Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

artblog-23-old-man-rembrandt-large-smkI can’t think of a more foolish attitude I harbor at times than when I look back on previous generations and assume they were ignorant, unenlightened, unaware and totally outside of what I’m thinking and experiencing today. I was reminded of something the British writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (Chapter 4):

“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.”

And here’s the rub. While it is absolutely true that previous generations did not have the same technologies or understanding of “how things work” in their world, is there such a vast difference between 21st century people and those of previous centuries? Are we so far removed we think we can not possibly learn anything from our fathers, grandfathers and ancestors in the past. I’m particularly struck by this when I consider, as I grow older, how my own parents appear ever increasingly wise. The tradition in Asian culture of revering elders has much to commend it. Today, we regard those older than us as people who, obviously, are not as “in touch” with “reality” as we are. And even more so do we view our ancestors as hopelessly irrelevant.

Here’s some concrete examples of where I see the arrogant oligarchy in action over against those who have come before. Christian worship: Why is it that in the past twenty-five years the worship forms that have been used for thousands of years, have come to be regarded as wholly inadequate and must be replaced with forms that have little in common with the historic worship forms of the past? Why do I sometimes assume that nobody can possibly understand how I’m feeling when faced with a difficult situation who is a member of a generation far removed from mine? Why did I, for example, the other day when looking at Starck’s Prayer Book, smile at the fact that there were prayers there to be prayed as a thunderstorm approached and to be prayed after it was over? “Oh, how quaint,” I thought. Then I felt shame, as I considered the fact that dangerous thunderstorms back when there were no safe buildings, or emergency services, or advanced warning, were devastating.

Do you have some examples from your life where you see yourself as part of the arrogant oligarchy? Would you share some by way of comments?

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles