Quieta non movere

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Robert Plant, former singer for Led Zeppelin, was observed at the Lynchburg Community Market last year, the town where I went to High School and the town where nothing interesting happens.  It’s a great place to be from, but not a great place to go.  Yet, Plant, in the echelon of significant contributors, ranks as rock royalty, looking rather… casual.   In any case, celebrities have lives, but they lead them somewhere else, right?  In estates with tall fences or private islands or penthouse condos or….  wherever they’re comfortable, which is usually not where people might beg for autographs or selfies. 

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Robert Plant continues to record critically acclaimed CDs, sell out music venues on tour, and command a stage.  This is obviously his secret identity costume.

More recently, I came across an interview from several years ago with Plant that asked a lot of typical questions to probe the wisdom and riches of the highly esteemed.  Plant plays along, as celebrities must, in ways supporting that he remains musically relevant.  Throughout, though, is sort of a prevailing feeling of “What’s it like to be you?”   There may be some anticipated content about the freedom that money allows or the imprisonment of public recognition or such.  But it’s as interesting a question to ask oneself.   When one pokes at the essence of oneself, there are questions of morality, the meaning in life, fundamental beliefs, lessons learned, accomplishments and much more.  Whether profound or pedestrian, everyone has their own answers should they be asked.  The grand finale of the interview asks, “What is life about?”  Plant flippantly responds “A tuna melt?” (I can almost guess that he had just eaten at the nearby Market at Main).

He shortly arrives at a more honest answer: “Let sleeping dogs lie… In Latin, it’s quieta non movere.”   I’m familiar with the English version; I never took Latin.  Who can say why we take an interest in some things?  I did on this one.

First, it’s pronounced: kwē‐ā´ta nōn mōwā´rā, one more syllable than I would have expected.  A better translation is: “Don’t disturb things that are at peace.”  That possesses an elegance with which I think even lovers of Latin might agree, certainly more so than its other derivatives:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “Don’t rock the boat.”  The Latin phrase is also used in legal terms, a maxim counseling conservatism when a factual or legal homeostasis has emerged, akin to “Do not move settled things.” 

That phrase was a favorite of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain (1676-1745), who exercised considerable influence over King George I as well as King George II and guided England during 20 years of prosperity.  So our subject du jour may reflect tactful moderation, for which Walpole was known. 

Further back we find mention in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1374), “It is nought good a sleepyng hound to wake.”  In the same century, Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, (curiously recorded in French), contains “Ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort.”  Translation:  “Do not wake the dog that sleeps.”   And before that, we find the holy Writ in Proverbs 26:17 which says, “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own.”

Meaning is one thing (or variations thereof) but application is another.  A short story titled “Quieta Non Movere” first appeared in The Eighth Black Book of Horror in 2011, which in part reads:

“An architect was engaged and there needed only a decision to be made over the location of the chapel. The obvious place was an area closest to the crossing and facing east. This would’ entail the partial destruction of the eastern wall of the north transept, an exercise which would require the relocation of a number of funereal plaques and stones, the most significant of which was a sixteenth century memorial to a Canon of Morchester Cathedral, one Jeremiah Staveley. It was quite an elaborate affair in polished black basalt about seven foot in height overall, set into the wall some three feet above the ground. It consisted in a slab topped with scrollwork, crudely classical in feel with a niche in which was set a printed alabaster image of the Canon, standing upright in his clerical robes with his arms crossed over his chest. The figure was tall and narrow, the bearded face gaunt: a somewhat disconcerting image which looked as if it portrayed the corpse rather than the living being. Beneath this on the polished slab an inscription had been incised, the lettering picked out in white. It read:

JEREMIAH STAVELEY
Canonus Morcastriensis, obit anno 1595 aetat 52

It was followed by these verses in bold capital letters:

BEHINDE THESE SACRED STONES IN DEATH STAND I
FOR THAT IN LIFE MOST BASELY DID I LIE
IN WORD AND SINNE FORSAKING GOD HIS LAWE
I DANCED MY SOULE IN SATANN’S VERIE MAWE

WHEREFORE IN PENANCE I THIS VIGILL KEEPE
ENTOMBED UPRIGHT THUS WHERE I SHOULDE SLEEPE
WHEN DEAD RISE UP I’LL READYE BE IN PLACE
TO MEET MY JUDGE AND MAKER FACE TO FACE

STRANGER, REST NOT MY CORSE UNTIL THAT DAYE
LEST I TORMENT THEE WITH MY SORE DISMAYE

The implication of these lines, that the body of Canon Staveley was actually entombed behind the slab, was borne out by the cathedral records and one of the old vergers whose family had been connected with the cathedral since time immemorial. Dean Coombe was disposed to be rather benevolent towards this worthy whose name was Wilby. The man was a repository of cathedral history and lore and the Dean was content to listen politely to Wilby’s ramblings, but he did not expect his condescension to be rewarded by opposition to his plans.

‘Mr. Dean,’ said Wilby one afternoon, as they stood before the memorial in the north transept. ‘You don’t want to go a moving of that there stone, begging your pardon, sir.’

‘My dear man, why ever not?’

‘Don’t it say so plain as brass on that there ‘scription? ‘Tis ill luck to move the bones of the wicked. So said my granfer, and his before him.’ “

So, here we find more of a metaphysical threat in the form of “Let the dead sleep, lest they scare the bejusus out of you.”  Wise words, I’m sure.

A more taxing application is its place in “Systems Thinking.”  Newton’s first law of mechanics states “Every object remains in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless a force intervenes to modify this state.”   That sounds like quieta non movere, does it not?  However, systems thinking has its own Law of Dynamic Instability:  “expansion and equilibrium are processes that do not last forever; are not propagated ad infinitum.  Sooner or later stability is disturbed.  Sooner or later the dynamics are stabilized.”   It sounds like, oh, my son poking my daughter until parental intervention settles things down.   That practical application reads much better than “every repetitive system does not endlessly produce its own reinforcing or balancing processes because other processes intervene to reverse the dynamics.”  Until thermal death.  Read at your leisure.

We have literature and physics covered.  Let’s turn our attention to videography which perhaps strikes a more persuasive argument for Mr. Plant’s creed of  “Do not disturb things at peace.”

 

I like the feel and the look of quieta non movere, at least as I’ve encountered and depicted it here.  But it falls short as an overarching philosophy.  It’s likely our aging rock star, not a stranger to spiritual reflections, favors this approach as a precept to avoid creating conflict.  Often, that’s probably true.  But it is also true that through conflict we can grow.  Elsewhere, quieta non movere  risks complacency, as what “ain’t broke” often can be and should be improved.  Whatever the endeavor – tools, literature, art, physics, philosophy – human nature is to create, to invent…as an artist such as Mr. Plant would agree and recognize in himself.  In any case, it’s rare that reading an interview with a musician is thoughtful in any regard.  And kudos to Google for the research assistance. 

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