Friday, June 08, 2007

Chesterton on Democracy, Tradition, and His Explanation for Why the World Works

G.K. Chesteron has become a beloved author. I finally started reading some of his works after reading so many other gifted authors who continually quoted him, referenced him, and exuded deep admiration for him. So a couple years ago I picked up two of his books - Heretics and Orthodoxy. Brilliant, funny, decisive, compelling. He doesn't get everything right, but what he does say right is good for my soul. Here are some quotes from his chapter from Orthodoxy, called The Ethics of Elfland.

"These are my ultimate attitudes towards life, the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I though before I could write, and felt before I could think. I felt in my bones; first, that the world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a nautral explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.

Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in teh world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.

Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defect, such as dragons.

Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint; we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.

We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us.

And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression taht in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of som primordial ruin. Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods; he had saved them from a wreck.

All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Christian theology." (222)

"The principle of democracy stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. The essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not hte things they hold separately.

The second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things that they hold in common. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves - the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state." (206)

"Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were igorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. 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 and 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.

I have first to say, therefore, that if I have had a bias, it was always a bias in favor of democracy, and therefore of tradition. I have always been more inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong." (207)

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