Tradition and “democracy of the dead”



In one of the most famous poems of the last century, the “Four Quartets,” TS Eliot wrote:

“Current time and past time / both probably exist in future time / and future time is included in past time …. People without history / not redeemed from the times, history is a pattern A certain / timeless moment. “

Elliott’s on-time meditation is related to the subject of this article. The idea of ​​”democracy of the dead” has its roots in Edmund Burke. His 1790 book, “Considerations of the French Revolution,” states that the streets of Paris were bleeding more than a year before the revolution culminated.

“Society is certainly a contract …. It is a partnership in all sciences. A partnership in all arts. A partnership in all virtues and all perfections. The end of such partnerships has been obtained for generations. Since not, it is a partnership not only between living people, but also between living people, dead people, and born people. Each covenant in each particular state is the great of eternal society. The visible and the invisible world, combining the lower and the higher qualities, according to a fixed compact approved by an inviolable vow to hold all physical and all, merely the provisions of a primordial contract. The moral nature of each in a designated place. “

This idea of ​​intergenerational contracts, compacts, or partnerships was dubbed “Democracy of the Dead” by 20th century Catholic apologist GK Chesterton. In his book Orthodoxy, he argues:

“I couldn’t understand where people got the idea that democracy was somehow contrary to tradition. It’s clear that tradition is only democracy that has expanded over time. … Tradition means voting for our ancestors, the most ambiguous of all classes. It’s democracy of the dead. Tradition is the small and arrogant arrogance of those who happen to roam. Refuse to submit to the system. All Democrats oppose men being disqualified from birth accidents. Tradition opposes them being disqualified from death accidents. “

The British philosopher Roger Scruton was well aware of the essence of this relationship.

“The dead and the foetation are members of as many societies as living people. To disgrace the dead is to reject the relationships in which societies are built, that is, the relationships of obligations between generations. Those who have lost respect for the dead are no longer trustees of inheritance, so inevitably they lose a sense of duty to future generations. The network of duty shrinks to the present. “

Two great intellectual enemies of the idea of ​​a covenant between the dead, the living, and the foetation are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau rejects the idea that tradition has any authority over us. On the contrary, tradition puts pressure on us. It prevents us from being free. He called for the overthrow of all traditions in all areas of education, music, and life, and soon began to become a widespread practice. He blamed “society” for the wrongdoing of people and called for institutional reform. Not the rehabilitation of cheating people.

This is the position of both Marxists and modern liberals or progressives, who want to think of themselves. Still, like many others on the left, such as Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, it is worth remembering that Rousseau’s private life was terribly self-euphoric and destructive. The father of five children, he sent all the children to an orphanage shortly after birth, even though he was able to support them well. The man, sometimes referred to as the “compassionate philosopher,” practiced the abandonment of consecutive children. Didn’t Rousseau realize that he was almost certainly killing his children?

Thomas Paine of “Rights of Man” (1791) was also keenly aware of the dismissal of his tradition. He boasted that he was an advocate of the liberation of the individual from the oppressive ties of tradition, especially the idea that the dead had some authority over living:

“I am vying for the rights of the living, and I oppose them being discouraged, controlled and contracted by taking over the authority of the dead. Mr Burke said over rights and freedoms. I’m fighting for the authority of the dead. I’m alive. “

According to Payne, we must abandon the oppressive weight of the past, thereby allowing the present generation to live freely without being disturbed by the deceased. For the past two centuries or more, this is exactly what we have done in western schools, universities, churches, the military, law, and all the other institutions you can think of. Still, it is arguable whether this has resulted in greater freedom or greater human well-being.

Edward Shils puts his finger on this dilemma in his book “Tradition.”

“Experienced the disappearance of one’s biological and cultural ancestors … Limiting people of his own generation without the compensatory acquisition of new ones. The vocabulary available to describe this experience The cause of anxiety is not recognized because it is so scarce, but this is not easily tolerated, as modern Western societies are trying to make the affirmation of dependence on the past appear to be flawed. It’s poor. “

Yes, it’s a flaw, but to be honest, I must admit that there is no literal or mechanical way to implement the concept of democracy in the dead. How many votes do you allow the dead compared to the living? And how can you find out how they vote? It is one thing to pay homage to the contributions of those who have made it before us. Except for purely figurative ones, implying that they could be at our decision-making table is something else entirely. We must always rely on the elegance of our livelihoods to recognize those who have been there before and to show consideration to those who are coming.

When you are young, you tend not to understand what the people who went before did for you. For example, in the 1920s, a Canadian businessman and philanthropist called Ruben Wells Leonard established a series of tuition scholarships for students enrolling at the University of Toronto. His generosity and foresight meant that many students were able to pay and sail the university without worrying about money. I was one of them, but until many years later, I didn’t thank or express my benefactors. Since then, Leonard has been accused of being a racist and a misogynist.

If we truly live in our ancestral contributions to our present well-being, what we can do is to act as if they were at the table and involved in our decisions. In fact, they have places on our table in the form of our myriad customs, liturgy, treaties, customary law, public buildings, homes, and churches. They also have our language and daily habits, training children to say “please” and “thank you”, and expressions like “goodbye”, an abbreviation for “God is with you”. Find a place with.

This tacit respect for the dead is far more than the current fashion of destroying their memories and trying to throw or destroy their statues or pretend they did nothing good. It is excellent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ian Gentles


Ian Gentles is a prominent professor of history and global studies at the University of Tindale in Toronto.