Posts tagged ‘tradition’

December 8, 2013

each new blunder of the prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have the two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called balance or mutual check, in our Constitution.

G.K. Chesterton in “The Blunders of Our Parties” (Illustrated London News, April 19, 1924).

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August 26, 2013

even if it is almost vulgar

But a tradition is generally a truth; so long as the tradition is sufficiently popular; even if it is almost vulgar.

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

August 12, 2013

the imagination that can see what is there

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton:

We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there. The only way to suggest the point is by an example of something, indeed of almost anything, that has been considered beautiful or wonderful. George Wyndham once told me that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes rise for the first time and it was very wonderful; but not so wonderful as a horse allowing a man to ride on him.

…The first and best way of appreciating it is to come of people with a tradition of treating animals properly; of men in the right relation to horses. A boy who remembers his father who rode a horse, who rode it well and treated it well, will know that the relation can be satisfactory and will be satisfied. He will be all the more indignant at the ill-treatment of horses because he knows how they ought to be treated; but he will see nothing but what is normal in a man riding on a horse. He will not listen to the great modern philosopher who explains to him that the horse ought to be riding on the man. He will not pursue the pessimist fancy of Swift and say that men must be despised as monkeys and horses worshipped as gods. And horse and man together making an image that is to him human and civilised, it will be easy, as it were, to lift horse and man together into something heroic or symbolical; like a vision of St. George in the clouds. The fable of the winged horse will not be wholly unnatural to him: and he will know why Ariosto set many a Christian hero in such an airy saddle, and made him the rider of the sky.

…Nor is it mere verbal fancy to see him thus as a unique monster; for in a sense a monster means what is unique, and he is really unique. But the point is that when we thus see him as the first man saw him, we begin once more to have some imaginative sense of what it meant when the first man rode him. In such a dream he may seem ugly, but he does not seem unimpressive; and certainly that two-legged dwarf who could get on top of him will not seem unimpressive. By a longer and more erratic road we shall come back to the same marvel of the man and the horse; and the marvel will be, if possible, even more marvellous. We shall have again a glimpse of St. George; the more glorious because St. George is not riding on the horse, but rather riding on the dragon.

…Of the two extremes, I think on the whole that the traditional grasp of truth is the better. But I say that the truth is found at one or other of these two extremes, and is lost in the intermediate condition of mere fatigue and forgetfulness of tradition. In other words, I say it is better to see a horse as a monster than to see it only as a slow substitute for a motor-car. If we have got into that state of mind about a horse as something stale, it is far better to be frightened of a horse because it is a good deal too fresh.

…All roads lead to Rome, all ways lead round again to the central and civilised philosophy, including this road through elf-land and topsy-turvydom. But it may be that it is better never to have left the land of a reasonable tradition, where men ride lightly upon horses and are mighty hunters before the Lord. So also in the specially Christian case we have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue.

June 13, 2013

democracy of the dead

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”):

Tradition means giving a vote 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.

November 7, 2012

able to read what has been handed down

A written tradition, when deciphered and read, is to such an extent pure mind that it speaks to us as if in the present. That is why the capacity to read, to understand what is written, is a like a secret art, even a magic that losses and binds us. In it time and space seem to be suspended. The man who is able to read what has been handed down in writing testifies to and achieves the sheer presence of the past.

From Discerning the Mystery by Andrew Louth.

January 30, 2012

always just going to have a leader

Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book describes the “Monkey People” (or “Bandar-log”):

They were always just going to have a leader, and laws and customs of their own, but they never did, because their memories would not hold over from day to day, and so they compromised things by making up a saying, “What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later,” and that comforted them a great deal.

December 27, 2011

what it means to have a past

But over the decades you have provided for us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my thankful remembrance of them is strong enough to light up one dark Christmas. Only such times can really reveal what it means to have a past and an inner heritage that is independent of chance and the changing of the times. The awareness of a spiritual tradition that reaches through the centuries gives one a certain feeling of security in the face of all transitory difficulties.

In a prison letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents, December 17, 1943. (From page 15 of God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas from the writings of Bonhoeffer, translated by O.C. Dean Jr. and edited by Jana Riess.)

November 24, 2011

deeply rooted obligation to be guardians

The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgement and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.

By Eberhard Bethge quoted by at the start of chapter one in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Mataxas (page 5).

July 22, 2011

what I live on

Speaking of Augustine, Wilken writes:

Like all great Christian thinkers he consciously moved within a tradition he had himself not created. He was most comfortable with a page of the Bible open before him in a basilica in the midst of the community of faith to which he was accountable. The church fathers wrote “as those who are taught” (Isa. 50:4).

From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken, pp. xix-xx.

In a revealing aside in a sermon preached on the anniversary of his ordination Augustine said, “I nourish you with what nourishes me; I offer to you what I live on myself.”

Ibid, p. 42.

June 16, 2011

quiet confidence in those who have gone before

My wife and I got a Kindle for Christmas form her family and often find ourselves reaching for it at the same time. One book that I particularly enjoyed reading recently was Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. I’ve cited it once already and will post several more passages as I go back through the long page of highlights that I generated. Here’s a short one from midway that touches upon many of the others.

One of the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life is a kind of quiet confidence in the faithfulness and integrity of those who have gone before. (p. 175)

Early Protestants (from the first generation of Reformers through the America Puritans of the colonial period at least) had a wide-spread, intimate and appreciative knowledge of the church fathers. This basic conservative (and biblical) instinct is something that we easily loose sight of in a fast-paced and entertainment-driven age. We survive and mature by receiving from our fathers (with thankful hearts) all that we can bear. Protestants need not feel threatened by this.

More worthwhile still might be to ask whether or not this really is among “the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life.” What other contenders are there, and do they conflict? Wilken raises several others himself in the course of his own efforts to conjure the thought life of early Christians.

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