Thursday, January 21, 2010

Subsidiarity: Look to the Trees (a Roman Army maneuver)

I see that I caused a little confusion last week with my ancient Greek cable TV frogs, and apologise. I am infected (inflicted? inflected?) with a punish disease, and always seem to be tripping over my feet. Hee hee. The important thing, of course, was Subsidiarity, and we shall try to talk some more about that today as we approach the tenth anniversary of the activation of that famous cable TV system. Can you say "coax" cable? Ribbit, ribbit. Hee hee! (You know there is a Chesterton quote which really ought to go here, but I think I ought to let you do some work. It starts: "What did the first frog say?" and you can find the answer in Orthodoxy.)

Subsidiarity is paradoxical - which makes it, like so many other things, a little tricky to discuss. I have already heard various silly replies about it, and like so many other things we hear our Uncle Gilbert discuss, those replies reveal not what is wrong with my argument, or with the principle, but how little the opponent has paid attention to the topic at hand. But I am not going to reply - or even repeat - what my opponents have said, since I am not writing a "Summa" today.... I have already written one book - Oh, excuse me, Joe - yes, I mean two books! - on Subsidiarity, and won't go further until they are published. But a blogg is (as GKC says of his weekly newspaper) a fun thing to "splash around in" and so we shall proceed.

One of the more dramatic points about Subsidiarity is its modern antiquity. This is so Augustinian - you can hear him chuckling "tam antiqua, tam nova" as he contemplates the fusion of ancient Rome's army discipline with 21st century satellite transport methodology. But we are not going to be conquering Gaul today, nor playing with communications devices in geosynchronous orbit. (Rats, what a choice to be faced with!)

No, just as I started my analogy with frogs last week, today I shall start with another creature: the tree.

Now the tree is a source of a myriad of allusional possibilities: we can think of that strange plant in the garden of Eden - or the even stranger one on Calvary. We could consult texts on forestry or botany, distinguishing by bark and leaf, by seed and fruit, by habit and size - or perhaps we wish to harvest them for fruit or nuts or for the most wonderful substance, the natural plastic called "wood" ranging from balsa to mahogany, for violins or for pencils or for paper or for shade. If we go into subcreation, we can think of Bilbo Baggins' "Party Tree" or the glorious Telperion and Laurelin of the Valar - or Chesterton's "The Trees of Pride" or "My Uncle the Professor" (both in CW14); the famous challenge of tree and lamp between poets Gregory and Syme; the tree Innocent Smith climbed; the tree that Drummond Keith - ah, but I must not reveal what his Queer Trade was!

Yes. But there are other trees. In computing a very important data structure is called the tree, and it comes in dozens of forms from the simple binary tree taught to sophomores, up through the "trie" and the DAWG and other very intense structures, by which such things as data compression and encryption are accomplished. But in keeping with the vast power of the tree of nature, we computer guys use the tree in various other ways. You are quite likely using one now, even though you are not aware of it. You can see it if you use your "explorer" or "file browser" tool to visit the various storage areas of your computer. Yes, in most typical computers using the "UNIX" style of operating system (which even includes DOS and its windowed variants) your files are kept in a "tree" of directories. It will horrify the atheists to learn that this tree is a holy thing, for the technical term for this structure is "hierarchical" - that is, a "sacred organization" (from Greek hieros+archos) akin to the orders of the angels, or to the hierarchy of the Church: Pope, bishops, priests, laity. There is something called the "ROOT" of the tree, which typically looks like "c:\" and there are branches and sub-branches, which we call directories and subdirectories, and finally there are leaves, which we call files. A leaf, of course, does not branch - but a branch may itself give forth branches, as well as zero or more leaves. Splendid.

Now, what does all THAT have to do with Subsidiarity?

For one, the term "tree" links a whole lot of ideas together, both from literature and science and technology and history and culture - all the while embodying something very simple and yet so profound that books of technical detail have been written about its varying forms! (Here I could supply references in any of the above-mentioned fields, and I own some of them, in art, in botany, and in computing.)

But more, the tree even in its simplest form, suggests something trinitarian, which leads us back to Roma. I mean the Roman army - as you can learn from the Latin dictionary, the subsidium was also called the triarii: the "reserve", the "third line of defence behind the hastati and the principes". These were the experienced men, put there to assist the others and support them - so strong was this image that the word subsidium was abstracted to mean "aid, means of aid, help, succour" and transferred to non-military uses - we get words like "subsidy" and "subsidiary" and "subsidize" from it, all of which carry the concept of aid and assistance.

How strange to understand this mystical idea from these rugged and technical images - but it is easy to get confused. You might not grasp the point of the Roman army - that the smart experienced guys were not being "protected" by the guys in the first two lines! (Did you note the curious paradox that the principes were not the principal line? That was because the hastati (spearmen) were added, but they didn't bother altering the terms.) No; the point was that the experienced guys were put in the third line as backup - as support, ready to come to aid where they were needed. If you think the Romans were wrong about this, you have no clue about how terrified the rest of the world was of the Roman army. They had discipline, and they knew how to organize. But let me proceed.

This is the idea - yes, the trinitiarian idea - we also learn from the tree. There are three main classes or parts: the root, the branch, the leaf, just as there were three lines of the Roman army. Even though one may guess that the root is the foremost thing, being the biggest and strongest, this would be wrong, just as it would be wrong to think the Roman army was arranged with the other guys out in front to protect the triarii. No, both nature and the Romans seem to have looked ahead in the book, and found out a design trick from the Master Designer. The trunk and branches exist for the sake of the leaves, to get them as far apart as possible so they will have the most chances for getting sunlight. The Roman army was arranged to support and protect the first line of warriors, who would deal with the brunt of the opposing army.

Yes - in any system or organization founded upon Subsidiarity, the higher levels of an are there to support the lower, for
henceforth the highest thing can only work from below.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:313]
I know, you recognize this as his words about Bethlehem - unless you somehow think I have confused it with Elrond's words to the hobbits at the Council... But in either case, this is just a restatement of other, far more famous famous words, from One far greater than Elrond:
Then after he had washed their feet and taken his garments, being set down again, he said to them: Know you what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord. And you say well: for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.
[John 13:12-15]
Or perhaps, even better,
Whosoever is the greater among you, let him be your minister.
[Mt 20:26]
Next time we shall see more about the tree, but from the great Ages of Light, the Middle Ages, when Science was still known as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And if you want to SEE more about trees, you might look no further than your own eyes...

1 comment:

  1. Hey Doc,

    Good post! I don't know how to e-mail you, but I wanted to ask you what you think about the Supreme Court ruling to severely limit McCain-Feingold. At first, I would think he would support it because of the first amendment issues, but then he also fought against the entanglement of big business and big government. Any thoughts?


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