Democracy and tradition require each other. In their truth, conservatism and progressivism, so far from being antagonists, must be yokemates. There is no progress that is not the advancement of tradition; there is no tradition that does not extend into the future through development.
Pro-lifers must lead the way in re-appropriating the fundamental principles of democratic self-governance. To this end, last week we began considering what G. K. Chesterton says about democracy in his “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter 4 of Orthodoxy.
We conclude that exploration this week, by meditating upon what Chesterton notes about the mutual entailment, indeed the identity, of democracy and tradition:
“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. …The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church…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.”
Despite what we are seeing in this election cycle, there is a populism that is salutary, indeed, necessary. It is a trust that there is a wisdom in those who live deep in the rhythms of common life, suffering the shocks of fortune without the buffers of investment portfolios. It is not funded by resentment at the real folly of the comfortable and elite.
Rather, it is energized by a pietas towards the sacredness of the ordinary and of simple people. No higher rationale for democracy exists than this piety, which Chesterton analyzes in order to account for his “fairy philosophy,” his unshakeable faith in the wisdom of fairytales (which finally leads him to Christianity, as the truth of all fantastic stories).
If pro-lifers don’t take up the mantle of popular tradition, who will? We are the ones who refuse to forget the dead:
“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 pro-life movement stakes everything on having the dead at our councils, and that means we will always serve memory as we piously seek to advance the leading edge of democracy.
True progress requires our advocacy for the frail humans falling before the onslaught of the world-machinery of a pernicious aristocracy that betrays both democracy and tradition. We must see that the dead do not die in vain.
[This belongs to my “From the Chairman” series for Massachusetts Citizens for Life: http://www.masscitizensforlife.org/enfranchising-dead-chesterton-democracy-part-2/]