Sunday, 11 March 2018

Tradition and Democracy - And Chesterton

I have noticed that many traditionalist Catholics love to quote the attractive and witty words of G.K.Chesterton, from chapter 4 ("The Ethics of Elfland") of his book Orthodoxy, on the compatibility of the concepts of tradition and democracy. One has to admit that in this chapter, Chesterton seems to turn the liberal idea of an anti-traditional democracy on its head, appealing to classical notions of the common good versus the private good, and the primacy of the former, in order to put forward a defense of democracy as something essentially harmonious with tradition. There is certainly much in his argument that is very worth considering. But I have reasons to think that it does not work so well as Chesterton thinks,  and I suspect him of a very deep misunderstanding of the notion of common good. Readers should beware not to be misled by the genius of Chesterton's use of words - and it is truly undeniable that few men have ever mastered the art of persuasion as well as Chesterton. Nevertheless I think he is quite wrong about democracy, and specifically about the relationship between democracy and tradition. The famous paragraph on tradition is as follows:
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. 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. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
There is, again, much in this passage that is attractive, even to me as I read it now with a critical eye.  There are many respects in which I think, practically speaking, tradition is lived on the ground, so to speak; it flourishes in the context of communities, in the villages and among the people. There is much in the process of tradition that works "from the bottom up." But I think Chesterton errs in seemingly reducing it to the opinion of the many, even the many stretched over time. Recall Socrates' great defense in the Crito of the opinion of the wise over that of the many. It is wisdom, not numbers, that is the guarantor of truth.

One might respond: "But Socrates was hardly a traditionalist! He was the great innovator of his time!" But tradition has a way of being shatteringly new (how's that for a Chestertonian paradox?), especially to men of a fallen nature, who are constantly inclined to fall away from the truth of permanent things - to abandon the Oneness and Sameness of Truth for the dispersed chaos of wanton novelty and individualistic autonomy. The many as such, when left to their own devices, have no guarantee of persevering in fidelity to the permanent values; as many, they are just that: many, and not one. If then they are to be united, whence does their unity originate? There must a principle of unity. To posit a principle is already to acknowledge the necessity of hierarchy for the sake of unity-in-multiplicity. Indeed, the classical notion of the common good led St. Thomas Aquinas to argue in De Regno that commonality in society is best preserved by oneness of government; and thus, at least in principle, it is monarchy and not democracy that is the ideal form of government. Tradition is a kind of unity that can only be received, in its most fundamental sense, from above. The "process" of tradition is fundamentally a hierarchical, top-down motion. (Hence, tyranny in ancient Greece meant both the corruption of monarchy and the violation of sacred tradition; these meanings were inseparable.)

Even from a historical point of view - it seems to me at least (I suppose I can be corrected) - Chesterton's thought here is surprising, to say the least. The democratizing of Western society in the modern age was never conceived as a return to traditional values; if anything, it usually coincided with their rejection. It was always conceived in some sense as an escape from hierarchy, which was seen as the unwelcome representative of permanence and rigidity, an obstacle to the true flourishing of individual human freedom. In a sense, the liberals were right: hierarchy is part-and-parcel of the structure of tradition; although they were wrong to think that this necessarily impinges on true human freedom; they merely failed to conceive of freedom itself aright.

In the religious order, especially the supernatural order of Catholicism, one cannot fail to observe that tradition is inherently bound up with hierarchy. The Catholic religion is very little like a democracy; it is rather a monarchy, in which God Himself reigns as King, and the hierarchical ecclesiastical institution is but the emanation of His divine authority on earth. To leave religious faith in the hands of the many, apart from hierarchical tradition, would be to spell disaster for the Church; tradition is inconceivable apart from the miracle of revelation, in which the truth is literally given to us from heaven. In a derivative sense, tradition would likewise cease to be visible without the authority of its principal earthly guardians: in the Church, the Magisterium; in the State, the ruler subject to the Church.

There is much to be said, of course, for Chesterton's instinct to look for the living tradition in the lives of the people, at the ground level. This is, after all, where one hopes the tradition itself to flourish: in the worship of the faithful, in the village festivities, in the dances and songs of country-folk, in the artistic achievements of individuals among the masses, etc. Indeed, one hopes and expects the common people to be faithful to the tradition, and even to contribute to its ongoing growth and maturation. For this to work, they must receive it from others. But this is not merely a temporal reception from past generations: each generation is also responsible in its own time for the preservation of tradition, which must be given to them not only as a thing of the past, but as a thing of abiding and atemporal relevance; and thus it must be represented not merely by past generations, but also and especially by hierarchical authority and nobility. The people cannot be left on their own as the receivers of tradition; there must always be also the continuous existence or representation of the giver of tradition. God speaks through His ministers, who are the instruments of His Tradition. Theirs is a sacred ministry indeed, through which God communicates the spark of the divine impulse unto those who are faithful - or through which He likewise communicates the fire of His wrath unto those who are unfaithful.

There is much more to say about Chesterton's thoughts in this chapter, which is certainly full of his usual wit and his taste for paradoxes. But it is also here that, in appearing to be the defender of tradition, Chesterton is in fact manifesting his most liberal side (indeed, he himself admits his own liberal background in the same chapter). I am a true admirer of Chesterton, and I certainly do not wish to detract from his reputation as a great Catholic thinker; but on this particular issue I suspect him of a grave misunderstanding.

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