I almost titled this entry “Why I Study History,” but I figured that no one would read it if I did. “Why I Study History” has a “Why I Collect Matchbooks” sort of ring to it. “The Democracy of the Dead,” on the other hand, has a unique and mysterious tone. It conjures up visions of dead men casting their votes and making their long-lost voices heard.
Perhaps some of my readers are familiar with the origin of the phrase. Like a good many insightful lines, it was penned by a very large man named G.K. Chesterton—who was large, I assure you, in almost every possible way. In his very fine book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote the following:
“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 their 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 tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
Perhaps now you can begin to see how closely related are the two titles I considered for this entry. If tradition tells us that our ancestors’ voices are important, then it is history that actually informs us what those voices said. It is history that brings the dead to life. The dead would have no democracy without it.
Why is it important that the dead have their say? It is important because the dead are not idiots—at least not all of them are. I am always skeptical of historical theories which force their adherents to assume that men throughout all of history have lived in ignorance and stupidity—that is to say, until now. That sort of doctrine of progress was truly debunked by the 20th century, which saw devastating war after devastating war. Assuming, then, that no age has a monopoly on the truth, it becomes clear that wisdom can be found in any age. And whenever we find it, we ought to give it a voice.
Probably there is no other age in history as completely insulated as our own. Indeed, it is our age which has made the study of history a sort of antiquarian hobby, like collecting matchbooks. This means, of course, that we are relying almost exclusively on our own moral resources for wisdom and guidance. That is not only “arrogant,” as Chesterton suggests, but dangerous. Former ages always looked to the past for guidance. Christians, of course, have done it in every age, though many of today’s Christians see their own faith through a modern lens that distorts it.
We need history. We need it as badly as we need mathematics and science. In fact, I would argue that we need history more than math and science. Those subjects can do a lot for our age, but they can’t impart wisdom. They can’t guide themselves. History can guide us. It can teach us what is and what is not essential. It can show us mistakes. It can show us the conditions of peace, order, and happiness. It can make us wise.
[I first posted this entry over at my other blog. I thought the themes were also relevant to this one.]