Thrown from the Tarpeian Rock

G. K. Chesterton had a particular knack for aphorisms. His definition of tradition as “the democracy of the dead” has always impressed me as a formidable truth. We are dwarfs on giants’ shoulders; but this includes not just the geniuses who have preceded us and paved the way for our own minor discoveries, but also the myriads of ordinary, anonymous people who have created, step by step, with occasional strokes of genius and many more trials and errors, the civilization we enjoy today.

Behind every single thing, habit or institution of our life there are centuries of experiments, attempts, failures and success. Take as simple a thing as bread: someone once realized that grain was edible. Somebody found that grain could be crushed to make flour. Someone, perhaps unwillingly, poured water on flour and played with it. Another person, possibly erroneously again, discovered that it could be leavened. And that it could be cooked – after discovering fire, of course… But every single one of these discoveries was made at the price of many more errors: someone who ate inedible cereals, someone who ruined a valuable stock of grain by – for example – putting it in a river; someone who mixed flour with… watermelon and discovered that nothing came out of it; and the countless housewives, from the stone age to our day, who cooked bread too little or too much and had to throw it away.

Similar to a living organism, human society evolves; and, as happens to living beings, according to evolutionist theories, only those innovations which serve to the better survival of the species ultimately succeed, while those which damage the species are discarded. Our wonderfully complex organs, the amazing structure of our body, the impressive interaction of our cells and of their minuscule components are the result of an extraordinary selection, which discarded abortive innovations and favoured those which improved the chances of survival. So it is with society: we can suppose that many forms of human association, of tribal rules, of social experiments have been attempted in more or less obscure ancient contexts, and that the success of one form of society over another was frequently due to its strategies, its laws and its social bonds.

As a form of thought experiment, we may imagine some remote village ten thousand years ago where, for example, people had no right to sleep more than two hours per night: what would the chances of survival of that tribe be, in comparison with their stronger neighbours who slept their eight hours and woke up fit and energetic? Or we may imagine a tribe whose chief commanded that children should be left to themselves at the age of one: how many of their children would survive to adulthood? That society would soon disappear.

Without resorting to thought experiments, we can recall the example of Sparta, where disabled people and children were thrown from the Ταΰγετος rock, in order not to be a burden for a society of the fittest and strongest; although Sparta did enjoy many military victories, on the long run it was the model of Athens which succeeded and imposed itself, with its values, to the history of Western civilization. Seemingly, the Spartan strategy would have appeared to be more efficacious and better suited to the survival of the fittest, and precisely under an evolutionist viewpoint; but, in fact, history has shown that a society which does not care for the most fragile of its members is not a healthy society.

The period of history which we are inhabiting is seeing an extraordinary quantity of novelties in all fields of human culture and living: technological innovations which seemed fantastic only ten years ago; medical discoveries which have dramatically enlarged our average life expectancy; the crumbling of very ancient institutions such as the “traditional” family based on sexual complementarity and fidelity; the creation of new forms of institutionalized cohabitation, such as same-sex marriages; new and unheard-of possibilities of procreating – from in-vitro fertilization to surrogacy – and of deciding, within limits, the timing of pregnancies – through contraception and, alas, through abortion; the abolition of social stigma relating to certain behaviours, which had been taboo for centuries; an increasing pulverization of religious belief in many Western countries, and so on.

Some of these innovations have been embraced with enthusiasm by the majority; it is undeniable that our lives are much more comfortable, long and safe than those of our ancestors. Mobile phones give us access to an immense quantity of information regardless of where we are; medical treatments have become available for previously incurable diseases and have saved lives both young and old: we all agree that these novelties are useful and good. However, I would argue that even such obvious goods may reveal, on the long run, some negative effects which we cannot imagine now. Mobile phones appeared just a few decades ago, and a few decades is nil when compared with human history.

The same can be said, with good reason, of other novelties about which many of us are highly perplexed, if not outright worried and concerned. It is if we were implanting a third eye, a second nose and a couple of extra legs on a human being, arguing that three is better than two, two is better than one and four is better than two. Yes, seemingly it would appear that this new being is better equipped to survive in the urban jungle than most of us “normal” humans; but, if this superman would develop some lethal condition, we wouldn’t know if it is due to the third eye, the second nose or the pair of extra legs, or possibly is independent of them. The quantity and quality of the innovations our society is accepting in its social body is unheard-of, and may make it impossible to cure its diseases.

I am not a “traditionalist”: I welcome novelties and enjoy experiments, trials and surprises. But I am worried, seriously worried, that, by discarding the “democracy of the dead” as a useless pseudo-wisdom, or worse as a prison which prevents the glorious march of Progress, we are ignoring the wealth of knowledge and experience which is behind us. We are so used to a lot of things that we don’t think of how much work, thought, failures and experiments have produced them; and we happily and thoughtlessly destroy them. Again in the words of Chesterton, “Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up”.

Thus, tradition should be valued and appreciated not as an absolute value, as in a cult of the past or in traditionalism; however, it should be humbly respected, if we are not to fall in the self-referential hubris which despises the wisdom of the old only because it is wisdom, and it is of the old. As Chesterton would have put it, “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”.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Correction: This article originally referred to the Tarpeian Rock in connection with Sparta. Tarpeian has been changed to Ταΰγετος, the Spartan equivalent of the Roman Tarpeian Rock. 

Chiara Bertoglio

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com