Note: The video submission of this speech was awarded First Prize in the National ACCS Chrysostom Oratory Contest. Abraham was able to deliver this speech at the annual conference in Frisco, TX, before an audience of over 1,000 conference attendees.
A Defense of the Dead Man
By Abraham Martin, 2018 Graduate of School of the Ozarks
There is no culture quite as strange as that of an American antique store. I was recently walking through such a store with a friend of mine who lives in Germany. This was his first occasion to ever experience an antique store. Every once in a while, I would pick up an item, perhaps a rusty apple-peeler or the lesser part of a felt hat, and turn it over in my hands, weighing it against the price noted on the neon, adhesive tag stuck on the bottom. More often than not, I set it back down again. After about an hour of this, my friend said to me in his broad accent, “if you want to buy trash, I can sell you some of the things in my garbage can.”
Despite being mocked, I often return to that antique store. When I walk in, I am surrounded by the artifacts of an era gone by. These are the things men made when they thought differently. They had different practices and manners of conduct. They had different knowledge and desires. These are the things that compose tradition and it is the ambition of this speech to defend them. G. K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, defended tradition with an appeal to our sometimes inane devotion to democracy. My defense is derived from his argument, but before I demonstrate the imperative nature of preserving tradition, it is necessary to reflect on the danger the world faces without it.
I am sure that for my friend, a member of such a utilitarian society as the Germans, it was confusing to see me covet those superannuated wares in that antique store. In fact, it may be strange for you to hear of an individual of my age that cares for old stuff. Not many teenagers have the taste for 70’s folk music that I do. Not many have a taste for anything from the 70’s at all. In fact, my generation has developed a deplorable habit of throwing out that which is old. It certainly did not start with teenagers of the 21 century finding no taste for shag carpet and it is likely not to end with them either. Yet, a disdain for the old on no other basis than its age is only a symptom of a much more insidious epidemic. I will call it “Relativism”. In the second act of the namesake play, Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This is as fair of a definition of Relativism as any.
Such pseudo philosophies as Relativism have spoiled the world’s pursuit of truth since the Fall of Man. It was chiefly man’s belief in his own truth over God’s that wrought his condemnation in the book of Genesis. This same desire to disregard absolute principle in favor of one’s own principle led Protagoras to famously argue against Socrates, “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.” This sophistry was buried by subsequent centuries of unification through a global church and in the celebration of Renaissance art. However, in the Humanist return to early Greek philosophy, some Enlightened men of the 1700’s violated the philosophical tombs of ancient Europe and resurrected its intellectual horrors. The putrid corpses of their ceremony now prowl the streets of our communities. Any who cross their path are choked to death.
The postmodern era of my generation has considered the solipsism of these ruinous ages and attempted to make it their own. Yet, there is a critical difference between the two. The conceited of 300 hundred years ago crafted their conclusions from a careful and diligent study of the philosophical tradition; while today, we take their affirmations as license to throw out all the world’s history of epistemic journey. For, if there is no truth, then why should anyone bother with another’s opinion, especially that of those who died in epochs passed. We have burned the tomes of thousands of years of meditation at the feet of the idol of subjectivity, all the while chanting, “What’s true for me is true for me and what’s true for you is wrong”. There is no hope for the clergy of that religion, that religion of denial.
There is only one thing powerful enough to combat the religion of denial: tradition. I will give three reasons for why we need tradition: because a man is not enough to fight this individualistic syndrome, because the converse of the individual is democracy and because we must have the dead at our councils.
First, a man is not enough to fight this individualistic syndrome. There is nothing in our own heads capable of saving us from such misery. The sarcophagus lid is too heavy to fit back into place on our own. This sort of disillusionment cannot be cured from the inside out. It is a plummet, a tail spin dive that self-perpetuates. The more a person believes chiefly and exclusively in their own truth, the more they cast off community. The more they withdraw from the global conversation, the more they are inclined to trust in themselves. Consider a conspiracy theorist. He is marked by his belief in his theory over all society’s objections. He claims to be privy to a knowledge beyond that of all of his peers. He is not culturally engaged. A man who is convinced that the world is a computer program and all are out to kill him is far less likely to live in the suburbs. A cabin in the woods would suit him better. The Relativist is a special kind of conspiracy theorist. He believes this whole world of courts and judicial systems is colluding to convince him that there is such a thing as truth and justice. It is not so much that the Relativist viscerally disbelieves in the concrete, but that he wishes to not be constricted by it. This is the man of lawlessness that Paul wrote of in 2nd Thessalonians, “He will oppose and will exact himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” The problem is that once he has built himself a temple, it impossible for him to escape by himself and a temple without a door becomes a mausoleum. I would not expect a single man to overcome his conviction of subjectivity any more than I expect a man to conquer his pride complex while living alone on an island. Donne said, “No man is an island”. I agree and the more that a man aspires to be an island, the more he slips into the ocean and ceases to be a man at all. It was Plato who said, “Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.”
Second, the converse of the individual is democracy. It is one of the fundamental principles of society that men are more than man, that a collection of islands is less than a continent. A man takes the small step; men take the giant leap. The bane of Relativism will be democracy–the institutional recognition that the mind of many is greater than the mind of the few–the admission that there is a truth outside of self and that it is worth our greatest councils. Democracy is the assembly of the people who wish to invest in and be guarded by a transcendental power. It is the ultimate response to the denial of that power.
Each man is holding the brick of his intellect. Society is something like a tower in construction. Democracy is a bricklaying company. It is the coordination of minds to construct the great eidifices of history’s horizon. The singular man is disposed to sit at the base of the tower, lean his back against the wall, and shout to the workers, “There is no tower and there aren’t any bricks.” The best way to cure him of such a silly idea is to turn him around and put a brick in his hand, democracy at work. In this way, democracy saves the man from the suicide of becoming an island and the tower continues to grow.
Finally, we must have the dead at our councils. The congress of the minds most proximate to ourselves is not adequate. You need more than the people you share the air with. A battalion is hardly better than a single soldier when facing legions. When Israel was exiled, trammeled by pagan legions and all but choked to death by the resurrection of their own evil sacreligion, the prophet Ezekiel was taken up in a vision. The LORD promised Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” How could Israel be saved from the desolation of exile? The LORD took the prophet to a valley full of bones, the remains of the ancestors of God’s chosen people. The LORD said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.” Israel did return from exile and to the faith of their fathers. Tradition is the recognition that the army is not nearly as small as some would have it. Tradition is the breath of life into an army of dry bones. Chesterton called it, “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.”
Chesterton reminds us of the greatest parliament in existence, one that we have either forgotten or spited, the diet of all human existence. It has been called the Great Conversation. It has been called philosophy. I call it tradition. Despite our nescient devotion to the century into which we were born, it is not limited to the contemporary generation or all generations after the Enlightenment or even all generations since the bronze age, but it belongs to every man who has ever lived and had a thought. You are only a representative with a vested power to change the world in a manner that dead men cannot. We hold a sort of office and authority. To forget your constituents simply because they are not living is despotism. Tradition is the due and proper process of honoring the dead and their wish for the world and the consequent salvation from your own destitution on the island of Relativism.
Yet, there are some who, not without personal cause, deny the relevance of tradition. They plainly argue that men of the past have been wrong and, perhaps, speak with the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti when he said, “Tradition, long conditioned thinking, can bring about a fixation, a concept that one readily accepts, perhaps not with a great deal of thought.” This thought is a toxic form of discrimination. The American Declaration of Independence proudly states that “All men are created equal”. If it were true that they were equal only as long as they were alive, we would have no cause to honor the Declaration, the synthesis of a party now six feet under. Chesterton wrote, “Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant.” To discredit the vote of a man because he is dead is as undemocratic as the same action against a woman on account of her sex or a Christian on account of his faith.
Certainly, I agree that there is a danger in tradition. The tradition of western civilization was slavery. The tradition of the Caribbean tribesmen was cannibalism. The tradition of man is sin. An uncritical acceptance of the methods of antiquity is evil, but I argue for entirely the opposite; not just critical acceptance, but critical implementation. The disciples of Krishnamurti’s misbranded new-age revelation would have you throw out billions of learned men with the bath water. I would have you strain it first. This is why I am able to curse the proclivities of the ancient Greeks, members of intellectual tradition as much as any other, and in the same breath stress the importance of history and its lessons. To argue for the truth of everything that has ever been said is folly. To argue for its utility is fair.
A definitive indication of our inability to learn is in our modern understanding of progress. It is an idol, same as subjectivity. We worship this construct of human conceit. We beg morality of it, but all we truly want is justification. We want to move the world forward, but all we accomplish is license to forget the world as long as we are moving. The relativist contention is that life is something like a brick road. You need not look back. The only importance of the bricks behind is that they were. However, life is something more like the tower in construction. When you stand at the top of that tower, you are quite glad that every brick still is.
How, then, are we to give proper regard to tradition in the affairs of today? Books are the palpable vessel of tradition. They are the documentation of how our ancestors thought and acted. It is a measure of their philosophy. Every man has a clear and unapologetic understanding of the world and thereby, a wish for how it should be dealt with by those who possess the power to change it. Some of them were explicit in stating their creed. They are the ones who wrote those academic tomes which we so shamefully burned and are, at present, no more effectual than a pile of ash. However, even if the title of their book didn’t have the word “philosophy” in it, their writings are pregnant with the author’s worldview. The study of historical writings is a seance with Caesars, Napoleons and Lincolns. If he wrote a book, he cast his vote. Our responsibility is to read those books.
There is a pragmatic benefit to my cause, one that even pagan cultures have survived by for centuries, but as Christians, we must take special care to love tradition. Our God is a God who reveals Himself in history. He told Moses that He is “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” He is constant and so are the failures of man, as the 106th Psalm says, “We have sinned, even as our ancestors did”. The God of our fathers is faithful to redeem the sins of our sons. Tradition is the refinement of humanity; the slow shaping of God’s people into the image of Christ.
My mother is principally the reason for my trips to the antique stores. She is the one who introduced me to the joys of buying old things. Even though she may not have approved of the apple-peeler I bought, this hobby is one of the most treasured traditions that I have inherited from my parents, but the most meaningful is my faith. I met my faith through the faith of my parents and through a trust in their wisdom. The Church, the tradition of a relationship with God, is the greatest treasure humanity has. Paul wrote in Thessalonians the key to not becoming a man of lawlessness, “Therefore, brothers, hold fast to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter.” This is the promise of tradition: the endurance of truth and the assurance of a relationship with God.