Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Oligarchy of the Living Versus the Democracy of the Dead

I think G.K. Chesterton is alive and well, and I'm pretty sure he reads this blog:

The man who quotes some German historian against the Catholic Church... is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history.... 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.... Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our [servant]; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 64-65).
The reason I did a double-take when I read this the other day was that Chesterton may as well be arguing with one of the commenters here at DRD who loves to, well, "quote some German historian against the Catholic Church."

Now, I do appreciate Chesterton's position, especially his sense of childlike wonder and appeal to fairy tale and legend in arguing for the Christian religion in general, and the Catholic faith in particular. His chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" is among my all-time favorite passages in all of literature. Still, it must be said that not all those who appeal to German historians to disprove the Catholic Church are doing to simply in order to be aristocratic or elitist. Sometimes such an appeal is made because said German historian has actually marshalled a good bit of evidence to demand that we take another look at the facts.

Plus, if citing contemporary historians is to automatically fall prey to Chesterton's charge of preferring the oligarchy of the living to the democracy of the dead, what happens when those historians themselves die?

Can we listen to them then?