While studying the book of Proverbs, I stumbled on a quote that made me scratch my noggin. But this was only after I gasped in amazement because I thought I agreed with it.
“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 a small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 27.
This is one of those statements that seems more complicated the longer you consider it. I think there is a good thought here for us, but also a potential problem. Let’s consider both.
The Arrogance of the Living
Tradition is surely spurned as a sacred cow in our present culture. The idea of progress going back to the enlightenment is a steady voice in favor of the new and the improved. Diderot would certainly value the information of the past. But the conclusions? Those can be left behind.
But Chesterton is saying that we shouldn’t view the older ways with pure contempt. Why? He’s a genius to see what should be obvious to our enlightened minds: those older ways were conclusions of other thinking people. Those people were just as able to assess their times as we are our own. Sure, they might be dead. But to exclude their opinions and ideas is to dismiss a possible source of wisdom. And in many cases those opinions might be based on Biblical wisdom.
So my first take on this quote was “wow, he’s right! Tradition should be more important today!” After all, if you value wisdom, you will strive after it no matter where – or in this case when – it is from.
The Human Nature of the Dead
But as I thought for a moment (a practice learned from a quote on my theology professor’s door) I saw another side to this quip. Some might use it as a support for some practices that are not Biblically wise at all. If we only view the past as made up of decisions and practices (traditions) that are right and good, we have rightly and wrongly understand the nature of those who lived before us. If human nature today is able to sin and make mistakes, why would chronologically distant versions be immune to the same? Indeed, this is patently, and theologically, false.
A scan of the various traditions that have been abandoned at present is all the proof we need. Those men’s running shorts from the 70’s are surely gone for good reason. And everyone knows that one about cutting the end off the ham like grandma used to. Good thing we have larger pans for cooking these days. And while not yet abandoned, I wonder what use we will find for tossed-away moral referees that we no longer need around the holidays. Maybe Elf on the Shelf will be able to pick up a side hustle?
But silly traditions aside, this nicely written and memorable quote can be useful if its implication is carefully considered. That is to say, holding an accurate view of both human nature and the commands to listen to wise counsel that are found in the Bible (especially the book of Proverbs).
Wise Counsel is Godly Counsel, No Matter When it is From
Just as I would sift counsel today, taking in that which accords with Scripture and rejecting that which strays from Scripture, so also I should do the same with the past. The value of Chesterton’s quippy sentiment is that it may help us to think about the past voices in a more accurate way: as possible wise counselors rather than disembodied ideas.
The danger, however, is that the witty little quote might be a reason some would forget to be Biblically cautious of counsel from other ages. Generally, this is why many start from the Bible, and then assess the past and the present voices they encounter. Admittedly this is a more cyclical process than linear process, but the point is the same. Tradition, as well as human advice and opinions, is subject to the authority of God’s word.
I suppose in the end, the quote is helpful to me because it reminds me to resist the wrong idea that progress is always something in the chronological future. It also reminds me to resist thinking about chronological dinosaurs as people who don’t have anything to say that might be helpful. But I’d need to remember that my Bible is the standard of truth, not how near or far an idea is from my present location on the universe’s timeline.
Of course, it’s not surprising to hear this advice from Chesterton. After all, Catholics sort of have a thing for tradition. You know, Tradition with a capital T.