It’s time to head back to my commonplace book. So far, I’ve shared reflections from two early nineteenth-century writers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Let’s jump forward several generations and listen to a writer whose career was concentrated in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The figure I have in mind is Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton. If you are interested, as I am, in the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind, chances are good that you’re already familiar with this remarkable individual, and if you’re not you might want to get to know him. I’m not the best person to make the introduction, and indeed, I’ve struggled trying to figure out how best to describe him. No single label will suffice. It would be a true statement simply to call him “a Christian writer and apologist,” but that would fail to capture the staggering breadth of his intellectual interests. As one biographer puts it, Chesterton won fame “as a playwright, novelist, poet, literary commentator, pamphleteer, essayist, lecturer, apologist, and editor.” A tabulation of his writings would include eighty or so books, hundreds of poems, several plays, a couple hundred short stories, and somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand essays (most of the latter written as a regular columnist for the London Daily News). To call him “prolific” would be an understatement.
I’ve read a grand total of three of these works, and I’ll confess that I find Chesterton to be an acquired taste that I haven’t fully acquired. What little I’ve read of his apologetics (Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) strikes me as unnecessarily confusing. Chesterton was a non-linear thinker if there ever was one. Both works are full of digressions and interesting but often puzzling asides that make following his overall argument—for me, at least—hard going. And yet both books are packed with specific, discrete observations that are both insightful and memorable, for example, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.” (I love that one.) In sum, Chesterton is eminently quotable, which is why he takes up a lot of space in my commonplace book.
In this post I’ll focus on a single quote from his 1908 book Orthodoxy that I’ve found useful for thinking through my calling as a Christian and a historian. It is not a quote explicitly about history per se, but I still find it wonderfully applicable.
I have in mind an extended passage in which Chesterton is meditating on the relationship between democracy and tradition, and in particular, the idea that “democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.” (Although I don’t have time to develop the point now, this is a view that David Barton’s hero, Thomas Jefferson, certainly flirted with.) In contrast, Chesterton insists that “tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Hear as he explains his reasoning:
“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.”
By “tradition,” Chesterton has in mind an appreciation for the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us. The widespread denigration of those values and beliefs is a hallmark of our age and one of the primary reasons why Americans are, overall, so dismissive of history. Boston University professor Robert C. Bartlett spells out the connection in his essay “Souls Without Longing”: “To be convinced of the progressive character of human life,” Bartlett writes, “is to be convinced of the superiority of the present to the past: When the achievements of another era are considered by definition deficient in comparison with what we can do here and now, they shrink accordingly in importance. Thus the belief in progress saps the only serious incentive to study the past—to learn from it how to live in the here and now—and history becomes boring.”
We are bored by history, Bartlett observes, in part because we don’t expect to learn anything truly valuable from it. We don’t expect to learn anything valuable from it, Chesterton suggests, because we are anti-democratic elitists. (C.S. Lewis similarly condemned what he called “chronological snobbery.”) When we dismiss history we cut ourselves off from 94 percent of the human race, merely because they were born in a less “enlightened” age. We may deny the charge, but there’s an element of arrogance at the heart of such present-mindedness.
As a Christian historian, one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament is found in Job 8:9, where Bildad the Shuhite counsels Job not to limit his search for understanding to his own generation. “We were born yesterday, and know nothing,” Bildad reminds his friend, “because our days on earth are a shadow.” At its best, the study of history begins with such a posture of humility, a recognition of the fleetingness of our lives and our need for wisdom.
Paraphrasing Chesterton, I would say that when we take history seriously we purpose to listen “to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” When we take history seriously, we participate in “the democracy of the dead.” And as Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “the brotherhood of man is even nobler when it bridges the abyss of ages.”