Who will guard us from the guardians? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – this is a philosophical question posed by a satirist, Juvenal. It is funny, really: you would imagine that the question would first turn up in Plato or Aristotle, reach its canonical form there – that great rounded form of the thing finally said, as though the whole ocean of discourse had washed over it and worn away every unnecessary edge. But it does not crop up there, nor in Cicero, but in a poem directed against women. “I know the advice my old friends would give/Lock her up and bar the doors. But who is to keep guard over the guards themselves?” (Peter Green’s translation).
Surely there is something of interest here – that an eminently political counsel, something that has been absorbed into the works of the great modern political thinkers, should have first appeared as a question aimed at scoring points against the sucker who thinks he can control his wife’s sexuality, when, as the poem makes clear, she herself can’t. In Juvenal’s poem, a woman’s sex life assumes the dimensions of some vast natural disaster, some erupting volcano, some tsunami. A woman’s sex life buries Pompei all over again.
In fact, of course, the poem so digs at its own fantastic notion of women as to collapse under its own ridiculousness – which Juvenal recognizes at the end of the poem, when he recognizes that he has turned a satire into something more like a tragedy.
From misogynist satire, then, this question is translated into the just social order, and how to get it. That order suffers under the pressure of two infinities – on the one hand, the infinity of violence, where revenge calls to revenge, and the feud tends to expand in scope until it catches up everyone – and on the other hand, the infinity of order, where those who induce order, by their very position, have access to the abuse of order that calls for them to be subordinated, in turn, to other guardians – and so on in an expanding ring. At the limit, order is always under the spell of a transgressive force that wells up from its own logic and nature, and that forces the order to expand. This is the seed of regulation and bureaucracy that can’t be dreamt away by the libertarian adolescent.
I started out on this path in order to write about the police lynching in Ferguson; but to bring it to the point, to say something about Ferguson, here my thoughts are blunted by a fact-weighted despair.