Beyond Juvenal: “who will guard the guardians?”

One line in Juvenal’s Satire VI finds itself reincarnated in countless modern pop culture references.

AUthor Terry Pratchett sitting at a table, holding a pen
Source: Flickr

I hear always the admonishment of my friends:
“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard
the guardians? The wife plans ahead and begins with them.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” asks Juvenal in his sixth satire, detailing the issues with preventing your wife from being unfaithful. Who will guard the guards themselves? That is to say, who is faithful enough to guarantee the behaviour of others, or is able to be beyond reprimand themselves?

Within the context of the Satire, it is clearly a humorous proposition. Juvenal’s line is in response to the suggestions of his friends that they chain up their wives to prevent them running amok, and he counters hyperbole with hyperbole. A line of questionable value to a modern feminist, certainly, but clearly a stock situation – one need only look to Ovid’s notorious Ars Amatoria to see that a wife’s adultery was practically a given in ancient literature.

All of this was unknown to me when, recently viewing the 2009 film Watchmen for the first time, I happened to recognise these words smeared in red paint across a wall. However, I didn’t recognise the quotation from the Satires (which, being a post-mods classicist, I probably should have) – instead, I recalled the same line from Terry Pratchett book. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? (Or, as Pratchett puts it in the early Guards! Guards!: “Quis custodiet custard?”)

It’s an unusual case of extreme cross-cultural reference. But Juvenal’s line is unusual, not so much because it has lasted since ancient times (though admittedly, that in itself is amazing) – many artworks are fond of quoting a semi-philosophical Latin maxim to give their work that added ambiguity. No: what is so startling is that, when transposed into the realm of new-age superheroes, it’s taken such a dark tone. From a cameo in Batman vs Superman to a narrative in Judge Dredd, the TV Tropes webpage is full of such references.

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But why this quote in particular, and what’s the reason for its persistence? It seems the morally-grey tone of these series are what have enabled the quote to have its continued impact. It carries an inherent suspicion of those placed in positions of authority; but while in Juvenal this is the hired help, a person who is able to be controlled at some underlying level, here it is applied to those in authority over us. Moreover, it concerns those who have not been chosen by us, and it is suggested that we would not be able to rid ourselves of it if we wanted to. Juvenal’s bodyguard can be dismissed at will, but the likes of Superman cannot be dealt with so easily.

Such an interpretation is, in fact, by no means new. Even in Plato’s Republic a similar idea is raised, and this has found its way down through Mill to the present day. In many ways, the threat of an authoritarian government is democracy’s greatest fear; a ‘watchman’ chosen for the people, which is unable to be removed when it rebels against its duty. It’s the same idea which resonates when we are confronted with accounts of police brutality. The people we choose are meant to be the ones who protect us, but when they turn against us, the fault still seems to reside with ourselves. We ‘should have known better’. We shouldn’t have voted for that candidate; Juvenal should have paid the cash for a better guard.

Or perhaps the money would have made no difference. There is, after all, a certain inevitability to the corruption of power – at least as each form of media would have us think. Unbridled power never seems to be able to be handled responsibly. With the dark turn of superheroes, there’s no longer a Superman who uses his power for good. There’s no longer a government who will do good left unchecked.

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For his part, Plato seems dismissive of the issues raised, which, given his own pro-authoritarian bias, isn’t particularly comforting. Perhaps in the mass of pop-culture references this is the core philosophy being returned to – a negative interpretation which, somewhat ironically, has its roots several hundred years before Juvenal even put pen to paper. Is this what Juvenal has in mind when he jots down such a witty maxim? It’s not far-fetched to assume it is, but, in an ironic twist, it’s a humorous subversion which has so succinctly captured the authoritarian issue at the heart of a philosophical epic.

With so many dark and gloomy interpretations permeating what was most likely meant to be a light-hearted and jovial work, it is perhaps only fair that I return to Pratchett’s Discworld series – where I first stumbled into this rabbit hole – and offer up my own optimistic interpretation, or misinterpretation, as the case may be. Perhaps it’s the series’ sympathetic, reliable guards, or maybe it’s the ambiguity of the original custodiet, but I translated it somewhat differently – Who will protect the protectors themselves? In other words, who will ensure that we look out for each other? It’s a far cry from Juvenal and his adulterous wife, and it’s nowhere near the cynicism of modern politics, fictional or otherwise. But it is, I think, an apt question to ask. And that’s what makes Vimes’ reply to the rhetorical question so comforting: “I do.”