Democracy of the dead
June 21, 2012 4 Comments
What is democracy of the dead? No, it has nothing to do with zombies voting Democrat. Although recently a dead dog did receive a voter registration form. What I’m referring to comes from that emir of aphorisms, G.K. Chesterton. Consider this idea from Orthodoxy (also available as a free PDF):
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
That those many souls who came before us might not have been complete fools is a refreshing perspective in our age of progress for progress’ sake.
Chesterton–himself now among the dead–enriches our idea of tradition with literary wit. Meanwhile, Thomas Sowell provides us a more rigorous understanding, by way of broad philosophical survey in A Conflict of Visions. Looking to English arch-conservative Edmund Burke, Sowell posits “the constrained vision” : a philosophy that directs human society to seek “cultural distillations of knowledge” within the confines of a “tested body of experience.” The idea is not a mere impulse to conserve tradition, but an acknowledgement that wisdom flows down naturally and systemically through culture, from one generation to the next. Between Chesterton’s democracy of the dead and Sowell’s constrained vision, we glimpse what may be the most appropriate definition of conservatism.
Not everyone is so fond of tradition. There are those invested in seeing each generation break free from the tyrannical chains of its ancestors. Consider this inscription at the Jefferson Memorial:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Progressives should be quite fond of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking here. He speaks of humanity’s “progress” and how it will “advance” from a “barbarous” state. Just as he took scissors to his least favorite parts of the Bible, there are those today all too eager to make their own redactions to the traditional moral fabric. Take New Atheist Sam Harris.
In a 2011 debate on the foundations of morality, Harris dismisses the God of the Bible as a mere “Iron Age god of war.” His epochal delineation recalls the popular formulation that certain Abrahamic belief systems may have been tolerable enough for goat herders or a pastoral society, but are utterly unsuitable for our modern age. A bit later in the same debate, Harris insists that anyone today could come up with a moral code superior to the Mosaic law if given five minutes’ thought. So much for his estimation of past wisdom.
Whether inspired by the Enlightenment or the New Atheists, there’s no question modernist arguments hold serious sway over the contemporary mind. But postmodern sensibility won’t tolerate the sweeping assumptions. For all the aspersions the modernist might cast on the dead of generations past, the postmodernist would be right to call him “judgmental.”
The critique is rooted in history. From gas chamber genocide to the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, the distinctives of the twentieth century disabuse us of the naivete that mankind is steadily rising above some past state of barbarity. To characterize people long-gone as “barbarous” or less thoughtful than those living today is to ignore a twin loss of epistemic and moral confidence the world has yet to recover from.
Where does that leave us? We were never without hope. Harris’ debate opponent, philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig insists on the way: backward, not forward. Modernity is overly confident in its presuppositions. Postmodernity is quite useful at deconstructing worldviews, but not so helpful with building up a shared body of knowledge. If we want to access the lasting truths about human existence, how to live, and how society was meant to be, we need to recover a premodern worldview.
Just think. We’re all here kicking and alive today. All those dead and buried folks of past generations must have gotten something right.