC's The Ballade of the White Horse, with the paradoxical reassurance of looming battle: "At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam."

This is a mystic kind of hope, and it may seem a quite forlorn form of hope, but it touches the heart with strength and brings a smile of confidence.

--Dr. Thursday

PS: if you want to really consider the mystical character of hope - remembering GKC's dictum that "Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all." [Heretics CW1:125] - consider the picture called "Hope" by Watts, and read GKC's discussion of it. (Yes, some of my own meanderings are there too, but you can skip them as they are boring.)


  1. And all of this ties into the discussion of Hope--celebrating the 1 year anniversary of Spe Salvi, On Christian Hope, Pope Benedict's encyclical on hope.

    Barry Michael's is doing a month of blog posts on the theme of hope, and he, too, brought up the political situation and the paradoxical themes found there of "change" and "hope" which, as Mr. Michael's explains, don't work together.

    There, they are discussing how hope is fixed on something solid: namely, salvation. If it were fixed on something changing, where would the hope be?

    Thanks for the discussion, Dr. T., which is marvelous.

    If you want to see the Barry Michael's discussion, go here.

  2. Yes - "fixed on something solid" - a very good point.

    One might recall that the traditional symbol for Hope is the Anchor:

    "The anchor, also a very ancient image and one often connected with the fish, was considered a symbol of hope in eternal life and, by its form, allusive of the cross. The anchor-fish combination, very pregnant in content, recurs in late 2nd and early 3rd centuries in a group of Greek and Latin inscriptions in the catacombs beneath the basilica Apostolorum on the Appian Way at Rome." ["Symbol" in Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 803]

    GKC's own take on the symbol:

    "...personally I should prefer to sow the anchor of Hope in the furrows of primeval earth; or to fill the anchor to the brim with the wine of human passion; or to urge the anchor of hope to a gallop with the spurs of moral energy; or simply to pluck the anchor, petal by petal, or spell it out letter by letter. ... I put an anchor where the groping race of men have generally put it, in the ground. ...we have always thought of hope under so rooted and realistic a figure..." [GKC ILN Nov 5 1910 CW28:626-7]

    --Dr. Thursday


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