Tradition and the ‘Democracy of the Dead’

September 17, 2021 Updated: September 17, 2021


In “Four Quartets,” one of the most celebrated poems of the last century, T.S. Eliot writes:

“Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past. … A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments.”

Eliot’s meditations on time are relevant to the theme of this article. The idea of “the democracy of the dead” originated with Edmund Burke. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” published in 1790, more than a year before the revolution reached its height, with the streets of Paris flowing with blood, he wrote:

“Society is indeed a contract. … It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.”

This idea of contract, compact, or partnership between the generations is what the 20th-century Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton named “the democracy of the dead.” In his book “Orthodoxy” he argued:

“I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. … 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.”

British philosopher Roger Scruton understood well the nature of this relationship:

“The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonour the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built—the relation of obligation between generations. Those who have lost respect for their dead have ceased to be trustees of their inheritance. Inevitably, therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense.”

The two great intellectual enemies of the idea of the contract between the dead, the living, and the unborn are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine. In “The Social Contract” (1762), Rousseau rejects the idea that tradition has any authority over us. On the contrary, tradition weighs us down; it prevents us from being free. Calling for the overthrow of all tradition, in education, in music, and in all areas of life, he began what was soon to become a widespread habit: blaming ‘society’ for the evil deeds of people, of calling for the reform of institutions rather than the rehabilitation of wrongdoers.

This is the position of both Marxists and modern-day liberals or progressives, as they like to think of themselves. Yet it is worth recalling that, like many others on the left—such as Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao—Rousseau’s private life was appallingly narcissistic and destructive. The father of five children, he sent every one of them to an orphanage immediately upon birth, despite being well able to support them. The man sometimes called “the philosopher of compassion” practised serial child abandonment. Could Rousseau have been unaware that he was consigning his children to almost certain death?

Thomas Paine, in “Rights of Man” (1791), was also scathing in his dismissal of tradition. He boasted that he was an advocate for the emancipation of the individual from the oppressive ties of tradition, particularly the notion that the dead have any authority over the living:

“I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the … assumed authority of the dead, and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living.”

According to Paine, we have to throw off the oppressive dead-weight of the past, and so enable the present generation to live their lives freely, unencumbered by the deceased. For the past two centuries and more this is precisely what we in the West have been doing, in our schools and universities, in the church, in the military, in the law, and virtually every other institution you can think of. Yet it is debatable if this has brought either greater freedom or greater human happiness.

Edward Shils puts his finger on this dilemma in his book “Tradition”:

“To have experienced the disappearance of one’s own biological and cultural ancestors … without the compensating acquisition of new ones confines a person in his own generation. This is not easily borne, though the sources of unease are not perceived because the vocabulary available to describe this experience is very poor. It is poor because modern societies in the west have been trying to make it appear that affirmation of dependence on the past is a defect.”

Yes, a defect, and yet if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that there is no literal or mechanical way in which the concept of the democracy of the dead could be implemented. How many votes would we allow the dead in comparison to the living? And how can we tell how they would vote? It is one thing to show respect for the contributions of those who have gone before us. It is quite a different thing to imply that they could ever have a place at the table of our decision-making except purely metaphorically. At all times we must depend on the graciousness of the living to admit a voice for those who have gone before, and also show consideration for those who are to come.

When you are young you tend not to appreciate what those who went before have done for you. For example, in the 1920s a Canadian industrialist and philanthropist called Reuben Wells Leonard set up a series of tuition scholarships for students entering the University of Toronto. His generosity and foresight meant that many students had their way paid and were enabled to sail through university without having to worry about money. I was one of those students, but it didn’t occur to me to feel or express any gratitude to my benefactor until many years later. Since then, Leonard has been vilified as a racist and misogynist.

If we are genuinely alive to the contributions of our forebears to our present well-being, the least we can do is behave as if they were present at the table and had a share in our decision-making. In reality they do have a place at our table, in the shape of our countless customs, liturgies, treaties, common law, public buildings, houses, and churches. They also find a place in our language and daily habits, in our training of children to say “please” and “thank you,” and in expressions like “goodbye,” a contraction of “God be with you.”

Far better this implicit respect for the dead than the current craze for trashing their memory, throwing paint on or demolishing their statues, and trying to pretend they never did anything good.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ian Gentles
Ian Gentles is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and distinguished professor of history and global affairs at Tyndale University in Toronto. He is the co-author of "Complications: Abortion’s Impact on Women" (2nd ed., 2018), published by the deVeber Institute for Bioethics in Toronto.