Tradition Is the Democracy of the Dead – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Tradition Is the Democracy of the Dead

QUESTION: I’ve heard this line quoted: “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.” It’s a great line. Where does it come from?

ANSWER: It comes from Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland.” And the line is usually quoted backwards, as you have quoted it. It actually reads: “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “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.”

9 thoughts on “Tradition Is the Democracy of the Dead”

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  8. Lee & Jackson were not “traitors.” They were men whose patriotism was directed toward their states rather than in the Union. That was not an unusual thing at the time. It was why the war divided families, with sons winding up fighting each other. It was, in one respect, what the war was about.

    Whether someone is a patriot or a traitor is a matter of perspective, and from the perspective of the postbellum world, these men were not generally considered to be traitors, although there were many, such as Sherman, who did think of them as such. You will note that not even Jefferson Davis was tried for treason after the war. Surely he was a bigger traitor.

    I have not yet read Mathew’s book, so I can’t really comment on how he treats these men, but I suspect that the “lionization” involved reflects the successful postbellum propaganda effort of the South in elevating the commanders of the Confederate armies to a kind of tragical heroic stature.

    If I’m right about that, the lionization is accurate historical background – that is, it was part of the worldview of the time that the novel is set in. Anyone who considers that “problematical” is engaging in a kind of presentism which Chesterton described as “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

  9. Whoops – that comment was meant for a different blog, where I want to point to Chesterton. Moderator, please delete it!

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