The Democracy of the Dead

An Unexpected Discovery

A lifelong aversion to anything ‘orthodox’ kept me away from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before inheriting a copy from the library of my late friend Wayne. Wayne was neither orthodox nor Orthodox, but there it was — Orthodoxy — with passages he had marked and indecipherable comments he had written in the margins.

G. K. Chesterton at work

The Arrogant Oligarchy of the Living

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote G.K.Chesterton in a book I’d never read until my friend Wayne died. “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 around.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908).

I’ve often had the sense of this oligarchy and find it treacherous. Not only because it’s arrogant and oligarchical, but because it is foolish and destructive. Tradition is not the enemy of vitality. Nor is it the enemy of free thought nor science.

Photograph of by-the-sea sailors

Without tradition we are like by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish who have no way to propel themselves, thrown this way and that by the tides and storms. Jellyfish go with the flow without conscience, memory, or agency to create a better future.

Collecting the Fragments: Egoism and Altruism

“There is a huge and heroic sanity in which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

The Seamless Coat Woven from the Top

“Lopped arms and legs walking about.” What an image! The soul of Christ torn into silly separate strips of egoism and altruism. Chesterton had a way with words — images that jar the senses of what is real, pushing the by-the-sea sailors in a direction we did not expect.

The Democracy of the Living and the Dead

“All democrats object to [anyone] 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 person’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.” — Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.

Honoring the Great Ancestors and Great Grandchildren

My seven years at the Legal Rights Center — a public defense corporation founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights activists — moved this by-the-sea sailor to think again about freedom and tradition.

We inherit a tradition from the ancestors and are responsible for passing the treasure (i.e., the tradition) to the next generation. In times of decision-making, American-Indian culture universally calls us to consider the previous seven generations and the seven generations that will follow: the democracy of the dead, the living, and those who come after us. This tradition of
America’s First Nations, like the Reformed Christian tradition, looks back, looks ahead, and looks up for the re-weaving of the strips. The coat without seam was, is, and always will be woven from the top.

Wayne’s name is scribbled in pencil at the top of the title page of Orthodoxy. This year Wayne no longer lives to protest and resists the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. He has joined the blessed democracy of the dead.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 20, 2019.

4 thoughts on “The Democracy of the Dead

    • He was a curmudgeon. Maybe now that we’ve joined him in old age, we can appreciate him more. His writing is superb. As a convert to Roman Catholicism, he was out-of-step and his choice and defense of the same were hard for the Anglicans and “Never-Religion” folks alike.

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  1. Gordon, thanks for this piece. First, I could never imagine taking this pose. I knew of his mental and moral strength just never thought of his physical strength. Secondly, G. K. Chesterton was a man who took the etymology of words in a serious way. Orthodoxy in his writings always meant : “true opinion”. That’s when I realized that tradition to him meant that part of living history which impacted our present. Reading him often turned this often flailing, sometimes lost seeker, on a balanced course in stead of a going nowhere path. Again thank you.

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    • Jim, We were steeped in Bultmann, Tillich, Barth, Bruner, Bonhoeffer, Buber, et.al., and made our ways through Vahanian, Altizer, and Hamilton. Interesting, don’t ya think, that Chesterton joined the democracy that gives votes to the dead?

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